Leadership and Life Lessons from Oppenheimer

I finally had the chance to watch the blockbuster movie Oppenheimer. Despite the hype, I was not that interested in watching it. I assumed they would sanitize it like most movies of that period. What prompted me to watch it was that Robert Downey Jr. had won many awards for his role as a supporting character, and I was curious about how his role was so integral to the story.

While watching the movie, several leadership and personal growth lessons stood out to me:

  1. Being exceptional has a price – I heard this phrase used by Alex Hormozy on the Modern Wisdom podcast. Alex said, “Normal People Fit In, but Exceptional People Don’t,” which was a big theme in the movie. There are two ways to look at this concept regarding the price. When you are great at something, you stand out, attracting haters and those who feel you have taken something from them. How you handle that environment has an emotional cost. It is exponentially easier to be like others and conform than to be different. The other cost is what you miss out on to achieve greatness. It does not matter if you are a scientist, consultant, or world-class athlete. Becoming one of the best has a price in terms of missing out on things, be it relationships with family and friends, missing out on recreational activities, or even eating pizza. To achieve greatness, you must sacrifice something to get there. The main character, J. Robert Oppenheimer, was unlike others, especially outside the scientific community. Not afraid to challenge conventional thought and followed his ideals. It was interesting watching both versions of Oppenheimer, the person and the physicist, and how both faced the challenge of conformity. There were a lot of people who were envious of what he was achieving and believed he was upstaging them. His personality both won him loyalty and scorn from those whose ideas he challenged; later in the movie, his lack of conformity made him an easy target for criticism.
  2. Harnessing brilliance is a challenge – managing such a diverse team of specialties, egos, and personalities was one of the reasons they thought the project would be impossible. Oppenheimer was able to motivate collaboration by respecting their brilliance and strong opinions together by getting them all to focus on a common goal. He focused on the sum of the parts that were critical to get all of the elements necessary for everything to work. There was the scene where Oppenheimer was visualizing all of the separate elements coming together for the test and was losing confidence that it would actually work. One of the scientists, confident in the overall team bet him $10 that it would work.
  3. The expectation of blind loyalty – many times in organizations, there is an expectation of blind loyalty to the cause. During the sham hearing about his security clearance, Oppenheimer was asked, “When you were living in Cambridge in the United Kingdom, were you happy?” I knew exactly where this question was going: they were testing his loyalty as an American that no one could possibly be happy outside of America. Companies can be like that when asking if you like your job and the idea that you might want to work in another department or another company would mean you are not loyal.
  4. Your With Us or Against Us – Similar to the expectation of blind loyalty, some view any criticism, different views, or negative sentiment towards the plan or goal as “not being with a team player or one us.” Good leaders want to hear from their teams if something is a problem. Most leaders make decisions with the information they have and their experiences. If there is someone on the team who has new information or a differing experience, that can be beneficial to the decision process. In the movie, many of the scientists were Jewish, so beating Germany to having an atomic bomb, and once Germany surrendered, the primary driver for many scientists had changed. They started speaking up but the government machine saw the potential of their work in a bigger context. As the scientists began to speak out, they were challenged as communists or not loyal to America.
  5. Rally around a Common Goal – as already stated, the main goal of the movie was to develop the bomb to beat Germany to it and to end the war. This common goal was central to why they were successful. If people waver or start to fall behind, referencing the objective often motivates them. the reasons why people wanted success were interesting. As a side note, most projects have a stated goal, a perceived goal, and a real goal. That played out in the movie and caused conflict. The stated goal was to beat Germany to a bomb. For many, the real goal was to punish Germany for their treatment of the Jews and those in power; the real goal was the power and absolute might they would achieve.
  6. Don’t Embarrass Colleagues – people can be petty, and the slightest form of public embarrassment, contradiction, or overshadowing can cause problems in the future. Maybe this section should be called Embarrassment and Revenge. There was a scene in the Congressional hearing where Oppenheimer made humorous comments that contradicted what Strauss, Robert Downey Jr.’s character, had proposed. He made them sound silly and non-consequential, getting a laugh from the panel. Strauss didn’t like being humiliated on such a grand stage and the underlying arc of the movie is many of his actions to discredit and get revenge against this humiliation by Oppenheimer.
  7. Stealing the Limelight or Credit – There are a few instances where scientists, engineers, or politicians are seeing credit for the work of others. There are conflicting thoughts about Rober Downy Jr’s character, Strauss, where he knows he needs Oppenheimer to be successful, but if Oppenheimer were successful, he believed he would upstage him, become more popular, and ultimately overshadow him. In the end, with so much effort and manipulation, he sought revenge. This is a common occurrence in business. If you’ve wronged someone in any way, even just a perceived insult, they will do everything they can to sabotage you. You need to be careful.
  8. Understand the Real Power – There is a powerful line near the movie’s end where Strauss says, “Amateurs chase the sun and get burned. Power stays in the shadows.” This seemed like a justification for having others do his dirty work. As you move up in a corporation, observing both types of power is important. Who is beating their chest and demanding action, and who is behind the scenes pulling strings?

In the end, atomic weapons changed the world exactly as the scientists predicted. Anytime somebody gets something more powerful, it’s replicated, especially when it’s successful. For example, when the first catapult was used, others saw its effectiveness and adopted it for offensive warfare. This led to the development of bigger, stronger, walled castles.

As for the movie itself, it had some slow parts and unnecessary themes. However, in the end, it managed to frame people’s mindsets and provide a glimpse into why they might have been the way they were. Overall, it was a good movie and can be a source of ideas if you ever have to manage a complex project with several brilliant people.