Happy Birthday, David Hume

It's a month past the actual May 7th date, but here's wishing David Hume a happy 300th birthday.

Hume was the Scottish philosopher known for, among other things, the dictum that the wise person apportions his or her belief to the evidence. Carl Sagan later popularize the variation "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." This does not mean that something that is far-fetched and unlikely is impossible, it means that the more unlikely or far-fetched it is the more reluctant we should be to invest our belief in it and the lighter we should hold that belief.

Hume's dictum is made necessary by another of Hume's famous premises--that our emotions make our decisions and our reason supplies the rationale for those decisions. Unfortunately, we tend to believe that we are rational beings. We often overlook the flaws in our reasoning because we think we are rational and we fail to see that our emotions are guiding our decisions or beliefs. Therefore, we can be fooled easily and if we are not careful we end up making poor decisions that are well-protected with a thick layer of flawed logic. Hume asserted this in the 18th century; modern neuroscience confirms it today (see, for example, David Eagleman's book "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain").

Remembering to apportion our belief to the evidence can help protect us from poor decisions in all aspects of our lives. It can help us make better business decisions by using careful analysis to confirm or disconfirm our intuitions. It can help us make better health decisions by look for the evidence of the efficacy of treatments beyond the anecdotes of celebrities or neighbors. The list could go on....

Hume was not dismissive of our intuitions or our emotions, but he understood the need to put them into context and use reason to challenge our assumptions rather than confirm them. He is a philosopher well-worth a little more exploration.

Does "Smart" Matter?

I often hear people (usually, people who are not leaders) say that leaders don't have to be smart, they just need to surround themselves with smart people. This, of course, overlooks the fact that you need to be smart to tell which of the smart people in the room is giving you the best advice.

Or people say "emotional intelligence (EI) is more important than intelligence," overlooking the qualifications in the EI literature that say that a baseline of intellectual competence must be met before EI can be a discriminating edge for leaders.

While EI and surrounding oneself with the smartest, most-competent people one can find are important--in fact, crucial--there is no getting around the fact that good leaders at high levels are typically very, very smart. The best leaders are not only smart, but they are intellectually curious and tenacious critical-thinkers

Elliott Jaques, one of my favorite management thinkers, wrote a lot about the requisite qualities of leadership. Jaques pointed out (rightly, I believe), that personality doesn't matter as long as the leader doesn't have significant behavioral shortcomings. Leaders come in all shapes and sizes and temperaments. I've worked with great leaders who were introverts and great leaders who were extroverts; I've worked with effective and ineffective leaders of all Enneagram types. But, argued Jaques, one of the qualities that a leader must have is cognitive power, or the innate mental ability to organize information, matched to the level of complexity of the entity he or she manages and ability to think in terms of the time horizon relevant to the role.

The CEO of a multibillion dollar global company with 100,000 employees must have greater cognitive power than the supervisor of six workers on the shop floor. The CEO has to manage tremendous complexity and think well into the future; the supervisor faces less complexity and needs to think through to the end of the day or the week.

If a manager is not intellectually matched to the complexity and time horizon of their role they will become bored (if they have too much cognitive power) or overwhelmed (if they don't have enough).

Yes, other factors matter. The leader must have emotional intelligence, appropriate values, a good work ethic, etc., but leaders who do not have the cognitive power to handle the complexity of their role will fail. Leaders with the cognitive power but who are not good critical thinkers will also fail, even if it takes them a little longer to do so. The worst leaders are the incurious and intellectually lazy, or even worse--dismissive of intelligence and learning. They will not only fail but do a lot of damage along the way.

Don't let anyone tell you that, for leaders, smart doesn't matter.

See "Executive Leadership: A Practical Guide to Managing Complexity" by Elliott Jaques and Stephen D. Clement.

New Beginnings

A little over two years ago I discovered what the time-for-blogging threshold was: your fourth son. I had been keeping a blog somewhat consistently until Andriko came into the world in April 2009, joining his three older brothers (Adrian, Alec, and Alexei) in our chaotic lives. A4 is two now, and we'll give this blogging thing another crack....