A Nobel laureate and his chauffeur

By Frederick Mordi  


In 1919, the year he received the Nobel Prize in Physics, the world-famous German physicist, Prof Max Planck, who propounded the quantum theory, embarked on a nationwide tour, where he presented his papers to the scientific community.

Legend has it that on one occasion, Planck’s chauffeur, who now knew his presentation style by heart, offered to trade places with him, after the Nobel laureate complained about giving too many lectures, to his driver.

“By now, I have heard your talk so often that I can give it myself,” said the driver. “Why don’t we change places? I’ll pretend to be the physicist and give the talk, while you pretend to be the driver.”

Planck thought it was such an excellent idea and agreed.

And so the next time the renowned professor went for another presentation, it was his driver that gave the talk on his behalf, while he sat quietly among the audience. The chauffeur put up a splendid performance, until an egghead asked a question that he had no hope of ever answering. But instead of admitting this, the chauffeur famously replied:

“I’m surprised to hear such an elementary question on high energy physics here in Munich. It’s so simple, I’ll let my chauffeur answer it!”

The central point of this conceivably apocryphal story, is delegation. Many people find it difficult to delegate even simple tasks to their subordinates, due to a variety of reasons. But the current realities in the workplace, for instance, where a manager is often saddled with many responsibilities as part of cost-cutting measures, make delegation very imperative.


Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson show how effective delegation can be done in a work environment, in their best-selling book: The One Minute Manager. According to the book, there are three secrets to becoming an effective manager.

D2                         D4

The first secret is having One Minute Goals. This involves a brief meeting between the manager and his subordinate where they agree on goals, which are written down in an equally short statement, and reviewed from time to time. The aim of the exercise is to ensure that both of them are on the same page.

The second secret is One Minute Praising. The book encourages managers to shower encomiums on their subordinates when they are doing the right thing. This should be accompanied with a simple handshake, the authors counsel.

The third strategy is the One Minute Reprimand. This is the delicate part that most managers do not handle quite well, according to the authors. They say the one minute reprimand should point to the specific task the subordinate did not perform creditably, and should be followed by a reassurance that the subordinate can do better next time.

“Effective managers manage themselves and the people they work with so that both the organisation and the people profit from their presence,” the authors note.

A number of small businesses, world-class companies and institutions are said to use The One Minute Manager techniques in their operations. Such organisations reportedly have a record of high productivity, improved job satisfaction, and invariably increased profitability.


An expert on organisational communication and lecturer at the School of Media and Communication, Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos, Dr. Mike Okolo, who describes delegation as “the downward transfer of authority from a manager to a subordinate,” identifies some reasons managers often fail to delegate.

“Managers may simply lack confidence in the abilities of their subordinates,” he points out.   “Managers may experience dual accountability and thus refrain from delegating because they are insecure about their value to the organisation.”

Okolo lists a number of steps to successful delegation:


“For successful delegation, managers need to take some steps if they want to succeed. They must match the employee to the task; be organised and communicate clearly; and should transfer authority and accountability with the task.

“Managers must also choose the level of delegation carefully by specifically assigning tasks to individual team members, giving team members the correct amount of authority to accomplish assignments and making sure that team members accept responsibility.”

While it is doubtful if a typical professor would allow his research assistant—let alone a mere driver—swap places with him, the lessons from Planck and his driver, and The One Minute Manager, may be quite helpful both in the workplace and other spheres of life.

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2 responses to “A Nobel laureate and his chauffeur”

  1. abayomiawe@yahoo.com says :

    Dear Fred

    Thank you for your latest blog. I truly enjoyed reading it.

    One thing I’ve had in mind to ask you is that you become a guest contributor to HarvestPlus’s Quarterly Newsletter. The 1st edition is due in a few days & will appreciate it if you could sell me more ideas.

    I intend to rotate contributions from industries that could help with promotion of healthier and more nutritious foods.

    Grateful for your kind reply.

    NB: Meanwhile, I came into Lagos last night for the AMVCAs. Our movie, “Yellow Cassava” almost won the Movie of the Year. I will be leaving for Owerri this afternoon.

    Best regards

    Sent from my BlackBerry wireless device from MTN

    • frederickmordi says :

      Thanks Yomi. What is the thrust of your newsletter? Is for for staff or for external stakeholders? The audience will determine the content. When are you back from Owerri?

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