Galileo’s Blunders: Lessons for Physician Leaders

Consider how the famed scientist’s lack of recognition of others, pathological need for personal recognition and lack of tolerance limited his potential to persuade others. 

Galileo was a brilliant, ambitious, hard-working astronomer, physicist and engineer who challenged mainstream ideas of his times. But his letters reveal that he did not thoughtfully evaluate or appreciate the political landscape, which placed him in direct conflict with others. This led to him being placed under house arrest and forced to denounce his discoveries.

While the penalties for physician leaders are not as draconian, there are many parallels between Galileo's modus operandi and physician leaders who are similarly ambitious, brilliant, hard-working, and who also may have ideas that are abeyance with the organizations in which they work.


Galileo denigrates his audiences in his letters. Examples are his opinion that the people of Italy are "unrefined and undisciplined" and the clergy are "people who take refuge in scripture to cover their inability to understand."

There are several lessons to be learned by studying the famed Italian scientist’s blunders in the pursuit of his ambition. The central message is that failure to engage others in a meaningful way is a sure recipe for failure. Sound innovative ideas are a prerequisite for setting the wheels of change in motion. However, keeping the wheels greased and rotating requires emotional intelligence, negotiation skills and a malleable yet infrangible will to succeed.

Based on research and sound reasoning, Galileo concluded that Earth was heliocentric (revolved around the sun). His ideas were not novel; they had been postulated by Copernicus and Kepler, who were equally brilliant. While others have had similar ambition and ideas, and have been dogged in pursuing change, it is instructive to examine why Galileo was embroiled in such great controversy.

Here's a list of some of the errors he made:

  1. Failure to consider the motivation of his audience was a non-starter.
  2. A strong unwavering position is not always prudent.
  3. Denigration of his audience was self-defeating.
  4. Self-pity and a victim complex did not win friends.
  5. Failure to garner support of others weakened his position.

Similar issues are pertinent to physician executives who, armed with great ideas, find themselves at loggerheads with the institutions and ultimately being ignored or at worst fired.

Consider this example. A merger of two facilities such as a women's and children's hospital may achieve service integration, cost savings and other benefits. But mergers require careful planning plus accommodating the ideas of others. A merger plan also requires:

  • Clear vision and mission.
  • Well-defined and measurable objectives.
  • Key principles and rules for prioritization and decision making.
  • "Must haves" for each entity.
  • Facilities that will be shared.
  • Validation of key elements and flows in functional plan.

Let's use the merger to illustrate how good ideas can run aground if we commit blunders similar to Galileo.

1. Failure to Consider the Motivation of Your Audience Is Non-Starter

Galileo failed to consider the motivation of the Roman Catholic Church. The church was interested in maintaining status quo, putting Earth and man at the center of the universe. To have considerable intellectual freedom, Galileo moved from Pisa to Padua. However, he then moved to Florence to be closer to power and prestige, which at the time was the church. His singular determination, despite warnings, was to further his controversial and challenging ideas and at the same time be accepted within the corridors of power and prestige. But he lacked political insight, and that made him vulnerable. His scientific background did not allow for compromise when he insists "two truths can never contradict each other."1

Scientific background may similarly lead a physician leader to reject compromises. This absolutism may apply to 2 + 2 = 4, however in the world of ideas, economics, politics and power there is often more than one truth.

Galileo failed to address the human element in his pursuits. Part of this failure may be his inability to understand the reason, interest or motivation of others in his success. For instance, his modification of the telescope was applauded due to its utility in improving the navy's power. In contradistinction, ideas pertaining to the Earth's rotation around the sun did not confer similar benefits. In fact, they would lead to reinterpretation of Scripture, create a lot of work for clergy and foster doubt from the population. It is not surprising that his theory would be rejected by the church whose major focus was redemption and the afterlife.

Similarly, the physician leader must consider the motivation, cultures and value of each organization involved in the proposed merger. This would entail a study of the relevant history, present realities and future hopes.

For instance, children's hospitals are more adept at fundraising; hence, a merger with a women's facility may jeopardize its success. In addition, the issue of the corporate structure (one CEO and board versus two) may become stumbling blocks for both organizations when jobs are jeopardized.

Similarly, shared services may be reasonable, however the underlying loss of authority, job prestige and control − and being perceived as reneging on their mission − may be couched as "bad for children."

2. A Strong Unwavering Position Is Not Always Prudent

Galileo had a strong unwavering position with respect to the church. He positioned himself as a wise interpreter without the credentials of clergy, and he once wrote, "Wise interpreters produce their true meaning."

While a strong unwavering position may be appropriate in the realm of absolute truth, physician leaders are rarely armed with absolute truths and therefore do not have the luxury of taking a strong unwavering position. The ability to negotiate and have a fallback position is necessary. For instance, in a merger there are many gray zones where compromise may be necessary and advantageous for the physician leader as well as the organizations involved.

Shared services, for example, are not always the best way. Some may argue that a diagnostic hub with some shared facilities (radiology, biochemical laboratory) and educational facilities (classrooms, library, lecture theaters) could result in economies of scale. But in certain specialized patient care areas, such as delivery suites, it may be best not to try to share services.

3. Denigration of Your Audience Is Self-Defeating

Galileo denigrates his audiences in his letters. Examples are his opinion that the people of Italy are "unrefined and undisciplined"1 and the clergy are "people who take refuge in Scripture to cover their inability to understand."1

In addition, Galileo does not thank or recognize the efforts of many of those who supported him in his endeavors. His protocol was to provide others with his personal opinions, thinking this demonstrated recognition and respect. He refused to share, recognize or respect others. In fact, his interactions smacked of egocentricity and were inconsiderate. That Galileo did not see the importance of praise for those working with him may have been one of his biggest flaws.

The issue of denigration of audience needs little elaboration for the physician leader. Respectfully listening to others' views, listening before responding, being open to negotiation and coercing rather than browbeating are likely to be successful in garnering support of others.

In addition, being liberal with praise when warranted will help woo others to your way of thinking. In the merger example, recognition of the support provided by the women's hospital to the neonatology unit and the achievements of the perinatology team may diffuse fears and lead to support for the merger.

4. Self-Pity and a Victim Complex Will Not Win Friends

Although there was some public criticism regarding Galileo's activities, the scientist’s response demonstrated paranoia. He wrote, "they have hit me again ... and they have opened a new front to tear me to pieces on the whim of someone who is not the least informed."1 He also alludes to the power of his bad luck combined with wickedness and ignorance of his opponents. This uncompromising duality does not allow for a win-win situation.

Lessons here target the physician leader who may take the stance "only I get it" or "only I care about children" or "they make unilateral decisions without my input." Self-pity and a victim complex are unlikely to lead to any meaningful engagement and may lead to the label of "whiner" and exclusion from important discussions.

5. Failure to Garner Support of Others Weakens Your Position

Galileo's research investigations were supported by the work of Johannes Kepler and others. However, while Kepler's work and publications were contemporaneous and supported Galileo, as far as we know Galileo did not correspond with Kepler to garner support for his ideas. It is possible that he was motivated to keep the recognition for himself.

The importance of understanding the corridors of authority and power − and garnering support for your ideas −  are well recognized by successful physician leaders. For instance, contacting colleagues who have completed successful mergers of similar institutions and arranging visits of key members of your team to some of these institutions may be a useful step in creating the groundswell for your ideas. In the end, Galileo was blinded by the desire for notoriety, and was rigid and naive in his pursuits. Physician leaders would be well served to avoid these traits.

Niranjan Kissoon MD, CPE, is vice president for medical affairs for BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, British Columbia, and a professor with the Pediatrics Department at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Sandra Whitehouse, MD, MBBS, FRCPC, is an affiliate investigator for BC Children's Hospital in Vancouver, and clinical associate professor with the Pediatrics Department at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

This article was originally published by the American Association for Physician Leadership in 2007.   

 Finocchiaro M. The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History. London: University of California Press, Ltd., 1989

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