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The Big Brain Theory: Leadership Lessons and a Real World Test


On Discovery Channel’s The Big Brain Theory, two groups of the brightest engineers in the world put their skills to the test solving wild mechanical problems. This week, they were asked to take on a job a little more serious – create a mechanism to safely stop a car that doesn’t yield at a military checkpoint. To win the round, the car has to remain drive-able and the passengers unscathed.

After the Blueprint challenge, Amy and Tom are chosen as team leaders. Amy’s done it several times before but not Tom. He’s the only one of the remaining four who hasn’t taken the wheel.

When it comes time to choose teams, they were hit with a twist. Each team leader has to take on one of the other two finalists before filling out their team with the already eliminated players. The two finalists on the losing team would automatically be out. The two finalists on the winning team would go head-to-head in the final round.


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That puts team leader Amy in a position to make a strategic choice. She can pick the best player to join her (Corey) to assure a win, but that means she’d have to play against him for all the marbles.  Or, she can choose to take the lesser of the brains hoping that she’ll still win and end up with a less formidable opponent in the final round. 

Without hesitation, she picks Corey for her team. Tom gets the last pick, which is, of course, the perpetually unpopular Dan. Tom confidently tells the camera that he excels in management so he should have no problem turning Dan into a productive member of the team.

We’ll see.

The two teams get to work on their projects. Mechanical engineering

student Amy asks Corey to be her co-captain, then asks the rest of the team to help brainstorm the final plans. They come up with a sled that looks like the mechanism you drive a car onto for service at the auto shop. As soon as the car breaks the checkpoint arm, a padded wall springs into place, stopping the car from further progress. Then, the sled rolls forward with the force, absorbing the worst of the impact.

The judges like the concept but worry that the heavy-handed design will be more like a car hitting a brick wall at 70 mph. Not good. Amy has to make changes and quick.

Next door, Tom and his group are working on a design similar to the catching mechanism aircraft carriers use to stop planes. When triggered, a net pops up in front of the car and the forward momentum pulls two cables attached to break drums. Slowly, the car is brought to a stop with the netting gently enrobing the front end of the vehicle.

When the judges note the major design changes from the Blueprint round, Tom explains that he took the advice of his team to create a better car trap. The breaking mechanism was Dan’s idea. The judges come away impressed by Tom’s leadership skills. They don’t know the half of it.

When robotics expert Eric takes over the creation of the trigger switch, Dan decides to insert his opinion. Ill-will quickly escalates between the two men and Tom is forced to mediate. He makes a firm decision to side with Dan but tells Eric there’s no shame in being wrong. (Truthfully, either way would have worked but Tom had to pick a side.) Then he pulled Dan off to the side and buttered him up with phrases like “I need your help.” He asked Dan to come to him in the future if he felt frustrated so they could deal with it right away.

Dan is appeased and work resumes. Tom is the magic man.

Time for the Reveal

Under test conditions, Tom’s device works perfectly, bringing the car to a gentle stop. Amy’s device also works. The car takes a harder hit but survives just fine. She says that her team should win because their design was original. Tom rebuts, saying just being original for originality’s sake is useless. 

The judges are torn and the decision comes down to the smallest margin. In the end, originality wins out and Amy and Corey get the win. A surprising decision since Tom’s gizmo was lighter and easier to set up and use – an important factor when you’re dealing with military checkpoints in the middle of nowhere.

It was a bad beat. Now the best Tom can hope for is the $10,000 consolation prize for the best team player, and given his mediation skills, he’s likely to win it. 

Next week, Amy and Corey go head-to-head for the final prize. All they have to do is build a bridge over a deep chasm. Easy, right?

Tune in to see how it all comes out. Next Wednesday at 7:00 pm on Discovery Channel.

What Do You Think?

Is it better to include everyone in the decision making process or take full command of a project? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

More From Payscale

The Big Brain Theory: Looking for America’s Next Great Mind

Jack and Suzy Welch’s 6 Deadly Sins of Leadership 

Leadership Lessons from ‘Star Trek’ 

Photo courtesy of Discovery Channel

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