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The Myth of the Tech Genius 

Tech genius is a damaging and dangerous myth in the tech world. Popular culture has given rise to the idea that tech businesses need ‘tech geniuses’ at the helm. These tech geniuses are almost always young, white and male. They often have slightly quirky personalities and the culture of the business is built entirely around them: they inspire a following, and few people ever question them. 

It is not entirely clear where this myth has come from. Perhaps it is because when we think of tech founders we think of people like Mark Zuckerberg - the iconic young man who created the cult of the hoodie-CEO. We think of Elon Musk - the electrical genius with the power to affect the value of global stocks with just one tweet. We think of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs - computer geniuses who have made a drastic mark on the world we live in. 

Even in fiction, tech geniuses are almost always young, white and male, with big egos. Tony Stark from Iron Man, Bruce Wayne in Batman, Q in James Bond.

The Power of Social Conditioning 

Because we have been shown these examples over and over again, and because society holds these tech geniuses up as superhuman beings, we now expect tech geniuses to be young white men. As a result, seeing a young white man in a hoodie leading a huge tech business gives us confidence, because it is familiar. It is familiar  because social conditioning has taught us that young white men in hoodies are tech geniuses. 

The real truth about computing is that it was initially considered women’s work. Many of the first pioneers of computing were women. It was women who worked at Bletchley Park, carrying out cryptoanalysis during the war. 8,000 women were employed at Bletchley Park -  around 75% of the total work force. It was Ada Lovelace (daughter of Oscar Wilde) who is credited with the invention of computer coding. Her work on Babbage’s Analytical Engine created the basis for modern computing. 

But social conditioning is a powerful thing, and it works. So even though it is not true that young, white, hoodie-wearing men are better at tech, the myth has been created and it has become embedded. As a result we are now subconsciously primed to believe that young, white men will be the best tech founders, CEOs and programmers.

Tech Genius and the ‘Jesus effect’ 

tech genius jesus effect jesus in neon lights at rock concert

One of the most dangerous consequences of the tech genius myth is that tech leaders take on an untouchable status. We follow them, defer to them, and believe in them in the same way that many believe in religion. They become like the leader of a cult: beyond questioning, beyond doubting. We call this the ‘Jesus effect’. It allows a mere human to take on an almost God-like status. 

This has four effects: 

Warped self-perception

In elevating these young men to god-like status, we are warping their perception of themselves. We create narcissistic personalities. In the early days of a start up that can be very useful. Investors, the media and the public praise their successes, their eccentricities and their boldness. But in the process, they risk creating a monster. What 20 year old man can keep himself grounded in the face of such huge success and praise? As the business grows larger and more governance and regulation is needed, these narcissistic personalities struggle to cope. Suddenly they have to answer to people. their investors, the media and the public often turn against them at this point, and they often find themselves ousted from their own businesses. Used and encouraged when the business needed their tremendous energy to generate momentum, but cast aside as the business matures. Their God-like status is stripped away and they once again become a mere mortal like the rest of us. Needless to say, this can have devastating effects on their psyche. It also causes huge turmoil within the business, and for the many employees who have stood loyally by their side for so long. 


Secondly, when we elevate someone to a God-like status, we stop trusting our own instincts. We stop questioning their wisdom. Because of the narcissistic culture that is created by such an elevation, anyone who does question their wisdom is quickly ousted and ostracised from the group, much like the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. 

In that famous Hans Christian Anderson story two swindlers arrive at the capital city of an emperor who spends lavishly on clothing at the expense of state matters. Posing as weavers, they offer to supply him with magnificent clothes that are invisible to those who are stupid or incompetent. The emperor hires them, and they set up looms and go to work. A succession of officials, and then the emperor himself, visit them to check their progress. Each sees that the looms are empty but pretends otherwise to avoid being thought a fool. After a time, the weavers report that the emperor's suit is finished. They dress him in the clothes (that are invisible to anyone stupid or incompetent) and he sets off in a procession before the whole city. The palace staff and townsfolk go along with the pretence, because no one wants to be seen as stupid.  Anyone who tries to state the obvious is ridiculed, punished and ostracised. The lie becomes so big that no one can afford to let it collapse. 

Here we see how a Jesus-effect or cult like culture is a form of gaslamping. The mirage is presented to us so confidently and believed by so many other people, that even when it is totally obvious that it is a mirage, we are somehow tricked into disbelieving our senses: if everyone else thinks this is fine, then it must be fine. We are obviously the ones who have got it wrong. There is huge power in numbers. If 1,000 people swear the sky is pink, we start to disbelieve our own eyes. Read more about gaslamping in our blog post article: How to Spot a Toxic Personality.

Bias creation

Thirdly, it creates subconscious bias that favours young white men and discriminates against everyone else. The statistics show us that male-led businesses gain significantly more investment than female led businesses. Technologists craft the future. We need our future to work for everyone - find out why diversity is so important in tech in our recent blog article. Moving away from a stereotypical notion of the tech genius will help greatly with this. 

Culture perpetuation

Finally, the God-like culture sets a bad example to other young men, by teaching them that they should aspire to be a Jesus-like, unquestionable figure. It idolises and hugely rewards narcissistic behaviour, even though such behaviour creates toxic, dangerous environments. 

Some of the greatest business catastrophes of recent years have happened because of a result of this bizarre notion of the tech genius: 


  1. WeWork was founded by Adam Neumann when he was 21 years old. Adam was quickly considered a tech genius. WeWork essentially took real estate but packaged it as a tech business, which allowed it to raise a small fortune. It operated with a cult-like culture. Employees were given share options. WeWork raised $1.3 billion. The details are complex, but essentially the business ended up massively overvalued and everything came crashing down just before the business was floated. In the end, the world called out the Emperor’s new clothes for what they were. 
  2. Theranos was founded in 2003 by 19 year old Elizabeth Holmes. It is unusual to find a high profile female tech founder, and a great example to include to show that no one is immune from the dangers of the Jesus-effect. Elizabeth modelled herself on another tech genius: Steve Jobs. She even wore black turtle necks like him. She was undoubtedly considered a tech genius. Theranos claimed it had developed a ground-breaking, innovative way to test blood using a micro container and a machine they had invented. They claimed it would allow blood to be taken from a finger prick and the results could be processed by their machines, on site, making it quicker and cheaper. Theranos raised $1.4 billion in investment. They created a cult-like culture. Anyone who questioned the effectiveness of their technology was apparently chased out, pursued by aggressive legal action. The machine didn’t work. And the engineers all knew that the machine didn’t work: they were being told to use standard lab test technology for the samples they were processing, whilst the world was being told that the samples were being processed in the Theranos machine. The engineers were constantly fixing broken, dangerous machines. They knew the machines were contaminating blood samples and putting safety at risk.  Despite knowing all of this, they were gaslamped into believing the hype. The cult that was created around Theranos was so powerful that intelligent, high-achieving individuals were willing to completely discount and ignore irrefutable evidence that the machines were not working, and never had worked. Even American government officials and the President of the USA were taken in by this cult-like culture. 

The Jesus effect is powerful, but sooner or later, it all comes crashing down. Sooner or later, someone shines a light on the Emperor’s nakedness. That is what makes it so dangerous, and why it should be avoided at all costs. 

Better leadership

Good leaders welcome questions and expressions of doubt, and create an egalitarian environment where no one feels too afraid to speak up. None of us are perfect. None of us are Gods. We all make mistakes, and we need the people around us to tell us when we do. Businesses are not about one person. Businesses are a team in which everyone is needed and valued. We must move away from this idea of the tech genius and the Jesus-effect culture it creates: it is the most toxic culture out there and responsible for most of the major corporate disasters to date.

We offer culture consultancy and emotional intelligence training as a service. Businesses generally realise how important technology and digital transformation are, but it is easy to forget that your technology is only as good as your people, and your people are only able to reach their potential in a constructive, healthy culture. We specialise in the creation of exceptional cultures. Contact us now for a discussion about your business, and see how you can maximise your team.



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