One of my earliest jobs at Microsoft was leading our Internet outreach efforts working with early innovators on the Internet using Microsoft technology. During that time, I got the chance to work with the team building the Thrust SSC supersonic car as they were using the web as one of the first large scale grassroots fund raising vehicles (led by Jeremy Davey who is now my colleague at Microsoft). The quest for land speed records has clear upsides – glory of being the fast human on land – and downsides – catastrophic malfunction. In the final chapter of the quest for breaking the sound barrier, the race was on between two land speed record holders – Richard Noble and Craig Breedlove – each leader and project demonstrating the contrasting leadership modes of the ‘Leader’ (Breedlove) versus ‘Manager’ (Noble).
In fact, the whole history of land speed records illustrates a characteristic about balancing Leadership versus Management. In the early stages of an enterprise or industry, an imbalance toward ‘Leadership’ is more effective, while in later stages, ‘Management’ moves more to the fore. In the beginning, it is all there to be won and there is pretty much nothing but upside. And ‘upside’ is what the ‘Leader’ excels at going after. Over time, the industry or enterprise develops legacy and complexity which if not catered for properly bring the whole undertaking down which call for the skills and focus of the ‘Manager’.
Richard Noble’s book Thrust paints a very graphic picture of the maturation from cocky, gutsy thrill-seeking adventurer in the earliest days of land speed records to methodical, scientific, cautious and commercial executive with the ultimately successful Thrust SSC project.
Richard describes the ambitious and starry-eyed early days:
“…the whole tenor of Thrust 1 was happy-go-lucky. After fighting our way through Africa and dealing with danger as a team, I really didn’t give any of that much thought. I guess it was just personally important to me to get on and do it, which sounds terribly selfish, but I couldn’t help that. I was struggling to achieve something, and this record thing just wouldn’t go away.”
At the risk of gross oversimplification, Richard used to describe in his speeches about the difference in the second generation of land speed efforts as being one of chutzpah of the American team led by Breedlove and the methodical approach of the British team led by Noble. Breedlove took a ‘go for it’ bold approach he would describe. Breedlove would put the ‘pedal to metal’ see how fast they got and when things went wrong, go back to the drawing board. Conversely, as Richard recounted, he ran the Thrust SSC project like a science project. Each step was meticulous, calculated and incremental. American ‘can do’ Leadership versus British ‘how to do’ Management.
In the SSC generation, Richard’s language shifted much more into the Management persona dwelling on the scientific, logistical and commercial complexities and the paramount requirement of consstant vigilance against the myriad downside risks. In his book, he says, ‘The wole thing is speculative all the way down the line, and you’ve somehow got to dodge and duck your way through to come out the other end.’ Thrust took a very incremental, cautious approach. Thrust would do a run a 500 mph (the speed of sound was around 775 mph depending on humidity, etc.) and capture thousands of measurements and then go analyse those measurement meticulously, make dozens of minor adjustments and then go do a run at 510 mph. Each run and decisions based on the run were driven by data and analysis.
Both approaches demonstrated their positives and negatives. Noble’s approach took an protracted period of time and some of the project delays jeopardised the entire project as resources got stretched and key windows of opportunity to work in specialised conditions were closing. Breedlove suffered a major failures such as a crash and engine blow up which were a debilitating setbacks. And yet, both Noble’s and Breedlove’s style achieved multiple land speed records over the history of the sport. Breedlove, and his Leadership-driven style if you follow Richard’s characterisation, has the most land speed records to his name mostly achieved in the early days of the sport where there was lots of upside to go for. Noble, and his Management-driven style achieved what many consider the ultimate prize of the supersonic milestone which entailed unprecedented complexity and sophistication.