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Oppenheimer: what leaders can learn about building teams

The movie "Oppenheimer" illuminates J. Robert Oppenheimer’s leadership during the Manhattan Project. The film explores his talent recruitment, team dynamics, and decision-making under pressure – all skills essential to success for managers and HR teams.

Travis Taborek

Travis Taborek


Few movies in recent memory capture the inner workings of a man’s mind like the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer does.

Oppenheimer” is a historical drama released this year in 2023. It tells the story of how Oppenheimer oversaw the Manhattan Project which led to the creation of the atomic bomb.

The movie is a gripping and intense. It captures not only the stakes at play in this important historical moment but also the internal struggles the man himself faced throughout.

Not only was Oppenheimer an unrivaled genius, but he was also a competent leader who knew how to source the best talent, navigate team dynamics, and put their collective genius to work. There are many worthwhile lessons that team leaders can learn from his life story.

The historical Oppenheimer and the character portrayed in the movie built teams under immense pressure.

The Manhattan Project was one of the most intensive research programs in history. 130,000 team members from all around the world were brought together to build the atomic bomb. It was an undertaking that cost $2 billion ($21 billion in today’s dollars) over the course of four years.

The development of the atomic bomb ushered in the nuclear age and represented one of the most important scientific breakthroughs in modern history.

Let’s explore what you can learn from Oppenheimer’s story as a business leader.

The importance of leadership under pressure

Both the historical Oppenheimer and the character portrayed in the movie demonstrated vision, decisiveness, and resilience under extreme pressure and difficult circumstances.

Oppenheimer had to make many difficult and morally complicated decisions involved in the creation of a potentially civilization-destroying technology. That led him to put aside his own values for the greater good, and he lived to regret many of the things he did.

Why did he do them? Because he knew that if he didn’t build the atomic bomb first, the Nazis would.

To quote one of the most memorable lines from the Oppenheimer movie: “I don’t know if we can be trusted with such a weapon. But I know the Nazis can’t.”

“I don’t know if we can be trusted with such a weapon. But I know the Nazis can’t.”

Any team needs a purpose – a north star. The Manhattan Project team, and all of Oppenheimer’s decisions when recruiting and leading his team, led to that single overarching purpose of beating Nazi Germany to the technology. There’s a lesson from this: everything you do as a team leader should bring your team closer to a clearly defined purpose.

Identifying skill sets and acquiring top talent

Oppenheimer, of course, was extremely capable but he couldn’t build the atomic bomb all on his own. He had to complete a difficult task in a short amount of time. Doing that required him to be aware of his own limitations and find talent who had the skills that he lacked.

To accomplish his task, Oppenheimer had to build a team. He recruited experts in various scientific fields, including both theoretical and applied physics, metallurgy, and chemistry.

He needed to find the best scientists in the world and get them working, fast.

How did Oppenheimer do it? Through a meticulous selection process that ensured he had access to the top scientific minds of his time.

His process included vetting, background checks, and consultations with other experts to assemble his team.

For the Manhattan Project to succeed, he had to identify what kinds of scientific knowledge he needed, and how to get them working together in synergy.

He didn’t just need good skills, he needed the right skills. Oppenheimer was working with an incomplete jigsaw puzzle, and he needed to find the right pieces.

For example, Oppenheimer sought a collaboration with physicists Richard Feynman and Hans Bethe.

Their complementing skills worked off each other. From Feynman, Oppenheimer had access to knowledge of quantum mechanics, an emerging sub-field of physics. From Bethe, Oppenheimer sought knowledge of nuclear physics.

Together, Oppenheimer could draw the knowledge he needed to create a weapon by splitting the atom.

Related: How to conduct a skills gap analysis

Recruiting Niels Bohr

One of the standout scenes of the movie was when Oppenheimer recruited Niels Bohr, a physicist from Nazi-occupied Denmark, to the Manhattan Project.

Oppenheimer had met Bohr as a physics student and saw the necessity of his expertise. He went to great lengths just to bring him across enemy lines and bring him into the project.

Doing this diversified the team’s skill set. It also served as an example of Oppenheimer’s aptitude for recruiting top talent with a diverse range of synergetic skills. That’s what made the Manhattan Project successful, as much as his own scientific genius.

As an HR professional or hiring manager, acquiring good talent isn’t as important as acquiring the right talent. It’s about getting together a group with complementary skill sets that amplify each other. It even means sourcing people globally and going beyond borders to find people with the exact know-how you need.

You, too, can build teams across borders with our comprehensive e-guide: Unlocking global talent: your borderless hiring playbook.

Communication is key

When the future of the world depends on the success of your project, it’s vitally important that everyone is on board and on the same page about what needs to be done.

The Manhattan Project had its fair share of interpersonal drama and conflict, just like any group acting together in a high-stakes environment.

It was Oppenheimer’s job to see that his team would overcome their differences and work together. He managed that through regular team briefings that would keep everyone informed about objectives and have aligned goals.

One of the ways he did this was through memos and classified documents.

Oppenheimer knew that sensitive information needs to be communicated securely. The wrong information falling into the wrong hands could spell doom for the project.

These documents made sure everyone knew what the objectives were, and what their individual roles contributed to those objectives.

Things are rarely straightforward in HR. Clear, transparent communication is what keeps the ship sailing in the right direction, especially when time is of the essence and the stakes are high.

Adaptability and problem-solving

Nuclear physics is one of the most dense and challenging fields of science. In a project with as many moving parts as the Manhattan Project, experiments will fail and things are bound to go wrong from time to time.

Oppenheimer saw to it that these setbacks were kept to a minimum and didn’t derail important timelines for long.

He did that by encouraging a culture of collective problem-solving. When experiments failed or when theories reached dead ends, other team members could propose and test other possible solutions.

The start of the Manhattan Project saw many initial failures during testing.

Rather than seeing them as unsolvable problems, Oppenheimer and his team revisited their calculations and methodologies and eventually found the solutions that led to the successful Trinity Test, a key moment in the success of the Manhattan Project.

When managing and building teams, you have to adapt as a manager of your team.

When you encounter hiring challenges or troubled team dynamics, you have to look at problems and find opportunities. The ability to adapt and find solutions is key.

Employee wellness

With the fate of the world on your shoulders, mental and emotional strain take their toll.

For the Manhattan Project to succeed, Oppenheimer realized that his team’s well-being had to be maintained to keep them doing their best work.

For this reason, Oppenheimer encouraged his team to take short breaks. They would engage in group discussions or walks to get fresh air and clear their heads.

These brief moments of rest helped keep their heads clear so they could push forward.

Employee wellness is important because you can only push someone so far before they break. You need to be able to manage stress in the workplace.

In HR, you have to remember at all times that your team members are not robots. They are human beings with their own limitations. Providing mental health resources and initiatives can make all the difference in how well your team functions.

Management lessons from Oppenheimer

The story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and how he led the Manhattan Project provides valuable lessons for anyone who works in HR.

From Oppenheimer’s effective leadership under pressure, skill identification, clear communication, and adaptability, team managers and HR professionals can get actionable insights into how they can run their own teams.

So where can you assemble a dream team of the best and brightest as Oppenheimer did?

A good start is to use Workable’s interview questions generator to tailor your vetting and interview process to make sure you’re not just getting good skills, but the right skills. Our job description generator can help set up your process so that your talent finds you, not the other way around.

Start a Workable free trial today, and you’ll have the tools at your disposal to achieve the impossible as Oppenheimer did.

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