Friday, July 31, 2015

Wrong-Headed Leadership

The idea is common sense. Giraffes repeatedly stretch out their necks to get at leaves, and so over generations this action has made their necks very long. So reasoned Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in 1801, offering an early (though now discredited) version of evolutionary theory featuring heritable traits acquired by use. Over the centuries, the idea seems to keep reappearing, perhaps because we wish adaptation were so controllable. Notoriously, Joseph Stalin favored the idea as being consistent with revolutionary thinking - and profoundly harmed Soviet-era scientific progress by enforcing his belief. Wrong-headed leadership can do a lot of damage.
I see wrong-headed leadership in business all the time. Like Stalin, business leaders routinely believe that ideas are true because they want the ideas to be true. For instance: "Our organization can be both extremely efficient and extremely innovative at the same time." We know from research that this claim typically is not true; there is a trade-off between the high-variance behaviors that spawn innovation and the low-variance behaviors that make for efficiency. Yet the idea keeps reappearing, perhaps because we wish adaptation were so controllable. And so for decades management gurus have claimed to have discovered the way to make this wishful thinking true.

And when it comes to knowing the truth, our emotions seem to make things worse. Often teachers appeal to their students by being funny, or exciting, or nice, or passionate. At least since Aristotle we've known that emotional persuasion often trumps logic. After I teach a class, students tell me they "enjoyed" their experience. Hmm. Did they learn? If enjoyment is the point, perhaps class should feature a real comedian.

Same goes for the other Aristotelian appeal - expertise. Often successful business leaders become lecturers at business schools. Listen to them describe why they think something is true, and you will often hear "In my class, I teach...". Because they teach it, it must be true?

Of course, our belief in the truth of an idea should depend on whether the idea is supported by research. Such an appeal to logic lacks the emotion of pathos or the bluster of ethos, but it helps us to avoid wrong-headed thinking. Next time you accept an idea as true, ask yourself why. Wishful thinking? Good feeling? Bluster? You may be headed toward your own episode of wrong-headed leadership.


Brad Jackson has recently written an interesting book on this issue.