Learning Hub
Ben Davern

Ben Davern

19th Apr 2024

Related Articles

Why These Three Critical Leadership Themes Will Shape 2024
AI Regulation is Essential, But Europe’s Innovation Capacity is Potentially Being Stifled

From Oppenheimer to AI: How to Lead High-Performance Teams

In the 2023 blockbuster Oppenheimer, former University College Cork student Cillian Murphy gives an Academy Award-winning performance as Dr. Robert J Oppenheimer. While the film centres around Murphy as a lone genius surrounded by other brilliant physicists and scientists building the atomic bomb, the reality of the Manhattan Project was slightly different – and offers key insights and learnings around how to lead high-performance teams and getting things done.

When reading General Leslie Groves’ book Now It Can Be Told (1962) and other historical sources, it becomes clear that project success was predicated on strong leadership, excellent project management and incredible organisational structure/design. Empowered by a supportive leadership team who provided both resources and autonomy, high-performing teams made up of cognitively diverse individuals acted with great speed and efficiency to innovate under conditions of extreme stress and uncertainty across multiple sites (not merely at Los Alamos). The lessons from the Manhattan Project went on to influence other megaproject successes like ICMBs (1950s) and Apollo (1960s), along with the development of systems engineering and systems management thinking.

Current Challenges

One wonders how these lessons could also be applied to current challenges such as the integration of AI and digital technologies into the workplace – with the workplace itself set to remain a key battleground for years to come, as leaders grapple with changes in employee expectations and ongoing hybrid challenges. Employees demand ever greater flexibility, yet under remote conditions misalignment can creep in more easily, and it’s often harder for dispersed employees to connect with an organisation’s mission, vision and values. A loss of “learning by osmosis”, whereby team members soak up critical work-related knowledge by working in proximity to their more experienced peers, has also been noted as a challenge under remote and hybrid conditions.

To overcome these challenges, leaders must create an environment – regardless of whether remote, in-person or hybrid – where people feel treated like people, where they feel accepted and included, but where they can do their best work and perform at the highest calibre. Coaching, inclusivity and empathy have become increasingly important aspects of leadership in recent years, but leaders must not forget the importance of building a high-performance and high-output culture.

Unique Skillset

But creating high-performance teams in today’s complex environment requires a leader with a unique skillset. These leaders understand the personality profiles within teams and flex their communication style appropriately to motivate and inspire both at an individual and a team level.

Leaders committed to high-performance must be ruthless in surrounding themselves with people who share that commitment. Leaders must show commitment to their people, but equally their people must show commitment to the mission, vision and values of their organisation. But this is not something leaders can order their team to do in a traditional ‘command-and-control’ manner.

Instead, communicating a vision your team can buy into is key.


In Zero to One (2014), Peter Thiel writes that an integral aspect of business success is building a strong team that shares a common vision, with a talented and motivated group of individuals aligned with the company’s mission and values. A cohesive team that collaborates and supports one another is essential for overcoming challenges and driving growth. Furthermore, having a clear vision that inspires and motivates everyone in the organisation is crucial for steering the team towards its long-term goals. A shared vision fosters a sense of purpose and commitment, making the journey towards success more rewarding – and is crucial for overcoming conflict.

For example, at a critical point during the Manhattan Project, the chemist George Kistiakowsky threatened to quit because he could not get along with a colleague. Oppenheimer replied: “George, how can you leave this project? The free world hangs in the balance.” So conflict, even with such diverse and gifted people, can be resolved by reminding people of their organisation’s mission or vision.


Of course, communicating this vision is easier said than done, but IMI research shows coaching to be an extremely effective tool in helping today’s leaders to create a motivated team working towards a singular purpose. Through incisive questioning, a clear communication style and giving well-defined feedback, a leader with a coaching mindset can unlock new levels of performance in themselves and their teams.

The link between coaching and performance — which has sometimes been overlooked in the business world —led to the creation of IMI’s Coaching for Business Performance short programme earlier this year. As part of IMI’s highly anticipated Summer Series, the next step to building a high-performance culture within organisations is IMI’s Leading High-Performance Teams short programme. This programme will bring leaders on a personal journey, using DiSCTM self-assessment, empowering leaders to identify and motivate the many personality profiles with their team, culminating in a toolkit to build, lead and sustain high performance within teams.

Proactive Leaders

IMI is committed to the view that leaders who remain reactive rather than proactive will not be able to support an evolving workforce. Instead we need leaders who listen, show empathy, coach meaningfully and communicate effectively. In a world where speed, agility and innovation rules, leaders must be equipped to build trust, get the most out of their teams and allow employees to self-direct and prosper.

For leaders committed to building the future – ensuring their organisations are not only surviving but thriving in coming decades – the selection, training and education of people and teams for high performance is critical. Leaders must be equipped to make decisions amid uncertainty and complexity, and to empower their people to do the same.

This is how you create a high-performance culture where people don’t wake up in the morning and say, “I have to go to work,” – instead they say, “I get to go to work.”



What is a high-performance team?

A high-performance team is a group of individuals who collaborate effectively to achieve exceptional results. High-performance teams achieve exceptional results by leveraging the collective talents and efforts of their members, guided by strong leadership and a shared commitment to excellence.

What are the characteristics of a high-performance team?

High-performance teams are characterised by key traits including: setting clear goals; strong leadership; open communication; collaboration and accountability; continuous improvement; and resilience.

What is a real-life example of a high-performance team?

Real-life examples of high-performance teams include the Manhattan Project, ICBMs and Apollo. Other examples include the Carlisle Indians of the late 19th century and early 20th century, and Ford Motor Company in the 20th Century.

Did you enjoy reading this article?