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Revisiting "What Makes a Leader?"

Nearly 60 years ago two giants of the 20th Century briefly came together in Silicon Valley. The leadership paths of Robert Noyce and William Shockley then diverged; one into immense success and the other defined by failure. Did Emotional Intelligence play a key role?

In early 1956, Robert Noyce, then working for Philco in Philadelphia, received a phone call "from God".  The call was from William Shockley, who just started his own company near Palo Alto, California, offering Noyce a job.  Shockley was then considered to be the leading physicist in solid state technology.  He and two other physicists that worked for him at Bell Labs are credited with inventing the transistor, in 1947, and beginning the modern electronics age.  They would go on to win the Nobel Prize for their invention in 1957.

Shockley was brilliant, driven, competitive and quite often referred to as a genius.  He would be the first to tell you this, William Shockleybut in his case, everyone around him would also agree. He was an excellent teacher, able to clarify and convey the essence of a technical problem with ease. Along with Noyce, Shockley recruited a dozen other young, brilliant, PhDs from around the country to join him at his new company.  He provided high salaries, perfect weather and an opportunity to change the world.  They all said yes without hesitation. The perks didn't hurt but their real reason to move out West was to work with Shockley.  It was a new start up, in an exciting and promising field, lead by a genius and star with a team of geniuses and future stars.

Just over two years later, Noyce and seven others of the top scientists at Shockley including, Chemist, Gordon Moore, would defect and form their own company called Fairchild Semiconductor.  Fairchild would go on to spawn dozens of companies including Intel, AMD, and National Semiconductor.  William Shockley would go on to sell his company after never gaining a profit in the early 60's and by the end of the decade it was officially closed.

Robert Noyce went on to invent the integrated circuit, found Intel with Gordon Moore, develop the microprocessor, create Silicon Valley, and popularize the entrepreneurial, egalitarian and creative management style that lives on today. His early death in 1990 at age 62 preceded the certain Nobel prize he would have won for the integrated circuit. Both Noyce and Shockley were equals in technical and cognitive (intelligence) competencies as well as drive and the passion to lead. Where did their paths diverge?

Emotional Intelligence and Leadership

The title of this post refers to the now classic Harvard Business Review article by Daniel Goleman, "What Makes a Leader?", first published in 1998.  Goleman is an author, journalist and psychologist who has studied and written about the importance of Emotional Intelligence in leadership for over 20 years.  In doing his research he grouped leadership competencies into three categories: technical like engineering, accounting, business planning; cognitive abilities such as analytical and reasoning; and emotional intelligence like the ability to work with others and effectively lead change. His studies revealed that technical and cognitive skills were vital to leadership but what differentiated the best from average was emotional intelligence.  He found 90% of the difference between the best and average was attributable to emotional intelligence factors in their profiles.

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Goleman split Emotional Intelligence (EI) into five components (abilities) that separated the star leaders from the group and resulted in organizational success and profit.  It's not an absolute, so certainly there will be some very successful leaders that counter his argument, but from a probabilistic perspective, leaders that exhibit these components are more likely to be successful than those who do not.  

Two Divergent Paths

One ship sails East, And another West, By the self-same winds that blow,'Tis the set of the sails And not the gales,That tells the way we go.

- Ella Wheeler Wilcox -

William Shockley had assembled some of the finest minds in physics, chemistry and engineering.  However, his approach was - my way or the highway.  He would micromanage their efforts and have them change minor aspects of their work to suit his way.  He had one of the team work separately because he felt threatened by the young man's two PhDs.  When Shockley gave a raise to one key scientist he admonished him for having accepted the lower salary in the first place.  When his team presented some findings, Shockley would call Bell Labs and double check the data.

Noyce presentedRobert Noyce an idea he had been working on for months on a negative resistance diode.  When he took it to Shockley he showed no interest. Shockley didn't like anyone pursuing their own research path outside his own. Noyce would later say that a message of no interest was a great demotivator.  Some months later a physicist from Japan, Leo Esaki, would develop a negative resistance diode and win the Nobel Prize in 1973 for his invention. 

Shockley would be helpful but his team said they would need to go through humiliation first. He would berate them about their qualifications and abilities.  Mistakes were not acceptable. He fired one secretary for arranging some travel different than specified.  In many ways, Shockley was only interested in success if he was a part of it or at least given credit.  He mandated that he was specified as co inventor on any new invention or patent.  

Robert Noyce, on the other hand, was thought to be approachable.  "He was somebody you went over to and said, "What do you think about this?" said his peer, Vic Jones.  He would teach without condescension and would convey the broader picture rather than just give out tasks to his team.  When the team contemplated leaving Shockley they would only do it if Noyce was going to go along.  At Fairchild and Intel, Noyce brought a relaxed management style giving his team an opportunity to pursue their talents.  He had a roll up your sleeve attitude that shunned big offices, private jets, executive parking spots, and developed a less structured hierarchy where everyone contributed. 

Later, after founding Intel with Moore, a young engineer named Ted Hoff wanted to pursue a new device; the microprocessor. At the time, Intel was focused on delivering memory chips, and most of management felt the microprocessor was aTed Hoff with microprocessor distraction.  However, Noyce hired the best talent and trusted their judgment and abilities. He let Hoff pursue the project after convincing Moore and their manufacturing wiz, Andy Grove, that it was the right decision.  The decision would go on to make Intel the most important company in the world for decades.

After the team had let him know about the problems, Shockley was surprised.  He felt he had been their benevolent yet firm leader; teaching them about semiconductors, correcting their mistakes, paying them high salaries and offering them the opportunity to co-author with a Nobel prize winner.  He felt it was all for their own good and never understood their reasons for leaving.  Even after thinking about making some changes, he ended up continuing in the same way. 

At Intel, Noyce and Grove would battle each other.  Grove never understood the charisma that everyone else saw in Noyce and felt Noyce was indecisive, too much of a risk taker, could not say no and always avoided confrontation. Grove's perspective was fairly accurate as Noyce was not the perfect leader.  However, Noyce probably knew this also. Hence, why he accepted and needed Grove with his bluntness, aggressiveness, decision making ability and his attention to process, detail and focus of turning management into a science.

Conclusion

Gordon Moore was saddened after he and Noyce split with Shockley.  Not because he felt there was an alternative, but because he believed they learned under Shockley, and their success at Fairchild had something to do with their brief time under his grip. It's quite possible, had Shockley shown a little more self-awareness, regulation and empathy, his place in history would be different. It was telling that when he recruited the young PhD's for his new company, he was unable to convince a single person he had worked with at Bell Labs to join him, even though they all highly regarded his intellect and expertise. By the time he had won the Nobel Prize, his two co-inventors, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain were barely speaking with him. 

Even after his many years of battling Robert Noyce at Intel, Andy Grove's perspective on him may have changed somewhat in the end, perhaps speaking volumes about Noyce's EI abilities.  In the book, The Intel Trinity, author Michael S. Malone wrote about a time he spoke with Grove at an event in 2013. During their conversation while attending the premier of the PBS American Experience documentary on Silicon Valley, which featured Robert Noyce, Malone wrote quoting Grove, who was suffering from Parkinson's Disease:

"Bob (Noyce) impressed me, too, but there was so much I didn't like about him. His charisma put me off. His management style put me off. His inability to make decisions put me off. So did his unwillingness to actually learn the business. I didn't like those things in him that the world most admired him for."

"But I can remember, in 1971, when we were at the Stanford Chalet with the Noyces on a skiing trip.  It was time to go home,...and it started snowing. We didn't know what to do. And Bob just crawled under my car and put the chains on, while me and my wife and our daughters just stood there, watching helplessly. That was the best of him. So was his risk taking, his impressive physical courage, his intellectual clarity. That was the part of him I loved, not all of the famous stuff.""

His rigid face can no longer betray his emotions. But in his eyes, tears begin to well. "After all these years, I miss Bob the most."

The tale of William Shockley and Robert Noyce reminded me of the HBR article I had read many years ago.  It was Shockley's very low Emotional Intelligence compared to Noyce's much higher level of EI where they diverged. Certainly, an extreme example with Shockley, but it shows how so much talent, technical skills and brain power rarely overcomes one's inability to effectively understand, work and lead with other human beings.

Resources/Additional Reading:

  1. The Man Behind the Microchip by Leslie Berlin
  2. The Intel Trinity by Michael S. Malone
  3. The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner
  4. "What Makes a Leader?" by Daniel Goleman, HBR, January 2004 Issue

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