Leading a "Mozart"

He was arguably the greatest composer who has ever lived. He wrote over 600 scores during his short 35 year life span. He was performing advanced piano works before kings at the age of five. As a teenager, Wolfgang Mozart once heard a full opera performed in the Sistine Chapel; he then went home and copied it completely from memory, including the parts played by each instrument in the orchestra.

His operas—like The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro, and Don Giovanni are among the most beloved operas ever written. His 200+-year-old music was used in such diverse modern movies as Alien, JFK, Star Trek, A Beautiful Mind, Batman, Out of Africa, The Associate, and Shawshank Redemption.

He was also a spoiled brat. He squandered his earnings on fancy clothes and all-night parties. When his boss, the Archbishop of Vienna, forbade the play “The Marriage of Figaro” from being used as a backdrop for an opera because it was deemed licentious, Mozart composed the comic opera anyway. When the use of ballet in an opera was forbidden, he defied the order and included the dance. His actions seemed less about rebellion and more about artistic license and the pursuit of his vision.

But this piece is not about the Mozart. It is about providing leadership to all those passion-driven over achievers who end up as the “Mozart” in organizations. What would your leadership style be like if you supervised film director James Cameron, Steve Jobs, runner Usain Bolt, Lady Gaga, activist Susan B. Anthony, or Thomas Edison?

“Mozarts” have common noble traits—brilliant, visionary, perfectionistic, and passionately driven. They are also very challenging to work with, extremely bull-headed, egotistical, countercultural, irreverent and sometimes borderline crazy. Organizations cannot tolerate very many “Mozarts.” They disturb the sanctity of stability and status quo. Highly conservative organizations view them as extreme misfits.

A “Mozart” will ask tough questions that make mediocre performers feel inadequate. “Mozarts” ignore tidy rules of corporate civility in a headlong pursuit of their bold visions. They poke around in areas outside their sandbox and beyond their pay grades. While most “Mozarts” would get an easy A+ in creativity, their impatience with diplomacy would net them a grade of F in “emotional intelligence.”

The Plight of a Mozart

Some organizations try to expel a “Mozart.” “Mozarts” often get labeled, ignored and ostracized. Their performance reviews give short shrift to their vast achievements while spotlighting only their “does not play well with others” dimensions. They are told to get a coach or read a book or go talk with HR. Failing to be valued for their contribution, most exit for greener pastures. Consider the massive loss to the organization they vacate.

Every organization interested in growth needs a few “Mozarts.” They can make us better and more vigorous. Sure, they are complex, challenging, and downright difficult. But they can propel us to greatness by being the spark plug for the organization’s innovation engine. Of course they can make us wring our hands and shake our heads. They can also ensure our advancement and competitiveness. They are very rare and we need them.

Being a “Mozart” can be quite lonely. Without leadership they can end up like Wolfgang—a pauper buried in a mass grave without a marker. However, being the leader of a “Mozart” can be downright nerve wracking. As the boss, you are perpetually surprised by events that signal your “Mozart” has “done it again!” Other employees are constantly in your office complaining about their quirky actions, rude business etiquette, and insensitive cross-examinations. What are ways to lead a “Mozart” in a fashion that maximizes their value without losing them to a competitor?

Embrace Their Weirdness

Avoid trying to explain to someone why “Mozarts” are the way they are. You cannot reprogram eccentricity or turn off a compelling vision. Searching for a rational explanation for their idiosyncrasies carries the implication that if they can be understood they can be “cured.” The goal is not to change them but to effectively lead them in a fashion that harnesses their creative energies. “Mozarts” see the world through a completely unique set of lenses and their perspective looks absolutely right to them. Accept their special treasures and steer their talents. Comments like, “George is a bit of a character, but my, what a talent!” can send a different message to others than, “George is just not like the other ‘children'.”

Provide Loose Control and Tight Guidance

Since “Mozarts” live in the big picture world it is key they be given an accurate view at the macro level but not be micro managed. They can be successfully led but are poorly managed. External controls trigger their aversion to restrictions and constraints. They do not deal well with mindless policies, narrow job descriptions, and obsessive hierarchical controls that seek to convert them from “wild ducks” to barnyard chickens. They work nontraditional hours, guided more by the rhythm of their work than the hands of the clock. However, they need boundaries regarding where an overstep risks the mission. “Mozarts” without governors can be a clear and present danger to the effectiveness of the organization.

Run Interference for Them

“Mozarts” need sponsors, courageous champions with gladiator-like traits to take on naysayers and the sometimes-frustrated mob. They need someone who always has available a “get out of jail free” card--a defender who can explain their contribution in a fashion that makes defending their foibles completely unnecessary. They need a scout shrewd enough in corporate politics to provide them early warning regarding interpersonal mine fields and lurking group ambushes. Without a front person, a “Mozart” can too often be marginalized and ultimately rendered impotent.

Resource Them

“Mozarts” need special resources. They need more latitude and a higher tolerance for their errors than others. They may present a dozen approaches, eleven of which are wacky, but the twelfth could be borderline genius. Discarding the first eleven before reviewing all their ideas risks robbing the organization of breakthroughs. They should be given the latest tools and access to the best minds. They need a network of like-minded “odd balls” who can function as a sounding board for their most outrageous ideas. They need an easy entrée to information and access to a cadre of people who can help them refine their “perfect” idea into an “effective” application.

Celebrate Them

“Mozarts,” while often the owners of larger than normal egos, need little public affirmation. They do want credit. However, applause others may cherish is not what drives them--the intrinsic give-back of their work is more than enough. However, celebration can help others learn to value their contributions. Celebration enables fellow employees to separate the person from the performance. It can foster their resilience and facilitate patience among others. If their presence becomes completely intolerable and no skunk works-like outlet is available, celebrate them by helping them migrate to organizations where their talents will be better used.

One of the late Waylon Jennings's best-known hit songs included the lyrics, “I’ve always been crazy and it’s helped me from going insane.” It could be the mantra of a “Mozart.” “Crazy” is the moniker for mavericks, eccentrics, rebels, and nonconformists. Effectively led, they can make huge contributions. However, like wild ducks and wild horses, they should never be domesticated. As the leader of a “Mozart” it may help to remember the paraphrased words of Harvard history professor Laurel Ulrich: “Well behaved people seldom make history.”

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