Organizational speed is crucial during times of change. The ability to innovate or pivot quickly in volatile environments can often make the difference between success or failure. Many leaders, however, are unwitting bottlenecks to this potential when business process requires the majority of decisions go through them. But how do we make the switch from decision making to decision enabling? The answer, and our historical inspiration, might surprise you.
Most of the world remembers Albert Einstein as the brilliant German-born theoretical physicist known for developing the theory of relativity. In fact, his mass-energy equivalence formula, E=mc2, is considered the world’s most famous equation. What’s less known about Einstein is that, in addition to his work within the scientific community, he had a brief career as a rather unconventional college professor. Shortly after publishing several papers on relativity physics, Einstein was invited to lecture at the University of Bern in Switzerland. His reception, however, was lukewarm. “Einstein was never an inspired teacher,” biographer Walter Isaacson summarized bluntly. His first lecture was attended by only two people—both friends from his former job in the patent office—and his second lecture had to be cancelled after only one student enrolled.
Einstein, however, didn’t give up. He began offering to work with students on his own time, slowly shifting his approach from the traditional lecture format to a more informal, mentoring style of teaching. By the time he was hired to teach theoretical physics at Zurich University, nearly 6 months after his cancelled lecture at Bern, he had completely abandoned the traditional classroom structure. His new students, having experienced only polished professors and strict, nearly sterile classroom etiquette, didn’t know what to make of Einstein’s teaching style.
“When he took his chair in shabby attire with trousers too short for him, we were skeptical,” said student Hans Tanner, who attended most classes Einstein taught at Zurich. As the semester went on, however, the students grew to appreciate his more casual and accessible approach. While other professors taught finished, linear concepts, Einstein thoroughly explained his thought process—including his mistakes—so his students could understand how each of his ideas moved from germination, through development, and into final decision. He often paused to ensure every student understood not only the concepts presented, but also the process behind his decisions, and he encouraged them to interrupt his teaching whenever they didn’t—an unprecedented classroom behavior at that time.
As the university discouraged casual interaction between professors and students, Einstein began holding weekly “office hours” at the nearby Café Terrasse, where students could sit with him to discuss physics and mathematics and ask him any questions they had not voiced during class. Often he brought newly published, theoretical papers and invited his students to deconstruct the concepts with him, challenging them to find mistakes before he could. More importantly, Einstein encouraged his students to trust their knowledge, take chances, and practice making scientific decisions on their own.
While Einstein’s peers never approved of his accessible, mentor-style approach to teaching, and though his skill as a formal lecturer never improved, his students were among the most confident and high producing at Zurich University. By providing a substantial level of guidance during the early teaching phases, making himself accessible, then challenging his students to act on what they learned, he empowered a young group of scientists to make decisions on their own, rather than constantly looking to him for guidance.
There is a lot we can learn from his approach. While there will always be decisions that must pass through leadership, there are many day-to-day decisions we can delegate successfully, if only we provide the right training and support. Einstein often told his class, “The main thing is the content, not the mathematics,” as he believed they could learn more by focusing on the decision-making process than the decision, itself. As we strive to redefine “business as usual” in the wake of this global pandemic, organizational speed could not be more important. Making the leadership shift from decision making to decision enabling might just be the fuel we need.
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