I just finished reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, which may be the geekiest sentence I’ve ever written. Be that as it may the book, at least the parts I understood, was fascinating. One story that jumped out was the last stage of arming the second atomic bomb ever built. The U.S. government spent over $2 billion (that’s billion) over four years to build two bombs, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima and the one dropped on Nagasaki. The last step before loading the Nagasaki bomb onto the plane was to wire the detonator to the power source. When the physicist assigned to this delicate task attempted to make the connection he realized that someone had installed the wires backwards; the male and female ends were reversed. To reinstall the wire would take at least another 24 hours, extending World War II and leading to the loss of hundreds, or even thousands, of additional American and allied lives. No one else was around, he had a decision to make.
Without consulting his superiors he decided to fix the wires himself. Because of the sensitivity of the bomb no heat source was allowed anywhere near; there weren’t even any electrical outlets in the room. It was late at night by this time, so the physicist was alone in the building. He scoured the lab and found an electrical extension cord and a soldering iron. At the risk of killing everyone in a 5 mile radius, he very carefully soldered the connections onto the correct ends of the wires and wired the detonator to to the power source. The next day the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki effectively ending World War II.
Setting aside the argument over the morality or immorality of using atomic weapons to kill tens of thousands of people, there are some fascinating leadership lessons in this story:
Assessing blame is seldom the best first step
I would imagine the first instinct when the physicist discovered the mistake was to find the idiot who wired the harness up backwards. This certainly wasn’t the physicist’s fault and he shouldn’t have to make up for other people’s incompetence. He knew, however, that blame at this point was meaningless. The key was to find a solution as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Angry leaders who spew threats and recriminations in the midst of crisis are ineffective and slow down everyone around them. Great leaders are more concerned with solutions than with blame. They are able to block out frustration and anger when they encounter a crucial problem, and focus on finding the best path back to success.
Highly trained, competent people can make horrendous mistakes
The people assembling atomic bombs in 1945 were the smartest men and women in the world. Brilliant scientists like Niels Bohr, Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi created systems and checks and counter checks to ensure that everything worked exactly as it was intended, but in the highly intense environment of war, staring down the barrel of the most lethal weapon ever created, men made mistakes.
Great leaders know that the very best people can make the worst mistakes. They create an environment where mistakes are not encouraged, but tolerated. Whether you are building an atomic bomb, mixing sound for a church service or writing copy for a website there will be mistakes. So the next time someone on your team screws up remind yourself at least they’re not building a nuclear weapon.
When lives are on the line always check your systems
It is likely that in the rush to get the bomb ready no one thought to include a checklist item to make sure the connectors were on the correct ends of the detonator wiring harness. It is also likely the next time they built a bomb that was a well-documented step. I imagine this is the last time anyone used a hot soldering iron on an armed atomic bomb.
Great leaders know that high expectations should be backed up by efficient systems. People can only perform to standards they are aware of in systems they understand. Every mistake is an opportunity to tweak the systems and reinforce the standards. Chewing someone out when they mess up is not a standard nor a system.
High capacity leaders sometimes take jaw-dropping risks for the good of the whole
No matter how good your systems are or how well-trained your staff there will come a time when you have to make a choice. Will you risk everything? Will you step outside of policies and procedures, put everything on the line, to take a leap of faith? We’ll never know what would have happened if the physicist would have postponed the bomb for another couple of days, or if he’d dropped the soldering iron and ignited an explosion. We know that he decided to take initiative and fix another man’s mistake. He took the risk.
Leaders who habitually bet the farm are reckless and a menace to the organization. Leaders who are too timid to step outside their comfort zone are ineffective. Great leaders look at potential disaster and decide to find a soldering iron.