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Was Albert Einstein a Thought Leader?


This was the vexing question put to me recently, in good humor, by a client.

“You have your seven hallmarks of thought leadership,” he said. “I believe they’re spot on, and I encourage their use in our firm. But they include validation – examples of the solution in practice that prove it works. Einstein never demonstrated that his theories of relativity worked; they were, as the name suggests, theories. So according to your criteria, Albert Einstein wasn’t a thought leader.

“What do you say to that, Parker?”

I thought it was bit unfair to spring this on me at 10:30 in the evening after we had enjoyed a few adult beverages, but in the gray light of dawn I can see it’s a question that deserves an answer.

So I say, Yes. As the name Einstein is almost synonymous with genius, he was unquestionably a thought leader. So the real question is why he doesn’t look like one according to our tried-and-true criteria.

Einstein published more than 300 scientific papers during his lifetime and made significant contributions to many scientific breakthroughs. But what he’s best known for, his first chart topping hit, so to speak, is his Theory of Special Relativity and E=mc2. So let’s look at that.

Einstein published it in 1905, attempting to solve an important problem in science at that time: reconciling Maxwell's equations for electricity and magnetism with the laws of mechanics. Einstein’s paper included a new definition of space and time, making a hash of the old concept of the luminiferous aether, which was thought to float all around us and allow the propagation of light waves. Einstein’s paper was all theory, but it does check out against most of our hallmarks:

Einstein’s paper was not accepted overnight. Later that year, experimental results were published that appeared to refute Einstein. However, a series of experiments over the next 20 years or so produced an increasing body of evidence in Einstein’s favor. By about 1911 most theoretical physicists had accepted Einstein’s calculations, and by about 1940 the debate was over – at least in the scientific mainstream.

In due course, the former Bern patent clerk was recognized as a thought leader – or perhaps as a leading thinker as the term thought leader didn’t appear until the 1990s.

So Einstein’s original paper did not qualify him as a thought leader as it was neither validated nor practical. That remained a job of work before his solution was accepted, his contribution appreciated and his genius recognized. Einstein wasn’t being lazy of course. At the time he wrote, there was no way for him to observe the phenomena his theory predicted (the technology wasn’t there; I mean, give the guy a break: it was 1905). No one, for instance, could split an atom to validate that E=mc2. So theory had to do. And theory can never serve as a proof; it can only point to one (as Gödel showed in 1931 when he published his incompleteness theorems).

Happily, in the business world, those of us developing thought leadership don’t have the same excuses as Einstein. Examples are there if we look for them, either in our field experience or waiting to be discovered through qualitative research. And corroborating data can be found, too, either through quantitative research, or just waiting in the public domain.

I suppose a truly futuristic point of view about some aspect of business might be built on theory alone. But judging from Einstein’s experience, the author will have to wait some years before he is recognized for it. And his chance of achieving that recognition likely will correspond to the degree his genius falls short of Einstein’s.

Given that, we’ll stick with our Seven Hallmarks of Thought Leadership, and insist on practicality and validation even if we may end up underestimating some future (or present) Einstein of the business world.

It’s a risk we’re willing to take, and we feel relatively good about it.