Authority traps stifle, smother and strangle innovation – even if you’re Einstein…

Ask people to name a famous physicist and most will say Albert Einstein despite the greater eminence of Hendrik Lorentz and Henri Poincaré at the time Einstein made his discoveries. But the authority trap blinded them to what Einstein could see – until Einstein ended up trapped himself…

Authority Traps - Hendrik Lorentz, Albert Einstein and Henri PoincaréWhen Einstein first developed relativity theory, Lorentz and Poincaré were already familiar with most of its constituent parts.

They just couldn’t see how to take the final step.

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

The problem for Lorentz and Poincaré was that they found it impossible to set aside 250 years of Newtonian orthodoxy. The orthodoxy on which they had built their careers, reputations and identities. In short, they could not escape 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 constrained by the Newtonian orthodoxy, so he could see beyond its inherent limitations.

Relativity, with its famous E=mcequation, was one of the two most significant breakthroughs in early 20th century theoretical physics.

Both breakthroughs followed a common and often repeated pattern in scientific progress in particular and human progress in general:

  1. A new leader emerges with valuable insights that go beyond the current orthodoxy;
  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 vantage point of the new orthodoxy, it seems almost inconceivable that anyone could ever have ‘fallen for’ the old orthodoxy.

The trap of the current orthodoxy affects many of us in different ways. Over the past 30 years I’ve come to refer to these in general as seeing-being traps because of the way that our perspectives – our ‘seeing’ – so readily and easily ends up deeply enmeshed with, biased and limited by our sense of who we are – our ‘being’.1

But seeing-being traps pose a greater risk for those in positions of power and authority because their status as an authority depends on the continued dominance of the existing orthodoxy.

Having developed relativity theory as a relatively lowly outsider, Einstein was contemptuous of authority figures who blocked his entry to the physics elite. But later in life, Einstein himself succumbed to his own authority trap.

After his authority had turned him into a global celebrity he joked: “To punish me for my contempt of authority, Fate has made me an authority myself”.

But Einstein’s authority blinded him to the insights of the other major breakthrough of 20th century theoretical physics – quantum mechanics.Max Planck

Einstein never accepted the Uncertainty Principle at the heart of quantum mechanical theory. Having famously asserted that “God does not play dice”, Einstein spent the final years of his life in an ultimately futile attempt to prove it wrong.

Max Born, winner of the 1954 Nobel Prize in Physics, said of Einstein – who was his close friend: “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, stifling, smothering and strangling innovation and agility.2

By getting caught up in who we are, we fail to see who we might become.


Footnotes:

  1. Find out more about seeing-being traps and how they block the wider adoption of innovative 2D3D mindsets, anchor organisations to past orthodoxies and stifle, smother and strangle the innovation and agility on which their future depends in this short video.
  2. Authority Traps cause enough damage on their own. But combined with other personality traits associated with the exercise of power they can lead to condition known as Hubris Syndrome which is like a cancer to innovation and agility.
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