The management lessons to learn from the Tao of Stephen Hawking


At the turn of the century, a brilliant Indy film, The Tao of Steve, contended that all the wisest and most influential men throughout history have been called Steve, and that each of them has a huge amount to teach us. So, in memory of the great intellect and human being, I present the Tao of “Steve” Hawking....

“It is no good getting furious if you get stuck. What I do is keep thinking about the problem but work on something else.”

Big businesses are always striving for smarter, better, or the next big thing – reinventing the wheel while still driving the car. Inevitably, there are moments when every business gets stuck and people start to lose faith in the vision. At this point, it is all too tempting to bang the table, blame the senior leadership, and become unreasonable in the hope that being more demanding will create a different response. But it doesn’t work.

Stephen Hawking showed us the true value of persevering with the things you have control over, while giving your brain the space it needs to figure out the more complex problems.

Senior leaders are often beaten by the need to focus on the longer term, while also managing the day-to-day.

There is a natural tendency among senior leaders faced with industry disruption to look for something that will show they are taking action – for example, creating a new innovation unit – but these actions often fail to result in the desired step-change.

Perhaps instead they should focus on optimising today’s business, and ensuring they earn the space to think more deeply about the real action needed to reinvent their business.

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”

There will always be new things to learn, if you stay curious.

Senior leaders within big organisations are rewarded with high salaries, but this comes with an expectation to have all the answers – every time. Their people look to them for remedies. Investors are unhappy if they don’t appear to have the solution. But the truth is, in this age of disruption, no leader has all the answers. And trying to do so is a fast path to failure.

Instead, endless curiosity is the way forward. Hawking’s goal was simple: “a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all”. Everything he did was in pursuit of this almost unattainable aspiration. It is only when a chief executive displays this relentless hunger to learn and adapt will their organization follow suit.

“Concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with.”

Don’t get distracted by the things that your business or people can’t do well. Instead, focus on and define the things that your business is already doing and always has done brilliantly. Harnessing an organisation’s pride to drive the courage and confidence needed to reinvent is imperative.

The end goal is constantly moving. Allowing setbacks to limit ambitions for the future is the greatest barrier to a business achieving success. Constantly focusing on the three to four things that made you great, and ensuring the whole business lives and breathes these, will be the key to ensuring reinvention.