Remembering Nikola Tesla: Lessons for Today's IT Leaders

By Marc J. Schiller  |  Posted 07-09-2012

Nikola Tesla was born 156 years ago on July 10.

It's not a stretch to say that Tesla was (and maybe still is) the greatest electrical engineer the world has ever known. Tesla's contributions to the world of technology are vast, including the Tesla coil, modern radio, the induction motor, and most famously the alternating current (AC) electrical supply system that powers the world.
Tesla spent much of his life suffering for his brilliance and fighting for recognition.

It therefore seems especially fitting to mark Tesla's birthday by taking a few minutes to reflect on his life and accomplishments. His life and experience hold lessons for all aspiring technologists who, just like Tesla, are eager to bring the benefits of technology to a large community of people.

Lesson No. 1: Believe

Throughout his career, Tesla challenged established scientific wisdom and, because of his creative and independent thinking, was able to create technologies that others thought impossible. Only Tesla had the grit to challenge the most famous inventor of his time (and his employer), Thomas Edison, arguing for the use of his AC electricity delivery system in place of the DC system championed by Edison. Only Tesla had the vision and inventiveness to harness Niagara Falls into powering a city. Even when Tesla's financiers doubted him, he stuck to his guns and ended up proving everyone wrong.Remember Tesla when you're being told that it can't be done when you know it can.

Lesson No. 2: Quit

When Tesla first went to work for Edison as a new immigrant to the United States, Edison promised him $50,000 if he could improve the running of his direct current electrical plants. When Tesla succeeded, Edison laughed and said that Tesla didn't understand American humor, offering him a meager salary bump instead. Tesla promptly quit. His inventions for his own company and for other industry giants such as Westinghouse cost Edison a fortune in time and money. In fact, shortly before his death, Edison admitted that his greatest mistake in life was not adopting Tesla's AC system earlier.
Remember Tesla when you are truly not being valued for your contributions, or when promises by stakeholders or clients are not being kept. Quitting a job can be very scary, but there are times when you've got to do it.

Lesson No. 3: Find the Critical Path

Edison famously declared that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration; Tesla disagreed. Upon Edison's death, Tesla was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "His method was inefficient in the extreme...just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 percent of the labor." Tesla believed that a method of invention that involved careful planning and application of knowledge to problems before implementation was superior to Edison's trial-and-error approach.Remember Tesla when you are being urged to development before the critical path is clear to you. Remember Tesla when trial and error is being held up as the great savior of slow technology implementation. Remember Tesla and have the courage to figure things out before pushing ahead prematurely.

Lesson No. 4: Don't Be Nikola Tesla

As much as I admire Tesla's brilliance, courage, and accomplishments, it seems to me that his greatest lesson for the 21st century IT professional is the quiet warning his life offers when viewed as a whole and not just in the confines of his work.
To be sure, Nikola Tesla is one of the most important inventors in history, his funeral was attended by heads of state -- he even has an automotive company and a planet named after him. But he also died in poverty, alone and living in a hotel, the victim of his poor career decisions.
Tesla famously tore up his contract with Westinghouse for the generous royalties he was owed on the Niagara Falls Power Project mentioned above, all because he was gratified that Westinghouse believed in his idea when no one else did and he wanted the budget-stricken project to succeed.
Disputes with J.P. Morgan brought an end to his near open-ended financing from the banker who, like all stakeholders, needed proper management and attention.
He never married or had children, believing a personal life would distract him from his calling as an inventor.
He had a history of losing patents for his inventions, including (at least for a time) losing the patent for the invention of radio to Marconi. And Edison and Marconi often get more credit for Tesla's discoveries than he does.

The takeaway?

We'd all like to be as technically brilliant as Tesla, but that brilliance is no substitute for the business and social acumen you need to achieve the peace of mind, influence, and financial security that many of us would consider the most important result of all this hard work. What's more, without the requisite resources and influence, Tesla was unable to bring many of his greatest inventions to the world. What a shame to be stymied not by scientific impossibility but by business and social blundering.

So, as we take note of the incredible genius and life of Nikola Tesla, take a moment to think about how you can be more like him-but not too much.

Key sources for
the article Remembering Nikola Tesla: Lessons for Today's IT Leaders:

Tesla Memorial Society of New York website.

A Bowdoin Van Riper, "A Biographical Encyclopedia of Scientists and Inventors in American Film and TV since 1930" (Scarecrow Press, September 2011).

John J. O'Neill, "Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla" (First published in August 1944, reissued by Cosimo Classics in August 2007).

About the Author

Marc J. Schiller, author of "The 11 Secrets of Highly Influential IT Leaders," is a speaker, strategic facilitator, and an advisor on the implementation of influential analytics. He splits his time between the front lines of client work and evangelizing to IT leaders and professionals about what it takes to achieve influence, respect and career success. Download a free excerpt of his book at