Authority Traps – What Einstein’s life reveals about the risk of becoming an authority

Ask people to name a famous physicist and most will say Albert Einstein. Few would choose Hendrik Lorentz or Henri Poincaré despite their greater eminence at the time of Einstein’s discoveries. Their authority traps stopped them seeing what Einstein saw. But Einstein ultimately ended up a victim of authority traps himself…

Authority Traps - Hendrik Lorentz, Albert Einstein and Henri PoincaréWhen Einstein developed relativity theory, Lorentz and Poincaré already knew most of its component parts. They just couldn’t see how to take the final step.

Why was Einstein able to see what these two much more established authorities could not?

The problem for Lorentz and Poincaré was setting aside 250 years of  Newtonian orthodoxy. The orthodoxy on which they had built their careers, reputations and identities. In short, their authority traps.

Unlike Lorentz and Poincaré, Einstein was a repeatedly rejected outsider. He was a lowly clerk, second-class, in the Bern patent office. As such his sense of self was not based on Newtonian orthodoxy, so he could see beyond its inherent constraints.

Relativity, with its famous E=mcequation, was one of two major theoretical breakthroughs in early 20th century physics. Its emergence followed a repeated pattern in science, and in human progress in general, as follows:

  1. A new leader emerges with valuable insights that go beyond the current orthodoxy;Authority Traps - Max Planck Founder of Quantum Theory
  2. Those trapped in the current orthodoxy remain blind to these insights;
  3. Established authorities see the very suggestion of these insights as ridiculous; then as they gain wider support, dangerous;
  4. Over time, so many people come to accept the new way of seeing that it becomes the new orthodoxy;
  5. The adherents to the old orthodoxy die out, literally as well as metaphorically;
  6. Viewed from the new way of seeing and being, it seems inconceivable that anyone could ever have ‘fallen for’ the old orthodoxy.

The seeing-being traps of prevailing orthodoxies affect us all, but the risk is greatest for those in positions of power and authority. It is extremely hard for those caught in authority traps to see beyond present dogma because their status as an authority is based on that dogma.

Einstein eventually succumbed to one of these authority traps himself. Having developed relativity theory as an outsider, he was contemptuous of authority figures who blocked his entry to the physics elite.

When he later became globally famous he joked: “To punish me for my contempt of authority, Fate has made me an authority myself”.

But Einstein’s acquired authority blinded him to the insights of the other major theory of 20th century physics – quantum mechanics.

He never accepted the Uncertainty Principle at the core of quantum theory. Asserting that “God does not play dice”  he went on to spend his final years in ultimately futile attempts to prove it wrong.

Max Born, Einstein’s close friend and himself winner of the 1954 Nobel Prize in Physics, said this of Einstein: “He could no longer take in certain new ideas in physics which contradicted his own firmly held philosophical convictions”.

As a globally celebrated authority, Einstein was caught in the seeing-being trap of the new orthodoxy that he himself had created.

Such are authority traps.

Authority traps don’t only affect those who achieve the global levels of fame of an Einstein.

Anyone who occupies a position of authority can succumb. When we get caught up in who we are, we fail to see who we might become. This in turn holds back our organisations, our teams and our working relationships.

Are authority traps holding your organisation back?

Where in your organisation are there:

  • prevailing orthodoxies that must be escaped..?
  • philosophical convictions holding people back..?
  • authority figures who preserve the past at the expense of the future..?
  • misalignments causing braking friction

What are you doing to ensure that your organisation escapes these authority traps so it can stop driving with the brakes on?

[Get free access to my senior executive’s 20-minute video guide to eliminating braking friction here.]
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