5 lessons in leadership from Mythbuster Adam Savage

The highlight of my DevLearn experience in Las Vegas this year was witnessing Adam Savage share his thoughts on Curiosity, Discovery, and Learning.

David Kelly’s introduction was a retelling of him trying to get a hold of Adam. Savage’s secretary told Kelly that Savage was in a secure location working with explosives. Of course he was!

This was Adam Savage. Of course everything he had to say was awesome! He spoke of his father who was a painter. He spoke of how we separate art from science as if they’re in two completely different spheres. He spoke of failure and how failure, as part of the Mythbusters show, is ALWAYS an option. You never hear a scientist saying, “My experiment failed because it didn’t work out the way I thought it would.” A failed experiment is as much a success as one that’s flawlessly executed with predictable results.

But what I experienced as I sat there (in the front row of course) listening to Adam Savage is something I don’t think he realized he was getting across. Throughout his presentation, I heard lessons in leadership.

1. Embrace disagreement

Obvious to anyone who watches the show is that fact that Savage and his co-host, Jamie Hyneman (also in the front row during the presentation), are of two different worlds. They disagree about everything! But Adam embraces that. Without differing viewpoints, the Mythbusters wouldn’t have been as successful as it has for the last 13 ½ years!

2. Get out of the way

Savage embraces the fact that everyone on the Mythbuster crew has their own unique talents to offer.

“Some people are good at finding 50,000 ping pong balls.”

Let those people who are good at what they do, get done what they need to get done.

3. Listen

Did you know that there is a society of scientists that study viscosity? They’re called Rheologists. For an episode of Mythbusters, Savage wanted to know how to find the viscosity of a liquid. He called one such rheologist to learn more. The response he got was a lot of yelling. Apparently, Savage’s question was what they call, “not even wrong.” It’s so far off, that it aspires to be wrong, but it’s not even wrong.

In listening to this rheologist and learning more, the entire format and presentation of the work they were doing for that episode came out completely different.

4. Failure is always an option

Savage has been very successful, but he worked hard to get there and it wasn’t without its failures. His 16 year old twin boys have always know their father to be successful. Savage doesn’t want them to be disillusioned, so he’s sure to model his failures every chance he gets.

Echoing on the presentation given the day before by David Pogue, success is not without its failures, but “the pit is always smaller than the plum!”

5. Allow yourself to be vulnerable

Savage shared a moment with us that demonstrated his ability to be vulnerable. Savage loves costumes. For a particular episode that involved jumping off a ledge, he came dressed in a Neo (Keanu Reeves, Matrix) costume. He loved the buckled boots and the long trench coat, and he felt awesome. But when he got to work and stepped out of the car, his crew snickered. Even though he knew that it would look awesome when he jumped and that the trench coat would trail behind him in that slow-mo matrix way, he felt embarrassed standing there in front of his snickering crew dressed like Neo.

But he wanted to let that 9-year old inside him know that it’s okay to be who you are. And of course he was right—the shot was awesome and the crew agreed after they saw it on the screen.

 

From the man who blows things up for the love of learning, take a lesson on leadership and embrace disagreement, get out of the way, listen, allow room for failure, and let yourself be vulnerable.

 

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