The Visionary’s Curse

I’ve been fascinated lately with Elon Musk, Formula For Success: Inventor Plus Ideas Equals Profitsthe visionary leader of companies such as PayPal, SpaceX, Solar City and, most famously, Tesla Motors. His devotion to advancing the promise of sustainable energy is bold and audacious. Watching him at a 2013 TED Conference one can see in him the outlines of profound change that will impact the way people live in the not-too-distant future.

No doubt he has a brilliant mind. More than that, he has remarkable passion to integrate technology and commercial enterprise with everyday life. Much like Steve Jobs, the founder and soul of Apple whose love of simple, Eastern design led to the creation of personal computing tools that we use to organize and conduct our daily lives. Or Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motors and the man who brought personal transportation to the masses, transforming forever the course of the global economy and society. Let us also not forget Thomas Edison, the 19th and 20th century inventor known as “The Wizard of Menlo Park” who amassed over 2,000 patents in his lifetime and gave birth to innovations that made modern living conditions possible.

We think of leaders as those who know how to take a vision and make it practical, in other words those who know how to get things done. When speaking of visionary leaders, we think of leaders on steroids. People whose talents are so obvious and whose drives are so unmistakable, they are fated to succeed. But how do we feel when those same leaders display some not-so-admirable behaviors? Do we expect them to be super human because their achievements seem so? Or are there some behaviors that forever mar their brilliance?

Let me say flat out that I do not expect perfection from successful people. Flawed existence is human existence. What is challenging for those of us who reveal in and benefit from the achievements of visionaries is putting their flaws into a bigger context.

Steve Jobs is the subject of a newly released and controversial film, aptly titled “Steve Jobs”, in which he is portrayed as a tyrannical, selfish man, an absent father who denied his daughter’s lineage for years. Henry Ford is remembered for his game-changing advances in mass production along with his penchant for union busting and anti-Semitism. Thomas Edison’s epic battle with former employee and fellow brilliant inventor Nikola Tesla shows insatiable competition and pettiness. (If the Tesla name sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Tesla Motors is named after the same Nikola Tesla, Serbian inventor of the induction motor and alternating current (AC) power transmission.) As for Tesla Motors head Musk, his divorce from first wife Justine, an accomplished writer, led to her airing of a very unflattering picture of him in “Marie Claire” magazine in 2010.

Should I, as someone not directly impacted by their flaws but certainly a recipient of their strengths, care?

For me, the answer is yes. As I shared in my last article, “Lead Like a Pope,” one leads best when one leads people, not things, and when one leads in a spirit of service. Extraordinary achievement has long-term, positive impact. Extraordinary inhumanity has long-term impact too; corrosive impact.

Being brilliant and visionary is a kind of burden. The visionary sees what is possible well before others do, sensing the enormity of what can be unearthed. Dealing with those who are not there yet can be a source of aching frustration. And then there is the fear that if you don’t act quickly, someone else will beat you out. Yet the gift of vision asks much in return, it asks for humanity in realizing the vision. It is the visionary’s curse. To be a brilliant mind, one is alone. To be a successful, visionary leader, one needs others. It is in this reality that behavior shapes the full impact of a life’s work, for the entire scope of impact is found in the grand and the quiet, the broad stroke and the small gesture. It is here where the one blessed with vision determines how he will not only achieve that vision but the impact of that vision on those needed to make it come true.

How a visionary leader handles the “curse” becomes the final grade in that person’s test of humanity. If, in the total picture of a life, the leader passes the “test” with a C or better, I would consider it a good grade. As I said earlier, no one is perfect and the one who brings immense advancement to human life deserves a bit of a break. But if the humanity grade is below average, then their brilliant achievements are realized through a fee unfairly paid by others. The  leader may have been visionary in terms of material achievement, but inhuman in how that achievement came to be. This matters because above all, the visionary leader has the opportunity to not only create with others but to create through others. Acting inhuman makes those around the visionary leader ask themselves how much they want to engage with a brilliant mind if that mind shared space with an oversized ego and abhorrent temper. The potential expansion of a great vision, through others, becomes naturally diminished, not through lack of brilliance from the visionary but through lack of engagement by countless others willing to expand the dream, either professionally or personally.

It is in this that we see the full expanse of the visionary’s curse; the ultimate impact of what is realized and what is no longer to be.


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