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Radhika Panjwani is a freelance writer from Toronto.

  • Robert Oppenheimer had T-shaped skills that helped bridge the gap between technical, business and military members of the Manhattan Project
  • Good project managers break silos within the organization and promote interdepartment collaboration
  • Success is a shared responsibility and leaders in turn need bosses who can remove obstacles from their path

In the Christopher Nolan blockbuster Oppenheimer, J. Robert Oppenheimer demonstrates leadership traits such as decision-making, recruiting talent and creating a collaborative culture that are just as relevant today as they were in the 1940s, say several noteworthy professionals.

Mr. Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy) was a theoretical physicist and the director of the laboratory for the Manhattan Project (1942-1945), a $2-billion mission involving more than 125,000 team members, tasked with designing and assembling an atomic bomb during the Second World War.

The movie, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, is a front-runner in 13 categories at the Oscars. This year’s event will take place March 10.

T-shaped skillset

Mr. Oppenheimer’s competency and skillsets as well as his professional journey present several take-aways for leaders, U.K.-based product manager writes Alex Veale in Medium.

Mr. Oppenheimer was an effective leader with much-coveted T-shaped skills, Mr. Veale says. The vertical line of “T” indicates someone having an in-depth knowledge, discipline and know-how of a particular field, while the horizontal line signifies that individual’s remarkable cross-discipline capabilities to collaborate with experts from other disciplines, he says.

“Oppenheimer’s success lay in his ability to dive deep into a specific domain while maintaining a broad understanding of various disciplines, a concept that can be related to being ‘T-shaped,’” writes Mr. Veale. “Oppenheimer openly acknowledged that mathematics was not his strength. He relied on colleagues who excelled in this area and focused on his vertical bar of expertise in theoretical physics. This approach allowed him to trust the experts in other domains while challenging them when necessary and connecting the dots between them.”

Breaking silos

Mr. Oppenheimer chose scientific heavyweights such as Edward Teller, Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman, Hans Bethe and others for the Manhattan Project. His top-notch team also included exceptional mathematicians, metallurgists, chemists and an array of engineers. The job required tactical management of individual egos and personalities while advancing the project objectives. For instance, Mr. Oppenheimer chose Dr. Bethe to lead the theoretical physics division over Dr. Teller who had equally impeccable credentials.

In their paper, Who Was J. Robert Oppenheimer?: Charisma and Complex Organization, Professors Charles Thorpe and Steven Shapin found Mr. Oppenheimer’s charismatic personality was instrumental in motivating and connecting professionals from military, industrial and academia to collaborate with each other, especially because the military personnel wanted to keep everything under wraps while the scientists demanded transparency.

“One of the things that Oppenheimer did was to advocate for weekly colloquia in which people in different divisions actually got to talk to each other, and he had to persuade [General Leslie Groves] that the project could not be successful if scientists working in different areas were compartmentalized, only knowing what they specifically needed to know,” Prof. Thorpe noted in an interview with The Harvard Gazette. “Oppenheimer was right to think the communication of people with different skillsets, addressing different parts of the project, was necessary. And he did much to make that happen.”

Eyes on the big picture

Profs. Thorpe and Shapin’s research also unearthed Mr. Oppenheimer’s remarkable intellectual ability to integrate assorted moving parts of the project in his mind and make the right decisions.

“Oppenheimer knew and understood everything that went on in the laboratory, whether it was chemistry or theoretical physics or machine shop,” Dr. Bethe, a theoretical physicist and Noble laureate told the researchers. “He could keep it all in his head and co-ordinate it … there was just nobody else in that laboratory who came even close to him.”

Every leader needs a great boss

There would not have been an atomic bomb without the head of the Manhattan Project General Groves (played by Matt Damon), said Trung Phan, a writer based in British Columbia and the founder of the startup Bearly.AI, an AI-powered app for reading.

“If you want to win a World War that’s who you need on your side,” Mr. Phan said to The Globe and Mail. “He was ruthless in how he got things done and had a big ego, but every man and woman that worked for him said they would work with him again.”

What I’m reading around the web

  • In this PwC strategy + business post, David Andre, chief science officer at Alphabet, shares how he applies artificial intelligence in his work.
  • Management consultant Linden Vazey explains in this TEDx talk how you can stay true to your sense of purpose and be productive by rethinking traditional metrics of workplace success.
  • Employment lawyer and activist Chelsey Glasson discusses how tech companies are discriminating against new moms in this LinkedIn article.

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