The Professor Was An Idiot: 3 Leadership Lessons From His Failures

The Professor on Gilligan's Island was a wizard with bamboo and coconuts. And yet, he failed repeatedly, perhaps not as an engineer, but as a leader. The three big mistakes he made weren’t technical, but strategic—and can serve as our signposts to success.

I never liked the Professor. It wasn’t that I didn’t love math and science. As young boy, destined to become an engineer, I loved taking things apart, figuring out how they worked, and rebuilding them to be better than before. You’d think I’d idolize the Professor as the one shining beacon of intelligence on Gilligan's Island, the island of fools. But despite the talents of actor Russell Johnson, the Professor was a huge disappointment for me. 

As I look back today, I realize it wasn’t just the future engineer in me he disappointed, it was the future business leader. The mistakes the Professor made weren’t technical ones, they were strategic. Despite being a very clever guy, the Professor came up short in three big ways. His failures can be our signposts to success. 

Focus On Lasting Impact

Let’s face it—the Professor was a wizard with bamboo and coconuts. A lie detector, a telescope, and a Geiger counter are just a few of the devices he created from these unlikely materials. However, none of these inventions had long-term impact on the castaways. The Professor settled for solving familiar problems that provided short-term gratification. This is what Gay Hendricks, in his book "The Big Leap," refers to as staying in a zone of competence or excellence, rather than pushing into a zone of genius. In this way, the Professor failed to make a meaningful impact on the situation around him, or to change it for the better in a lasting way.

As leaders, we cannot succumb to these same temptations. We must stretch ourselves and the teams we are privileged to lead in order to achieve long-term impact. We must constantly look for ways to extend our impact and value as leaders, and we must push for the same from our companies.

Design Systems, Not Solutions

The Professor did not create a system that produced increasingly helpful inventions; he tinkered his way along, producing tactical solutions to small problems. To be fair, he labored under some significant constraints. He had very limited resources and a severe shortage of skilled technical workers. But he repeatedly failed to lift his eyes beyond the task at hand – a decision which significantly limited the reach of his talent.

Leaders cannot make this mistake. We must step back to take a system view of things rather than relying too heavily on ourselves to provide the insights and creativity that our businesses need to thrive. If we take the time to put light structure and processes in place, we can tap a much wider range of creativity and provide space for our teams to make a meaningful impact on our business success.

Focus on the Right Things

The Professor spent a lot of time creating inventions to make the Castaways' lives better. On occasion, he focused his efforts on getting them off the island, but even then, he failed to eliminate the one problem that continually foiled his efforts–Gilligan. If the Professor had put Gilligan in his crosshairs… or even successfully sidelined him with bamboo handcuffs, the castaways might have escaped the island much, much sooner. 

Of course, there was an entire writing staff working diligently to ensure the Professor did not take this approach. Ironically, failure to attack the right problem is what allowed the series to run for 98 episodes and live on in syndication. But a business isn’t a TV show, it’s a real world entity with real world problems. If we’re not attacking the right problems, we’re wasting precious time and money. 

Leaders must keep their eyes up and forward and focus on the things that have real, long-term impact. We must step back to take a big picture view and develop systems that will propel our business’s success. We must make sure we’re attacking the right problems with the right tools. If we keep focused on the few key things that drive our business success, and relentlessly push these things forward, success will be ours. 

And if there’s a Gilligan in our midst. Well, that’s a problem. And not a writer in the world can save him. 

What are your greatest challenges as a leader? Leave a note in the comments below.

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