America has too many geniuses

BusinessToday, I was sent this link. It’s an article by Dave Logan about why geniuses don’t have jobs, specifically jobs in large corporations. His argument is basically that it’s either because geniuses can’t keep their mouths shut when they see the stupidity around them or else they are socially impaired geeks who can’t get through the interview process. It’s an engaging argument, but it’s crap.

Logan is a clever writer. He defines genuis in such a nebulous and all-inclusive way that it’s impossible for the reader not to quickly realize that he or she is one of the geniuses Logan is talking about. It’s just like reading Jungian archetypes or horoscopes–bright, impatient with others, witty, fiercely loyal to friends, sometimes works too hard for his or her own good….yes, yes, yes, that’s me!  Logan does the same for geniuses. Yes, yes, yes, that’s me. That’s why I never became CEO of IBM, because I was blackballed by those genius-hating morons in HR. That’s me!

Like all such things, there’s just enough truth in it that it resonates. We all know some very smart people who say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and some very smart people who are socially awkward, and the people in HR are morons.

However, that has nothing to do with why corporations don’t hire geniuses, or at least many of them. It was H.L. Mencken that said, “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clean, simple and wrong.” Logan’s is just such an argument.

The truth is corporations don’t hire geniuses because they don’t need them, or at least don’t need many of them. Corporations are the most economically efficient mechanism yet devised by man. They’re so efficient that many are now larger than countries, much larger. 200 multinationals now control over a quarter of the world’s economic activity. 51 of the largest 100 economic entitities on the planet are companies. One third of the world’s trade is now intra-company. In a comparison of GDP and revenues, General Motors is larger than Norway. Ford is larger than Saudi Arabia. Believe me, I’ve spent my entire career working and consulting to big corporations–GM, Ford, Pepsi, Coke, Kraft, J & J, Monsanto, Exxon, P & G, Harley Davidson, Gap, Kellogg’s, Cemex. If it was economically rational to hire geniuses, the places would be full of them. To understate the case, they’re not.

Why not? To put it simply, big corporations don’t need genius, or much of it. Big corporations are not big and successful because they come up with the best ideas, but rather because they get the most out of the good ideas they do have. Big corporations are all about execution. A big company is like a beehive–a small number of elite and huge numbers of worker bees. For everyone at the officer level in a typical Fortune 100 corporation, there are at least a hundred non-officers. It’s called leverage. As my colleague Sam Smith recently posted, there’s real scientific research that says too many smart people hurt a company’s performance. Just think how much damage surplus geniuses could do.

Let’s do the math. The official definition of genius is the top 2% of the population. That means there are three million adult geniuses in the U.S. Let’s say every Fortune 1000 company should have 100 geniuses wandering the halls. (I picked that number because it is absurdly high.) That means corporate America needs 100,000 geniuses. But of course the Fortune 1000 doesn’t include privately held and smaller companies, so let’s multiply that by three to pick up geniuses-needed-by-business-in-addition-to-the-Fortune-1000.  So in all, that means there’s room for 300,000 geniuses in business, roughly 10% of the total genius pool.

It would make no sense for businesses to hire more geniuses than they need. Geniuses will grow frustrated with menial tasks more quickly and become problem employees.

So the problem is not a shortage of jobs, but a glut of geniuses. We could dump them into medicine or academia. What do you know? That’s exactly what our economy (and all developed economies) do. There are 1.7 million academics and 1 million physicians in the U.S.

Also, I’ve heard they’re hiring at the Apple Store.

22 replies »

  1. I respect your analysis, but you completely missed my point. I was using liberties in my definition of “genius” (as noted in the piece), but there’s a worrying tendency in organizations, in light of the fact that most job categories have lots of applicants. (And yes, the market is tight for certain types of workers.) Most HR systems are designed to get a very specific kind of person. Someone rough around the edges won’t work. And managers or organizational theorists try to string a group of “good fits” along into organizational systems, in which people do their jobs as defined. Culture is under appreciated. From Ed Schein to Peter Drucker to Warren Bennis, what I’ve written above has a lot of support–from statistics to expert analysis to what leaders in the HR field are saying.

    Thanks for the debate. This is an important point, and I hope others jump in, as well.

    • Dave

      First, thanks for the thoughtful reply. We love genuine debate here at S&R.

      I’m not sure I missed the point as much as didn’t respond to it very well. Yes, I get that HR screens do favor small round pegs at the expense of spectacular large square ones. However, my contention is that modern organizations for the most part only need small round pegs. So improving the process to identify, recruit and contain large square pegs is a waste of time–modern organizations simply don’t need them. With all due respect, were an organization to follow your recommendations, the career of the genius would last exactly two years, until the genius’s manager was promoted and a less tolerant old school manager replaced him or her. I take a functional (hard) view of organization design, a la J.D. Thompson, and have little time for the soft SoCal school of corporate courtiers like Bennis and his acolytes.

      It would be great if people did engage. I have very many highly intelligent friends who are bitter over what they see as a lack of demand for their skills in the market. My argument is their skills aren’t needed. Your’s is that they are needed, but organizations simply don’t have the mechanisms to deploy them. That’s a fundamental difference in viewpoint and a non-trivial one.



  2. Large animals require tremendous amounts energy intake to maintain stasis. There’s never any time for relaxing or meandering down unknown paths, they must forage continuously or die. And if anything unusual happens environmentally or physiologically they die. Intelligence beyond basic food intake and waste ejection skills are useless.

    Smaller creatures face much less anatomical pressure and can spend less time sourcing and consuming energy and more time adventuring and experimenting. They’re also prone to predation further enhancing vision and footwork, at least in those who remain uneaten.

    If we consider HR to be the hypothalmus of the large corporation brain, then it’s unwillingness to embrace radical outliers is absolutely in tune with it’s primary purpose of encouraging more of the same. Keep bulking the creature up with servile mediocrity and by all means avoid problem children and trouble makers.

    Luckily for business geniuses as defined by Mr. Logan, giant corporations represent less than half of available employment opportunities and while they may rise to dizzying heights, most just as quickly fail, or rediscover their core competencies and shed bulk to more manageable energy intake levels.

    True genius asks simple questions such as, “How much is enough?, What is happiness? How can we succeed sustainably?” and then acts logically on the answers. America needs _lots_ of those kinds of minds and small business offers endless avenues for their engagement.

  3. It’s Dr. Logan, Frank. This guy teaches at SoCal and is an expert on corporate culture, which is pure snake oil.

    Now I don’t quite buy the implication of your argument that geniuses opt out, but it’s at least possible. His argument is simply wrong.

    • You guys are funny.

      How is corporate culture snake oil? If you’re going to say something like, at least please defend your position. There are many who disagree, and the debate is useful.

      See if this angle works better for you. Companies (of all sizes) have to balance against two forces: creativity and constraint. (Eric Eisenberg is the originator of this articulation of the idea.) Creativity emphasizes individual expression, being different, development of talent, playing to strengths, etc. Constraint emphasizes following rules, development of standards, systems and structures, etc. Too much creativity creates strong individuals, who often like to color outside the lines. Too much constraint is what I was referring to in the article. Too much constraint, especially in the process of talent selection and development produces mediocrity. This is what my personal mission: get companies to start blowing up constraints to allow for more creative, bright individuals to shake things up.

      • I rarely see much wrong with corporate cultures that I couldn’t fix if you’d let me throw a couple C Suiters and the HR group out the window. And I don’t think Otherwise means to say that corp culture, per se, is snake oil – ALL organizations have a culture, so the issue is what kind of culture, what values, what assumptions about staffing and org structure, etc?

        If your goal is to get more creativity and genius into the biz world, you have my heartiest best wishes. You probably don’t need me to tell you what you’re up against, though. Otherwise referred to a series I wrote not long ago (two parter, link here: and I fear the research that got me jump-started describes a dynamic that we’ll all encountered.

        I get that having nothing in the company but deep thinkers isn’t going to work. The problem I have encountered (noticed in my first Fortune 500 job, within a few months, in fact) is that corps are very, very bad at identifying certain types of people (geniuses, creatives, etc.) and getting them properly aligned. When you have a brilliant, big-picture strategist buried at the mid-manager level reporting up through two or three layers of non-genius drones, you have an upside-down org chart that’s going to frustrate both the genius and the people he/she reports to, to the inevitable detriment of the company.

        There may be companies that do a good job of handling this, but I haven’t run across any of them yet. Again, I wish you all the luck in the world. If you can blow up some constraints it’s going to be a good thing for everyone.

  4. Dave

    Delighted to.

    First off, though, let me admit that “corporate courtiers” at USC and “snake oil” were both deliberately provocative. To be honest, I thought your opening comment “you completely missed my point” was dismissive and condescending, and the sort of comment you’d make to a hungover undergraduate who’d missed a reading lesson. Here at S&R, we have four guys with exactly the same degree you have and my post was argued out with one of them before it went up. I’ve hung out in the C-suite for thirty years. Dismissive doesn’t play well on this forum. You tweaked me,so I thought it’d be fun to tweak back. Adolescent on my part, although there’s some truth in my jibes–I don’t respect that Bennis’s work or O’Toole’s, etc. I am not familiar with yours, and can’t really say whether I’d agree with it or not.

    Here’s why I am extraordinarily skeptical on “corporate culture” consulting. I surely believe corporate culture exists. You could walk into Siebel or Harley or Pepsi blindfolded with ear muffs on, and feel the difference in the culture just from the vibe. The question is whether it can be changed, especially in mature organizations.

    Based on my experience, it can only be tweaked. Culture is so ingrained and so deeply embedded through process, comp, selection, metrics, market position, competitive realities, regulation, and most of all history and organizational lore that it’s just not easy to do. The “constraints” tend to be very strong. To paraphrase Hamel about strategy, we can all recognize a great culture when we see it, but none of us know how to create one.

    I’ve been part of many successful change programs, and in all of that I’ve only seen one change program that changed culture, that was at the margin, and that was at least in part because “to change the people, they changed the people” as the old joke goes. I believe good corporate culturees are formed very early in an organization’s youth. The real money in culture consulting is for old, moribund organizations. Anyone who sells a corporate culture change program to a mature organization is either naive or disingenuous.

    Now disingenuous is not always bad. Corp culture change programs can serve a very useful purpose, especially for new CEO’s. They can help them get their heads around the problems they face, help them define realistic constraints for the organization and their strategies, and most of all, hold up a mirror to themselves so they learn more about how to react to the organization.

    So to sum up, I believe in corporate culture, but not in cultural change programs. Such programs can add value, but only indirectly.



    • Dear Otherwise,

      that’s interesting what you’re writing about corporate culture and that you seem to think it’s impossible to change. And at the same time you say you’re not familar with Dave’s work. Then maybe getting familar with it might be a good idea: swallow the snake oil, before you throw it up! 😉 Maybe you discover you want to keep it.

      When I started exploring the tribal leadership concept some months ago I was stunned to find (a) a model that helped me to understand why changes, and high aspirations in organizations where I was very active in trying to get to somewhere simply failed despite best intentions, (b) what to do instead, that looks much more fruitful.

      Dave & John originally were facing exactly these challenges: change didn’t work most of the time. As I understood it that was the starting point for their investigation.

      So now you know I turned into a believer of the TL-approach and you’ll will surely be sceptical about what I’m writing. 😉 … [and my enthusiasm will get realistic after my usual 3-9 month period of bliss when I encounter inspiring new ideas 😉 …]

      Two things about your concerns about changing “mature organizations”:

      1. Tribal leadership doesn’t change the whole culture of a big organization for everybody there at once. Instead the basic entity to develop it is a group of 20-150 people (which TL calles a tribe).

      2. Culture development happens one stage at a time (TL knows 5 basic stages, most organizations currently being between the lower stages 2 and 3). Genius is only appreciated by an organization starting from about stage 3 on (though with drawbacks as genius is then used as a competitive aspect), but in a team resulting in high innovation only from stage 4 on.

      One interesting question related to your post: Take Apple, which Dave considers to be stage 4 to 5 (am I right, Dave?). Does Apple depend on a Foxconn-like company (which more seems to be stage 2 or maybe even stage 1 with all the reports on suicide) to do the “dig-and-shovel-work”? Or how could a manufacturer look like that would also be on at least stage 4? Any ideas about that, TL-experts?


      • I’ve been expecting a cat’s paw post, Dirk, thank you.

        I certainly acknowledge there could be something to DL’s work. Just because my experience says it was bunkum when I saw it doesn’t mean it will always be bunkum. We saw time share computing fail in the eighties, now it’s back and successful as cloud computing. So I have seen culture change programs fail, but maybe Dave’s version works. I haven’t seen it, so I cannot be certain that it’s snake oil. Suspicious yes, certain no.

        Having said that, don’t you find it interesting that Dave (and all of his ilk) use the same examples over and over and over, e.g., Apple? And don’t you find it interesting that no consultant built the Apple culture? Can anyone give me a single example of significant lasting culture change effected by a culture change program?

        Didn’t think so.

        • You’ll find an extensive example of lasting culture change in Ch 2 of the (audio)book Tribal Leaderhip. It’s about the Griffin Hospital. It’s one example of a successful culture change that TL analyzed to learn about how to accomplish it successfully.

          I’m not so sure if I would describe TL as “culture change program”, because it’s very much a bottom-up-approach, and “program” for me has a sort of “top-down”-taste. The key is to start with a bunch of people that feels a need to change, but is maybe struggling how to. And then you start with the individuals and help them (depending on the stage they start from) either first be successful individually (stage 2->3) & get into intense communication with more people in their group, or (stage 3->4) to start exploring their core-values and form a habit of triadic communication structures.

          It takes time. It takes commitment. It takes listening. It takes action.

          The advancement one stage higher takes about 3-4 months, until it gets stable. So if you’re starting from level 2 (“no genius needed over here”) and want to get to level 4 (“genius highly required for innovation”) you need 8 months, or maybe a year, I’d guess?!? If it really happens it might also effect the business model on the way, so maybe it takes longer.

          You find an interview with Glen Esnard, who tells about changing a culture from stage 3 to 4 here:

        • I’m not sure your definition of program matters, since there is a generally accepted one and it has nothing to do with top down.

          [proh-gram, -gruhm] Show IPA noun, verb, pro·grammed or pro·gramed, pro·gram·ming or pro·gram·ing.

          a plan of action to accomplish a specified end: a school lunch program.

          a plan or schedule of activities, procedures, etc., to be followed.

          Griffin Hospital. Really? We’ve gone from F500 to Griffin Hospital. Okay.

        • No, my definition of “program” doesn’t matter. That was more of a side note. And my connotation might even be influenced more by personal bias, and my “German” perspective (as I’m living in Germany).

          So: what exactly do you want to say by “Griffin Hospital. Really? We’ve gone from F500 to Griffin Hospital. Okay.”? I just intended to give “a single example of significant lasting culture change effected by a culture change program”.

          Besides that I step back and we’ll see if someone else comes up with other examples. I’m curious to learn about more examples, too. 🙂 [as I said: I’m enthusiastic about the concept, but I’m relatively new to it.]

        • Sorry, my comment on Griffin was completely inappropriate. Just being a wise ass.

          Good luck with your research. I will drop off this thread now because I just don’t know enough and don’t plan to learn more. I’ve heard nothing so far that suggests Logan’s work has the intellectual freshness, utility or rigor to interest me.


        • Hi everyone. Sorry for the delay.

          Otherwise: understood about being provocative. I’ll be honest, as well: I was doing the same. (Hope you read this–say you’re note that you’re dropping off.)

          Debate is important, and it’s too easy to say “we’re on the same page” when we’re not. On your point that a highly intelligent friend has skills that companies say aren’t needed, I think both have something to learn (both the company and the smart friend). I have many highly intelligent friends who have become unemployable because they’ve decided to ignore “softer issues” like politics, building relationships, working with those in charge, etc. This arrogance prevents their gifts from being used by companies. These frequent examples also highly a flaw in the strengths movement, which says to maximize ability and don’t waste time on areas of low competence. We all have to bathe and brush our teeth…even Steve Jobs.

          And, as I argue quite frequently, larger and older companies tend to have increasingly conservative hiring practices. They tend to seek “no risk hires”: no risk of incompetence, no risk of harassment behavior from the applicant, no risk to the talent search firm in not getting their commission. This creates dumb companies and industries where people tend to think the same way. The cultures stifle innovation.

          What’s fresh about this approach is: (1) tribes are unit of analysis, not people or companies; (2) tribes have dominant cultures that can be measured on a 1-5 scale; (3) a tribe can only move one stage a time; (4) as a consequence of #3, the vast majority of what’s in the popular business press about culture is either wrong, partial, or incomplete; (5) leaders need to find the high-impact tribes that are changeable and focus on those; (6) culture change means working with companies on a tribal basis, rather than a tribal basis; (7) there are four factors companies have to get right: strategy, structure, processes, and culture; (8) leaders should focus on which one of those four is the weakest in their company, and that most of the time, that’s culture; (9) as a consequence of all of the above, the vast majority of “culture change” programs are doomed to failure.

          Also, culture doesn’t change in isolation from the other three factors (strategy, structure and processes). The weakest of the four will hold down performance in the other areas. In many cases, we see companies with flawed strategies (making/selling what people/companies don’t want) and they seek to fix the problem by creating smiling, happy cultures.

          One last point on culture itself. We’re not fans (based on the research) that great cultures have a similar look and feel. Some start-ups try to have Zappos-like cultures, when the core values of the people who work there don’t support a party-like atmosphere. When a culture gets to stage 4, it needs to find its shared core values and make those the decision-making criteria for everything, from culture to strategy. The vast majority of “values” lists in companies are flawed because: (1) the companies tend to have stage 2 or 3 cultures, and so can’t talk effectively about values; (2) the values are superficial, not core; and (3) they aren’t really shared. Shared means the people who work there have the same decision-making criteria. Nothing is more absurd than values picked by executives and broadcast to the workforce.

          For Dirk and others talking about companies we highlighted that are doing well (or not), there’s an important point to make here. Our research does not support the “good to great” argument, which suggests that once companies get to “great,” they can stay there. We made our point in Tribal Leadership, but not boldly enough. Great tribes (groups of 20-150) will probably not be great tomorrow. The seeds of future mediocrity are alive even in the best-run organizations. It takes constant vigilance to prevent them from turning into weeds and crowding out the plants that matter. (Sorry for the twisted metaphor.)

          Also, we are only looking at Tribes. I do not believe Apple is a “stage 4″ company, or even that many “stage 4″ companies exist (outside of start-ups or small firms). Apple is huge, and has a few tribes that can innovate well (stages 4-5), a few that are highly competitive with each other (stage 3), and many that gripe and complain about what’s happening (stage 2).

          Sorry for the typos. No coffee yet.

        • I once worked in what would, by any measure, have to regarded as a bad company – a regional Bell that was eventually swallowed by an upstart CLEC (that was worse in every way). It won’t take a lot of snooping my past posts to find words like “Nacchio.”

          However, I worked in the PR group, which was the best unit of its kind I have ever encountered. It wasn’t a perfect world, of course – there were some inept, case study big company mid-managers on the employee comm side and at least one asshat director in the creative services group who was in business for himself and nobody else (internal, media relations and creative all lived in Corp Comm). In the aggregate, though, this group was smart as hell and leveraged the smart in more directions than any other corp comm group I’m familiar with. It even went so far as to allow me to develop what I’m pretty sure was the first online PR program in the country (this was late ’90s, and the next earliest program I found was Sprint, a couple years later). So we were WAY ahead of the curve.

          Our tech group was really innovative, as well. We were the first to deploy DSL, we were the first to integrate mobile and home service, and we were on the verge of rolling out VDSL when the merger from hell happened.

          In other words, you had a classic large company with every bad habit in the book, and within it you had two model groups. In Logan’s terminology, it was a 2-3 company that was home to a couple of 4-5 “tribes.”

          So I like Dave’s thinking on that smaller unit of measurement. As a guy who earned his doctorate in a heavily culturalist program, I find the term “tribe” to be hugely problematic, but hey, we can operationalize our vocabulary for purposes of discussion.

        • Everyone, thanks for this discussion. It’s a refreshing mix of candor and thoughtfulness.

          With regard to large (company) vs small (tribe) focus, Ed Schein’s great work on culture was largely done when lifetime employment was the norm. My dad worked for Lockheed (before it was Lockheed Martin) for almost 40 years. He said it was mostly the same culture in Burbank and Georgia. But then it started to change quickly (again, according to him), when the company laid off many long-time employees and hired people with “newer” skills. I’m not critical of Lockheed, just highlighting that these actions fracture cultures, making culture a local phenomenon. In my opinion, smart people see the flaws in this “monolithic culture” approach that consultants love to measure with their surveys.

  5. I have been thinking about this for a couple days and something occurred to me. If we expand you hypothesis (or perhaps Sam’s hypothesis) that too many geniuses can be deleterious to a large corporation to include all organizations then maybe we have some insight as to why government is so ineffective.

    Analysis shows that the Ivy League and its ilk are dramatically over-represented in government — all three branches. I think it is fair to assume that the IQs of those educational institutions is somewhere between two and three standard deviations above the mean for the U.S. which should get us to a rather casual definition of genius. So all those geniuses who can’t find jobs in the large corporations figure out a way to get elected or get into a high paying policy making job (after all, they know best so it follows they should make the policies) or get into an appointed judgeship or something important and we have a glut of geniuses in government and everything grinds to a stop.

    Aside: I actually work in government and have been in meeting after meeting where the unstated, “real” agenda is to have an informal but intense contest to determine who is the smartest in the room. Doesn’t accomplish that and certainly nothing else.

    Kennedy’s administration was dubbed the best and the brightest and also determined to be remarkably ineffective and I saw an account where too many smart people was determined to be the problem. Perhaps we have improved on the concept. With a few fewer geniuses perhaps we could perfect it.

  6. Just wrong a long post that for some reason WP decided to throw away. Short version, nice comments DL. Thanks.

      • A question, Dave. It’s been awhile since I read your book, and if I’m forgetting something key please remind me.

        I can’t help resorting to Morgan’s Principles of Organization when thinking about these issues because of how he articulates various paradigms (which, of course, overlap a good bit in spots). My own way of viewing the organization is part cultural, heavily influenced by Complexity, with a dash of Machiavelli tossed in for good measure (because even in the best of cases, you have to be aware of the innate, corrosive political dynamics that the people you hire are carrying around with them).

        Your vocabulary leans heavily on the “cultural,” which is fine, but it seems to me that structurally, what you recommend is more expressly rooted in Complexity thinking. “Tribes” and a drive to neuter the inherent flaws of top-down HR, these seem to be ways of pushing a philosophy of emergence.

        Again, nothing mutually exclusive here, but I’m curious about possible influences that aren’t being foregrounded and the reasons to stress one perspective over another.

  7. Dave Logan, I’m one of the smart guys. I’ve been an expert in four fields, held the first national workshop in one field, etc. I don’t agree that companies don’t need my talent. It’s just that companies are full of people with average intelligence and little-to-no creativity who often come to work almost entirely for a paycheck and to socialize. And they want job security.

    So nobody on a team wants someone such as me — who probably can do some of their jobs better than they can. One company, with intelligent people, even, was so blind to their limitations they refused to consider suggestions from a recently published book. The book topic was specifically their niche market. There was a meeting, I presented some competitive ideas from the book briefly. There was almost no response, including from the President, and their conversation went on about trivial improvements, just as it had been. The thing is, I was their showcase manager, at the time. A few weeks later, when I wrote their first patent, they forced me and my chief engineer out of the company, having convinced themselves that I couldn’t possibly have created anything unusual myself, and that I had just adapted ideas the company already had.

    The truth about genius, therefore, is much more cutting. People competing with me can be as educated or intelligent as they like. Shrug. With my creativity, they can’t beat me, and they can’t even run along behind, in the herd following me.

    • Snowshift, as one smart guy to another, your story is telling and sobering. We live in an age of convergence, where we look for big patterns. We seek to hire people who are like the people we already have, who can color within the lines and not create a fuss. As Nolan Bushnell (founder of Atari) told me, geniuses creates messes. Until we look at messes as good things, mediocrity–the by-product of convergence–will be the norm.