Einstein's Boss

10 Rules for Leading Genius

 Einstein's Boss

Author: Robert Hromas
Pub Date: May 2018
Print Edition: $25.00
Print ISBN: 9780814439326
Page Count: 240
Format: Hardback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814439333

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INTRODUCTION: Einstein's Boss

Chances are you have no idea who Einstein’s boss was. When Einstein came to the United States to work, he reported to Abraham Flexner. Flexner was a great administrator, but not a genius. He started out as a high school teacher. He did not have a Ph.D. He was not a physicist, nor was he a mathematician. He never wrote a single academic paper.

Albert Einstein was one of Flexner’s first hires at the Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS) at Princeton University. Einstein gave the new research center instant credibility. Without Flexner, Einstein would not have been at the Institute, and without Einstein, the IAS would probably have flopped. Flexner allowed Einstein to be the public face of the Institute for Advanced Studies during the 1930s and ’40s. Flexner was not as smart as Einstein, and he knew it, an important attribute when dealing with genius. Being ruthless in his self-assessment helped Flexner build a successful team. A dozen other extraordinary mathematicians and physicists soon came on board, and Flexner was able to mold them into a cohesive team.

The IAS became home to thirty-three Nobel laureates, thirty-eight Field medalists for the best mathematician in the United States, and many winners of the Wolf and MacArthur prizes. The team of geniuses, which Flexner assembled, produced some of the greatest scientific advances of the twentieth century. The Institute gave the brilliant scientists freedom to be creative, but someone had to make sure everyone was paid, the place was heated in the winter, and the lights turned on, and that such a diverse group of geniuses could work together as a team to achieve specific goals. That person was Abraham Flexner, Einstein’s boss. Flexner built the Institute for Advanced Studies into one of the greatest, extraordinarily productive scientific groups of all time.

Insisting that people came before brick and mortar, he was generous to the people who worked with him. He invested his capital in providing the highest salaries of the time and tenure for life without teaching responsibilities, so that the scientists at the Institute were free to spend their time on research.

He risked a lot for his scientists. He set up pensions for the faculty, which was unheard of during the Great Depression. He was betting that the economy would turn around before the pensions came due. When the first pensions needed to be paid, his endowment had trouble coming up with the monthly checks. To remedy the shortfall, he went out on the dinner circuit and generated philanthropic gifts to cover the pensions.

He was compassionate and patient, almost to a fault. Hitler was coming to power when Flexner was forming his team. He offered a position to the German physicist Hermann Weyl, who had a Jewish wife. Weyl turned down Flexner’s offer, choosing to stay in his native Germany. When Hitler began his systematic destruction of Jewish life there, Weyl realized he had made a terrible mistake. Flexner reiterated his offer to Weyl, and Weyl and his wife fled Germany, joining Einstein at the IAS. Flexner met Weyl where he was at emotionally, and provided what Weyl needed even after he had rejected him.

Flexner recognized that individual motivations were different and tailored his recruiting to individual geniuses. Another IAS recruit, the innovative economist Edward Earle, suffered from tuberculosis. Flexner considered Earle a brilliant economist and a person of high character. He offered Earle a post at the IAS when no other university would touch him, because he was so ill. It took Earle years to recover, but when he did, Earle joined Einstein and Weyl. He worked hard to produce advances in economics, because he was grateful for the opportunity. Earle often mediated clashes among the complex and occasionally irascible personalities of the geniuses at the IAS. The compassion Flexner showed during Earle’s health crisis led to his gratitude and loyalty.

Flexner focused on the core missions of mathematics and physics when he started the IAS. He later added economics and history. Even today there are only four departments at the IAS—math, historical studies, social science, and natural sciences. He wanted to be world class at a few things, rather than good at many things.

This focused approach is a crucial step to innovation, as advances come at the extremes of knowledge, not in the common middle, where everyone knows what you know. The key to innovation is to dig wells, not plow fields. A chemist once told me that if I wanted to get past a dense problem, I needed to narrow my focus.

Excerpted from EINSTEIN'S BOSS: 10 Rules for Leading Genius by Robert Hromas with Christopher Hromas. Copyright © 2018 Robert Hromas. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association, New York, NY. Used with permission. All rights reserved. http://www.amacombooks.org.

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