- Talent Management
Wouldn’t it be nice if every person you hired into your company were a genius? Some would say that’s a fool’s errand because there simply aren’t enough geniuses to go around. Those are the people who probably think you’re either born a genius or not. And then there are those who would say genius is made. It’s the old nature/nurture debate. But what if neither one of those is quite right? That’s what author Eric Weiner explores in his book, The Geography of Genius. His premise is startlingly simple: Genius is neither born nor made – it’s grown, and that means paying attention to the specific places that genius seems to naturally take root.
Yes, there is a genetic component to the genius puzzle, but it’s a much smaller component than most people think. And it’s also true that there’s hard work involved, so there is a component of genius that is made. But neither of those two components explain the strange phenomenon of what Weiner calls genius clusters in specific geographies. The ones that come to mind would be Renaissance Florence, classical Athens, and in more recent times Silicon Valley.
There is also the role of competition. If it’s healthy, it can spur emerging geniuses to the next level, which many argue is what happened in the competition between Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, who didn’t like each other one bit. The interesting twist, however, is that the competition tends to give way to cooperation over time between competing geniuses. But the competition, whether it’s between two geniuses or between a genius and the prevailing establishment of the time, gives rise to a kind of friction many now call creative friction, which is actually very helpful in boosting genius. In other words, anyone who is fully invested in the status quo will probably never become a true genius. Freud, for example, was something of an outsider in Vienna with his ideas, but not so much so that he was relegated to a place of obscurity. Much to the contrary, his outsider status was one that pushed him to improve his ideas to the point that they became widely accepted.
Another relatively concrete common element he found in geographic genius clusters was an exposure to different cultures specifically combined with an openness about the differences. This seems very related to the notion of creative friction, and also gives credence to recent thinking about the benefits of diversity in the workplace. What it brings to mind is Lincoln’s “team of rivals” (referring to the Lincoln biography of the same name by Doris Kearns Goodwin). Lincoln wanted dissenting opinions in his cabinet to be sure he was hearing all sides of an issue in order to make fully informed decisions. The creative friction he purposely cultivated in his workplace made him a better president.
Teresa Moon takes this concept of creative friction and describes how it relates to innovation in the modern corporate setting in her Journal of Strategic Leadership article, Mentoring the Next Generation for Innovation in Today’s Organization, which is worth a careful read if you’re still trying to figure out how to deal with Millennials in the workplace. She specifically argues that well-designed mentoring programs are the key to converting creative friction into innovation.
Beyond these notions of creative friction and diversity, there’s not much Weiner can point to that synthesizes his wanderings into a more concrete understanding of genius. In terms of businesses today, the good news is that you don’t have to relocate to a so-called genius cluster to find and hire your best employees. What you can do, however, is make sure the environment you create within your organization is one that facilitates the emergence of genius, creativity, and innovation. Making this a priority for your company in the coming years could have a huge payoff sooner than you might think.