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Richard Feynman's lessons for life (and leaders)

Richard Feynman shared the Nobel Prize for physics in 1965.

Making the complex understandable was a specialty of Feynman. Even though seriously ill with cancer, Feynman signed on to the committee investigate the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986. In testimony before a congressional committee, Feynman dipped O-ring composite material into a glass of ice water to demonstrate how cold makes rubber brittle. It was an O-ring failure that triggered the explosion.

Feynman was a brilliant scientist, yet unlike so many scientists, he was a gifted teacher and beloved by his students at the California Institute of Technology. In addition to physics, he shared life lessons. Here are eight classes he wrote that have become widely known and have implications for students of leadership. (Feynman's words are in bold.)

  1. Work hard. Discipline is essential to mastering your craft. It takes years to learn it.
  2. What others think of you is none of your business. Don't become distracted by opinion and hearsay. Focus on your job.
  3. It's OK not to have all the answers. Very important. Leaders are not know-it-alls. When you flout how much you know, you realize that no one cares. No one likes a show-off.
  4. Experiment, fail, learn and repeat. Leadership is often a matter of experimentation. Leaders base decisions on assumptions they believe are correct. If results do not equal expectations, it is important to try again.
  5. Knowledge comes from experience. There is no shame in failing; shame comes from disregarding the lessons learned from failure.
  6. Imagination is important. Leaders need to make it safe for people to think big. Encourage people to pursue ideas as a means of adding to the greater whole.
  7. Do what interests you the most. Teams only move forward when the goals inspire them. The pursuit of big goals is true in sports as it is in life. Think big and act bigger.
  8. Stay curious. Curiosity keeps a leader's imagination fresh. A curious leader is engaged in the pursuit of knowledge and its application to problems in need of a solution.

Two principles

Following these lessons apply not merely to nascent scientists but are also sound principles for leaders to follow for two reasons.

One, they keep the leader's ego in check and remind her that failure is part of the human condition, humility is essential, and the pursuit of knowledge takes commitment. Two, they remind the leader that it is his responsibility to foster curiosity and enable people to try and try again.

Failure comes from having put yourself out there. Organizations only grow when leaders and followers alike are willing, as Feynman encouraged, to "experiment, fail, learn and repeat."

Leadership by nature is not a set of aphorisms. It is both practice and art, as well as an example. Rules such as those by Feynman and others remind us that it is also a quest, a journey that requires self-learning that applied well leads to self-knowledge and, ultimately, the self-confidence necessary to lead others.

Thank you, Dr. Feynman.

 

John Baldoni is a globally recognized executive coach and leadership educator. Inc.com ranked John a Top 50 Leadership Expert and Top 100 leadership speaker. Trust Across America awarded John its Lifetime Achievement award for Trust and Global Gurus ranked him No. 9 on its list of Top 30 leadership experts. John is the author of 14 books, including GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us.

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