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The Wizard of Menlo Park

He was a genius. There’s no doubt about it. He was the father of the recording and motion picture industries, patent holder on over a thousand gadgets and industrial processes and the inventor of the light bulb, which was probably his brightest idea of all (pause for the bad pun). Thomas Edison is often found on the short list of the greatest men in American history, yet he also happens to be among its worst organizational leaders. Here’s how:


It was a classic American success story. He was a school drop-out with a disability (partial deafness) from a small Mid-western town, but what he lacked in privilege, he made up for with boundless ingenuity and drive. He began tinkering around with things at a young age and discovered his amazing talent for solving difficult technical problems. His dream was to be a full-time inventor, an unheard-of proposition that he accomplished at the age of just 29 when he set up his first state-of-the-art laboratory in the town of Menlo Park, New Jersey. From his beloved lab Edison worked round-the-clock launching a dizzying number of novel and at times revolutionary inventions that earned him notoriety across the country and around the world along with some new powerful allies. He decided to join them as an industrialist, starting companies that could produce and market his inventions to the public. From a business perspective, he had every possible advantage. He owned the intellectual property, was the first to market and had all the publicity and financial backing he could possibly need; yet after an initial burst of success, each of Edison’s companies floundered within a few short years. The problem was Edison. As an egomaniac, he couldn’t bring himself to listen to anyone he thought of as intellectually inferior, a category which included pretty much everyone. He also refused to recognize when his rivals made real improvements to his technologies, instead he used his platform to try to discredit them through bizarre and pathetic displays of poor sportsmanship. As a result, he simply got left behind, alienating most of his business partners, friends, and even his family in the process. Besides, leading companies was never really his game. What he loved most was being in his laboratory exercising his unique talents alongside other like-minded tinkerers to come up with the next big thing.  


Edison’s interesting mix of technical genius and leadership incompetence raises an age-old question. Are leaders born or are they made? The research suggests that while some people do have natural leadership gifts, nearly anyone can learn the skills and behaviors associated with great leadership if they’re willing to work at it. The point is further illustrated by other more teachable technical wizards like Bill Gates who recognized early in his career his need for leadership development and the complementary skills of others in order to be successful. In spite of this, many organizations use their leadership positions as prizes for loyalists and/or people that excel in various technical disciplines, which all but guarantees that they will be cursed with unprepared leaders with the wrong attitudes (these leaders will be tempted to see their positions as little more than a platform to promote their own ideas). Biblically, leadership is not a reward for being smart or working hard. It’s a special calling from God, one of the spiritual gifts entrusted to certain individuals and nurtured by others for the common good (Romans 12:3-8, Ephesians 4:11-12). Organizations that are serious about their mission should be equally serious about developing quality leaders, as their success certainly depends on it.


Reflection Questions

What criteria are used to select leaders for your organization? How is their performance measured?

What are you currently doing to develop current and future leaders for your organization?

What is one thing you could do personally to continue developing as a leader?

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