The myth of the irascible genius is incredibly pervasive but in some cases so pervasive that it implies you need to be ill-tempered to be good at what you do. Instead, let’s play nice.
There is a moment in The Imitation Game, the recently released biopic about mathematician Alan Turing, that very clearly shows the genius as a complete nightmare to work with. From the moment he demands his own office and talks dismissively about his team the audience understands he is not a team player, but it is when he goes above the head of his commanding officer directly to UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill that we see his true colours.
Churchill appoints Turing head of the Enigma team based on a letter rather than known leadership skills and the mathematician’s first actions are to insult the team members and dismiss half of them. The ones he keeps he continues to consider inferior and growing resentment among them almost leads to one destroying Turing’s machine, the computer that would eventually help them crack the Nazi’s Enigma code.
Turing’s foil in the movie is Joan Clarke, a fellow mathematician he recruits although she is not officially allowed to know about Enigma because she is a woman. Fortunately Clarke understands the value of relationships better than Turing. After he accuses her of being nice to his colleagues she states very clearly that being a woman in a man’s job is difficult enough without them hating her for being rude as well.
Does a genius need to be ill-tempered to remain a genius? The idea of the misunderstood genius plays into that perception; if we did understand the genius, perhaps we would also understand that the effort people usually put into social niceties is otherwise channelled in a special field of enquiry for them.
Despite Turing’s genius, let’s not forget that although he was the single most influential crpytoanalyst at Bletchley Park (and arguably changed the shape of World War II), his team members contributed too; plus they saved his bacon (and the project) when the powers-that-be started to grow tired of his arrogance and lack of results.
Being a project manager requires excellent stakeholder management, within your team and also outside of it. Being able to deliver on time, on budget to scope is no longer enough: you’ll be judged on whether you’re a great project manager over your career by the number of people—team members and clients, in particular—who would work with you again.
In short, being a genius is great startup capital but being nice pays dividends.