Augusta Business Daily

Thu, November 30, 2023

Oppenheimer: Lessons Learned from a Summer Blockbuster

This past weekend, my wife and I escaped the summer heat for a few hours and went to see the highly anticipated summer blockbuster movie, “Oppenheimer.” I had been anxiously anticipating seeing this movie since I had seen a preview months ago, and then reading reviews and interacting with others who had seen the movie only heightened my anticipation. Some of my anticipations came from my interest in how a great scientific feat is accomplished, as the movie chronicles, J. Robert Oppenheimer’s time leading the Los Alamos Laboratory efforts, otherwise known as the “Manhattan Project,” that led to the creation of the atomic bomb.

During my time as an Air Force officer, I managed research and development projects that were part of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or “Star Wars”), another ambitious scientific/national security project. So, I was very interested in seeing how a more critical, time-sensitive project, with little room for error, could be accomplished. What I learned from the movie is that while outstanding brain power and scientific acumen were absolutely necessary to achieve this monumental accomplishment, it could not have happened without some important aspects of leadership and management that I would like to share with you in today’s column.

Lesson #1: Find Strong Mentors and “Complementors” for Your People


Very early on in the movie, we see Oppenheimer as a young man, after he had graduated with a degree in chemistry from Harvard, studying physics at Cambridge. At a lecture at Cambridge, Oppenheimer meets the preeminent physicist of his time, Niels Bohr, who had won the Nobel Prize in Physics a few years earlier. Bohr sees Oppenheimer’s talent and intellect and encourages him to go to Germany to study under Max Born, one of the “fathers” of quantum mechanics. Oppenheimer earned his Ph.D. in physics under Born at the University of Gottingen. Born was a strong mentor who helped launch Oppenheimer’s scientific career.

Oppenheimer studied under Nobel Prize winner, Max Born

While it is not only important to have a strong mentor, but also important to work with those with complementary skills that will broaden your expertise and position you for leadership in the future. In Oppenheimer’s case, after his return to the United States, he took a position at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was encouraged to work with Ernest Lawrence, who invented a particle accelerator, called a cyclotron. For Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist, working with Lawrence, who applied theory to create the cyclotron, widened his perspective and enhanced his ability to lead an applied project like the development of the atomic bomb. As business (or scientific) leaders, it is important to expose ourselves and our people to those who can mentor and complement our efforts.

Lesson #2:  Work-Life Balance Is Necessary

A community built for Manhattan Project workers and their families created a good work-life balance.

While the Manhattan Project was extremely critical and time-sensitive, one of the insightful things that both Oppenheimer and the military leader of the program, General Leslie Groves, determined was that the scientists working on the project required work-life balance. Although some thought that isolating the scientists would hasten the needed results, Oppenheimer encouraged Groves to build a town in Los Alamos, so that the scientists could bring their families with them as they worked on the project. Groves, ultimately realizing that the scientists would likely be more productive, if they had their families with them, took the extensive time and budget necessary to construct a town such that the scientists could bring their families. It is very questionable if the scientists would have been successful without their families there with them. The lesson for us is that no matter how important the work is, our employees are more productive, if they are able to achieve some work-life balance.

Lesson #3: Be Inclusionary – Select the Most Capable

Much of the success of the Manhattan Project came from the prowess of a significant number of physicists who were of Jewish heritage (six of the eight leaders of the project were Jewish), including Oppenheimer himself. It is speculated in the movie that part of the reason that Nazi Germany fell behind the United States in its development of the atomic bomb was that they would not employ any Jews to work on their program. In addition, while there were a very limited number of women depicted as part of the scientific group at Los Alamos, both Oppenheimer and Groves are shown to make sure capable women were not discriminated against. The lesson for those of us in business is to make sure that there are no barriers to prevent the most qualified to work for our organizations.

Lesson #4: Know Your Weaknesses…Do Not Be Insecure

If you have been reading my columns for a while, you probably know that I believe that one of the most important characteristics of a leader is to be humble and therefore, not insecure.  Although we know Oppenheimer was a brilliant man, he always knew that there were others who did other things better than him and he sought them out for help. One scene that struck me was when Oppenheimer and Einstein (yes, that Einstein!) sent one of their colleagues to see someone else, as they thought he was better at mathematics than they were. It is important for us in the business world to surround ourselves with good people who make up for our weaknesses and make our organizations stronger. Poor leaders are threatened by those people.

Lesson #5: Make the Tough Decisions

Oppenheimer with General Groves

The final lesson we can learn from Oppenheimer and Groves is that great leaders are willing to make tough decisions. While they were both very smart, they depended on those around them to provide the information they needed to make decisions. But, at the end of the day, they had to make the decision on going forward with the project. As business leaders, we must realize that our most important job is to let our capable people do their work, and provide us the information we need, but we must make the decisions when it counts.

“Oppenheimer” was an extremely entertaining and informative movie and I recommend that you go see it if you have a chance. But whether you see it or not, I hope the lessons from the film will help make you and your business better!

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