Four tech leadership lessons from the Manhattan Project

Four tech leadership lessons

This article was previously published for the Forbes Tech Council and was written by our CEO, Emilien Coquard.

Julius Robert Oppenheimer was relatively unknown to the general public until the release of Christopher Nolan’s movie Oppenheimer this past July. For a tech enthusiast like me, however, the physicist was more than just the man who developed the atomic bomb; he represented some of the qualities a great leader should have.

Before entering the theater, I thought I was about to witness a ​​visually groundbreaking experience with flashing lights and explosions filling the screen for three hours. To my surprise, Oppenheimer focuses on and follows the figure of the scientist, his management of the Manhattan Project and the team he led to success.

In this article, I will share the four lessons I’ve learned from the movie and the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer that every tech leader can apply to their organizations.

Be prepared and lead with confidence

Around the start of World War II, the world witnessed notable discoveries in nuclear physics with scientists discussing the possibility of building a weapon that could potentially destroy the world. To avoid the powerful technology falling into the wrong hands, the U.S. government initiated the Manhattan Project, a program to design the atomic bomb. The man to lead it was J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer had been learning for decades from the best physicians of the 20th century, such as Max Born and Enrico Fermi. He didn’t know it yet, but he was preparing to command one of U.S. history’s most important military and scientific programs. Like most visionary leaders, he was ready to take on the challenge when the opportunity came.

When I chat about leadership with fellow CEOs and CTOs in the tech world, we all agree one of the decisive moments in our careers was the first business crisis we tackled. It was unexpected (it always is), but we stepped up and helped our team navigate turbulent waters.

Like Oppenheimer when he was designated to lead the Manhattan Project, a tech leader must remain calm and lead the way when uncertainty prevails. A confident leader is a respected leader.

Build an A-team and attract talent to your vision

Once he agrees to supervise the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer builds a team with the most talented scientists he knows, including Edward Teller and Isidor Isaac Rab. These were people he admired, from whom he learned and, most importantly, who were better than him at performing specific tasks.

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” These words by the late Steve Jobs define how to assemble a world-class team. Successful tech companies are known for attracting and hiring top talent—individuals willing to align themselves with the organization’s vision but aren’t afraid to challenge norms and present innovative solutions when needed.

In Oppenheimer, the physicist is open to hearing his colleagues’ opinions and accepts their proposals if he feels they’ll help the project succeed. As discussed in my article about the dedicated team model of offshore software development, an aligned and fully integrated team is one where communication is open and every member moves in the same direction. Tech leaders aim to recruit elite talent, share a clear vision and foster a collaborative environment where creativity thrives.

Work with your team toward a common goal

After building his team, Oppenheimer started working on the atomic bomb in New Mexico, where tensions began to surface. Having previously clashed with U.S. Atomic Energy Commission member Lewis Strauss—the man who trusted him to lead the project—the physicist now faced new disputes with a key crew member, Edward Teller. Oppenheimer realizes that even after building an A-team, the group stability could break due to different visions or ideas. Yet, he leaves confrontations aside and works with his team toward shared objectives.

Similarly, tech leaders face disagreements when collaborating with team members or business executives. It’s almost inevitable. From my experience as a CEO in tech, CTOs possess a unique ability to perceive aspects that often elude conventional leaders: their technical acumen and innovative thinking set them apart.

They have this knack for spotting angles that executives and fellow team members might miss—an ability that can generate internal debates and conflicts. The distinction between a proficient tech leader and an exceptional one lies in their aptitude to set the noise apart, adapt and work to achieve a greater goal.

Celebrate success and own your mistakes (even when it’s unfair)

The Manhattan Project was a success thanks to Oppenheimer’s bold leadership, and the government and the military perceived him as a national hero. However, after the initial enthusiasm, the physicist’s image was maligned due to his political affiliations and suspicions about his loyalty to the United States, though his reputation has largely been rehabilitated.

Just like Oppenheimer, tech leaders may suffer collateral damages from their success. One of the burdens of leadership is dealing with loneliness both in victories and defeats and accepting mistakes, even when these are hard pills to swallow.

Take Mark Zuckerberg and the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Facebook’s (now Meta) cofounder and CEO was seen as a visionary entrepreneur who revolutionized how we communicated online. But in 2018, his public image was damaged after accusations of mishandling user data and Facebook’s influence on political discourse. For both Zuckerberg and Oppenheimer, the successes in their respective fields were accompanied by challenges and controversies that tested their leadership qualities and public perception. To rebuild the company’s reputation, for example, Facebook has had to make sweeping changes and promises to users.

My advice and final takeaway for CEOs, CTOs and every other leader working in the tech industry is the following: Embrace adversity and learn from it. Oppenheimer’s leadership released the power to change the course of history. You have the same ability to guide your team’s impact. Use it wisely.