Dumb people can be difficult to work with, and hard to convince of the errors of their ways. Those points have managerial implications, of course, but the really interesting thing is the underlying presumption that you are able to identify dumb people. Are you?
Consider today’s news. It doesn’t really matter where you are on the political, ideological, or any other spectrum; the odds are pretty good that right now, off the top of your head, you can reel off the names of two or three national or international figures whose presence on the world stage absolutely baffles you. Where did these people come from, and how did such complete morons get themselves into such positions of power and influence? Is the business world, or the world of organizations generally, any less productive of examples like these?
We’ve looked a little at the question of people overestimating their competence, and what we can or can’t do about it. We’ve also touched on what seems to me to be the really central issue here: whether or not we can identify such people generally – or even such episodes in ourselves. Let’s look a little more closely at that . . .
Confidence: That’s a pretty big topic. Its importance to leadership been talked about for millennia, from admonitions against sounding an uncertain trumpet to the most modern calls for leaders who confidently pursue, as on of today’s most celebrated academic gurus put it recently, “Big Hairy Audacious Goals.” It must be said, the quality of the rhetoric would seem to have degraded a bit over the centuries – perhaps that of the thinking behind it has, as well. Let’s take a look at that . . .
One of the efforts in our discussion of the past few days – about dumbness and overconfidence – is not just to develop a framework for understanding and managing other people, but to turn the lens on ourselves. We want to figure out a way to assess our own ability and progress as managers. But we also want to ascertain where we can look for advice, and how to evaluate it. But this is where things get a little dicey . . .
Remember: the managers (or “leaders”) we envy, the ones who seem so sure-footed, confident, never slowed by self-doubt or daunted by criticism – they are the dangerous ones. You can never be as sure as they what’s beyond the turn they’re careening around: a new vista of opportunity or an empty chasm; and, what’s more, they don’t know either . . .
We’ve all heard the phrase: The unexamined life is not worth living. It was put into the mouth of Socrates twenty four hundred years ago by his student, Plato, in a dialogue entitled The Apology. In the dialogue, Plato examines the clash between unthinking orthodoxy and critical speculation. The irony in this instance is that the ones who live on are those who don’t examine their own lives, and the person who perishes is the one who does. It’s an irony that should be familiar to us, since it hasn’t changed much over the years. . .
Okay, so let’s review a moment: Socratic genius can be either a specific skill in a particular field (such as the artisans) or an inherent ability that one seems to express with mastery, but with little or no real control or comprehension (like the poets). Moreover, it is often accompanied by an unwarranted, but firmly held and even widely acknowledged, presumption that this reflects similar ability in all areas to which the owner deigns to direct his or her sublime attention, but in which he or she is actually ignorant. So, let’s try to make that into a definition . . .
Many people, today, refer to the Socratic method as a way of using questions to guide someone – a student, for example – to the “right” answer or solution. On the other hand, Plato may have used it in the Dialogues as a means of setting up and knocking down various straw men representing the unquestioned truisms of his day, trying to discover the real truth these actually concealed. In this way, he emphasized not the Socratic Method, but the dialogue itself as a way of highlighting the salient aspects of both sides of the argument, so that the -right- answer would stand out more clearly in the end. But I think Socrates simply envisioned every new topic he encountered as riddled with suspect logic – or, more likely and worse, with baseless logic . . .
Whether someone is going door-to-door in your neighborhood with brochures, or speaking to you from a book cover or a workplace conference room, inviting you to adopt a particular approach to your career – or even to your profession of management – you must understand the fundamental issues involved in the decision you are being asked to make, the paradigms you are being asked to adopt. You must ask questions.
We should be cautious of our presumptions not only that we are able to identify the incompetent around us, but also that we aren’t to be found, even if only sometimes, among them. Here’s a corollary for you: Socrates not only resisted allowing himself to be identified as being inordinately smart – he refused to presume the same about others. He questioned everything – and everyone.
Just over a month ago, we prefaced the current series on the implications of certainty and blind faith with a reference to a bit buried in an item from The Economist about the nominally employee-friendly policies of the CEO of SAS; here it is again: “The purpose of treating his employees well is to succeed in business.” That, ladies and gentlemen, is what you do, and what you should resolve to do better every day of this and every year. . .
We take the practice of management seriously. Its importance operates on us at various levels from the professional (can we get the job done, or will we fall behind?) to the personal (am I good enough, or will I be exposed as a loser?). Anxieties abound. Consequently, when someone pulls into town offering magical elixirs for management success, we crowd around the wagon and pull out our dollar bills. We so want to believe. And any residual resistance we may have is quickly banished with a double-barreled load of unimpeachable credentials and impenetrable rhetoric. . .
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