Genius and/or "Competent Jerk"?

Posted by jlubans on September 23, 2014


Thomas Alva Edison’s cast iron marker stands in a public square for all to see in downtown Memphis, Tennessee (the home of Elvis Presley’s Graceland). The bottom half of the historical marker’s text caught my eye: “Trying to invent an auto-repeat key, he managed to connect New Orleans with New York directly for the first time after the war. As a result he was discharged by a jealous superior, and he left Memphis.” (Emphasis added.)

I could identify with that statement; I’ve seen, in my career, jealous and petty supervisors make life unbearable for the better than average worker; someone the paranoid boss thinks is stealing his thunder. And, reading the Memphis marker, I get the impression that the bad boss cost this at times forlorn Mississippi city, the associated prestige of the remarkable Edison, the inventor of the incandescent light bulb and a thousand other marvels including, a “cock-roach shocker”!

Caption: The young Thomas.
Now, we’ll never get the unnamed “jealous” superior’s story, but as I dug a little deeper into Mr. Edison’s history I sensed that maybe the story was not as simple as an outclassed boss’ back- stabbing an overachieving subordinate. It may have been rank insubordination. One biographer sums up that young Edison’s cocky attitude “… must at times have been unbearable.”
By 1876 Edison was famous and prospering. He started a research lab in West Orange, New Jersey and staffed it with engineers and others eager to tie their wagons to Edison’s star. These were Edison’s “muckers”, as he called them. He was the self-designated “chief mucker.” When Edison had an idea – and he had thousands - the muckers would start testing, experimenting and trying to make the idea work, to bring it into production. The average workweek was six days for 55 hours and muckers were paid workmen’s wages. But, when hot on the trail of some idea, the days stretched far into the night, aptly illustrating Edison’s most famous quote: "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration."
What was it like to work with Edison? “(A) mucker said that he (Edison) ‘could wither one with his biting sarcasm or ridicule one into extinction.’” But, another mucker stated, “'The privilege which I had being with this great man for six years was the greatest inspiration of my life.’"
I wonder if Mr. Edison was somewhat like Apple’s Steve Jobs?

As we say in Latvia, “tik un tā” (anyway), it is interesting to reflect on famous people and their taking untraveled paths – bushwhacking new trails to unforeseen vistas. I recall an insightful and bright young collegaue at work who never could see himself as anything less than the center of all things . When I asked him to draw a picture of a team, he was in the center – no doubt, the team captain - directing others. When I asked him to draw the department as circles, his was always the largest. He reminds me of Edison. This colleague moved on from the library realm into another industry and did well – or so I think. Some might have termed him an “incompetent jerk”*, but at worst, in my mind, he was a “competent jerk” and, if you got on his right side, he could be a charming “star” performer.

*The jerk terms are discussed in Casciaro, Tiziana and Miguel Sousa Lobo, “Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools and the Formation of Social Networks,” HBR June 2005

@Copyright John Lubans 2014
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