Can you become a genius (or do you have to be born one)?

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Peter Drucker

Drucker was a genius. I’m told that real geniuses in a specific discipline only come around about once every hundred years or so. We’ve frequently heard about geniuses in nuclear physics, chemical engineering and occasionally a soft science, such as economics or psychology, or maybe an art. Management geniuses are harder to come by.

For some time I accepted the supposed wait for the next management genius uncritically and resigned myself that I would never see another management genius like Drucker in my lifetime. However, I’ve done some investigating on this subject, and now I’m less sure.

What is Genius?

I did some research and discovered that scientists, philosophers, and just plain average Joes have been struggling over the issue of what is genius since ancient times.

Can anyone become a genius?

In recent times many cite Einstein as example of the ultimate genius. Einstein developed his theory of relativity without a computer, laboratory, or a white coat, and probably with minimal, if any, funding.

Drucker, ever outspoken in his assessments, said that though this was a remarkable achievement, after developing his theory, Einstein basically made his living as "a famous man" and didn’t accomplish much more.

A genius may be proclaimed when one comes up with a single extraordinary, unexpected leap of insight like Einstein which leads to recognition, fame, and fortune, or like Drucker himself with a lifetime of insights which affect the manner in which human beings think, work or live.

Some of these insights might be basic. In retrospect, often these insights even seem obvious. Still, they are always perceived to be of considerable significance.

It was Drucker who was the first - or one of the first - to see and proclaim that selling and marketing were not identical functions and that different executives should be responsible for these different business functions.

The first time I heard this it was from a corporate head who was trying to interest me in a marketing position. I thought he was just trying to make sales duties sound more sophisticated and attractive.

I wasn’t alone in this sort of impression.

Drucker noted that as the idea of "marketing" as being somehow different from "selling" caught on, there was a rush to change the corporate titles of vice president of sales to vice president of marketing. Drucker said that those who were doing this arbitrarily and without much thought and the duties of each function were just plain wrong.

"Marketing is a fashionable term," he explained. "The sales manager instantly becomes a marketing vice president. But a gravedigger is still a gravedigger even when he is called a mortician - only the price of the burial goes up."

Drucker also asserted that the most important leadership decision that an executive can make is the decision to be a leader. Having graduated from a school known for its training of leaders, the first time I heard him say this I thought that he must be joking . . . until I read surveys which showed that the reason that most people avoid becoming leaders in the first place is that they are afraid of failure, of being disobeyed, or of being criticized for mistakes that they might make.

The Problem with IQ Tests

Some individuals are regarded as geniuses because of reaching a certain score on an IQ test. However, the latest thinking is that there are several types of genius whose scores may differ significantly on different tests.

Back in 1983, a Harvard University professor by the name of Howard Gardner wrote a book called Frames of Mind in which he identified multiple intelligences most of which are missed by standard methods of measurement of intelligence including conventional IQ tests.

Gardner noted at least eight separate areas of intelligence most of which were overlooked in the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, perhaps the most popular, and one with origins going back to 1916. Gardner’s categories included musical–rhythmic, visual–spatial, verbal–linguistic, logical–mathematical, bodily–kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic.

However Gardner classified all into only three primary sets defining intelligence: the ability to create an effective and probably unique product or to offer a probably unique service that is valued in a culture, a set of skills that make it possible for a person to solve problems in life which were heretofore unsolvable, and the potential for finding or creating solutions for problems, which involves gathering new knowledge.

Gardner’s theories have been used to chastise those who would base intelligence assessment merely on numbers developed emanating from research measuring "the ability to learn." However his work still merely establishes that these intelligences exist.

Even these new insights say little as to whether genius in any of these areas can be developed, although it may partially explain why we have "unrewarded genius." That is, those poor souls who never did something that was universally recognized as significant during their lifetime even though they were thought to have had the ability to do so.

The Issue of Unrewarded Genius

It was Calvin Coolidge, former president of the United States, who in his enthusiasm for the human quality of persistence, brought up the matter of unrewarded genius: a genius who didn’t do enough with his brilliance to be rewarded for it by way of recognition by others.

From this and the writings of those who have analyzed genius and geniuses we can conclude that being recognized as a genius also takes some specific action or actions. Ten years of focus on the issue at hand some seem to think will suffice to create a genius.

In support of this theory, it is interesting to note that Drucker began thinking seriously about politics about 1926 and wrote his first book, The End of Economic Man, which was reviewed positively by a then out-of- office Winston Churchill about 1937.

On the other hand, one could argue that if Drucker lacked the ability to get through college, he could not have mastered economics or English, the latter of which was for him a foreign language, sufficiently to write such a book, much less to get it published and acclaimed by a writer and politician of the caliber of a Winston Churchill.

Not that even college is an absolute requirement. Benjamin Franklin stopped formal schooling at age 10. Lincoln had less than a year of school, and no college that we know of at all. Edison managed about three months’ worth and in more modern times both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, geniuses of the new age of personal computers, were college dropouts.

The Absolute Need to Communicate

To be a recognized genius requires recognition. This means that one way or another, a Drucker doppelganger, clone, or just someone who would be recognized as a management genius must also have developed the ability to communicate with others effectively.

Consider that Drucker wrote 39 books, and hundreds of columns and articles in addition to recording dozens of videos, and tapes. As the old saying goes, there are many ways to skin a cat.

The formally uneducated Benjamin Franklin educated himself to write and publish Poor Richard’s Almanac, and while Lincoln’s is not known for his books or record of publications, his ability to make impassioned speeches is certainly well-documented by his address on the Gettysburg battlefield during the American Civil War. Jobs and Gates learned to communicate sufficiently to sell their ideas to investors and others.

I don’t think even the oratory talents demonstrated by Mark Anthony at Caesar’s funeral and claimed by Shakespeare would easily have convinced steely-eyed investors to loan money to young college dropouts who were claiming to be able to change the world through electronic computing at a time when most people didn’t even understand personal computers and computer software didn’t exist.

These two young men demonstrated acute development of a necessary, but different, type of communication skill.

Can You Become a Peter Drucker in Your Field?

Well maybe you can. The first step is to decide in what field you wish to labor. You can’t become known as a genius in a certain area until you decide what that area is. Next, you need to put your time in and focus on that area until you learn something that is worth knowing that others do not, and are thus have something to say. Some people call that "paying your dues." Finally, you need to master the communication skills such that you can explain yourself to others.

That’s all there is to it. Are your ready to become a genius? Have you made that decision? Maybe I should have asked those questions first.