Carrots don’t improve your vision; toads don’t give you warts; you use more than 10% of your brain (all of it actually); coffee won’t stunt your growth; and cracking your knuckles won’t cause arthritis. It is amazing how many things we easily believe that are not true. In fact, the less we know about something, the more likely we are to have strong beliefs about it.
You heard me right.
Steven Sloman, a professor at Brown, and Philip Fernbach, a professor at the University of Colorado, are cognitive scientists who wrote a book called “The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone”. Research shows sociability is the key to how the human mind functions or, perhaps more pertinently, malfunctions. Basically, most of us know way less than we think we do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people.
Development and advancement necessitate a certain “borderlessness” between one individual’s ideas and knowledge and those of others in the group. As new tools and ways of living are developed, new realms of ignorance are created. We cannot all be experts at metalworking before we use a knife. This becomes dangerous though when applied to realms dealing with human interaction: politics, economics, sociology, and religion to name a few.
Let’s say your position on some socioeconomic policy is baseless. I rely on you and so now my position is equally baseless. When I talk to someone else and they start to agree with me, their position is also baseless, but now that three of us concur, we are certain we are right. We will then start to dismiss as unconvincing any information that contradicts our opinion. “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” Sloman and Fernbach write.
This has at least three significant impacts on leadership.
First, leaders must trust and be trusted. Our organizations rely heavily on specialists in every area to create the best outcomes possible. The rest of us will never know for sure that the IT team is making the best networking decisions or that the finance team is doing everything feasible to reduce our tax. We must trust others to do the best work possible without being able to completely check them.
This is why character is so deeply important to community. Trust is only possible between people who consistently demonstrate good character. Competency without character will not be consistent. Competency WITH character will create consistent, reliable, and repeatable results which can be trusted.
Second, leaders must be generalists. Even though specialization is a necessary evil for continued advancement, leaders must be competent in several different fields or activities. As a leader, I do not have to know everything about everything, but I must know something about everything and not too much about anything.
We all have a finite capacity for information, both how much we can take in and how much we can store. Leaders must utilize that capacity spread over many areas of concern, not focused on a few. Possibly the most useful skill a leader can practice is getting to “enough” information quickly and then moving on.
Third, leaders must be very careful what they say and do. If people trust us, they will listen to what we say and learn from what we do. Because of our position, more people will be watching us. Our influence carries the responsibility to be as accurate and unbiased as possible and to quickly admit and correct mistakes when we make them.
We are going to be wrong. In the early 1800s, doctors still practiced an ancient theory of medicine known as the humorous theory. They believed when someone was ill, it was because there was an imbalance of the four humors—blood, yellow bile (liver), black bile (spleen), and phlegm—and the best ways to rebalance these humors were through bleeding and purging. They were wrong then, and we are currently just as wrong about something else.
I try not to be too certain about things. I can know with some certainty, but I try to be open to new information, even information that contradicts what I believe. I don’t want to be wavering and ungrounded, nor do I want to be obstinate and dogmatic. We need each other. Every person in our community has unique experiences, skills, talents, and observations. If we can trust each other while we doubt our conclusions just enough to stay open minded, we may be wrong today, but we will be better tomorrow as we pursue The Kimray Way.