Historical contingency complicates a reading of skill as a self-explanatory and always positive attribute. By focusing on the attempts of the first generation of neurosurgeons to build a community and fashion a collective neurosurgical self, this article highlights the extent to which the relationship between surgical skill and professional judgement is reflected in broader concerns that shape the landscape of medicine at a given time. Some early twentieth-century surgeons expressed concern about the spectacularisation of surgery and the skilful but problematic work of ‘brilliant operators’. The neurosurgeons’ policies of inclusion and exclusion show that in the process of fashioning a neurosurgical persona, this first generation sanctioned specific norms of conduct underwritten by similar moral imperatives, such as self-control. These norms governed the doctors’ work both in the operating room and on the public stage (in their engagement with the press). The meetings of the first neurosurgical society staged a critical encounter between the host neurosurgeon and the members who watched him perform surgery. These technical performances in the operating theatre, followed by discussions, were designed to encourage particular norms, to negotiate surgical knowledge, and to demonstrate the skills and character of the neurosurgeon. The performances acted as a technology of the self that aligned the operator to a community and helped that community refine its norms of surgical conduct. The awkward surgeon with inferior technical ability was preferable to the brilliant but vain operator who lacked the capacity to judge when he should not deploy his spectacular skills.