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Archive for October, 2013

At Henley, especially during Spring and Autumn, some mornings are more glorious than others, and the light and air combine to leave you feeling thoughtful and uplifted. Below are a few pictures taken on the campus this morning.

Thames 1

Thames 2

Thames 3

image

And then I wandered a bit further along the bank of the river and found Jack – a fugitive on the run – sitting placidly under a tree, enjoying the morning sun.

I have since found out that Jack, a capybara, escaped first in 2010 from a wildlife park. He has been captured several times and always gets out again. In fact, he is a bit of a celebrity and the subject of local publicity (this report was evidently premature in its news of Jack’s final capture) a familiar visitor to Greenlands.

Jack the escaped capybara, October 30th

Jack the escaped capybara, October 30th

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new yorker you are here

“It’s in our DNA…”

This is an expression that is much in circulation these days. So much so, in fact, Private Eye magazine now has a regular feature called ‘DNA Testing’ which has plenty of examples culled from journalism. I figured that it will surely follow that the people who manage organisations and (far more dangerously) the people who write theory about how organisations should be run, will become tempted to follow suit and use the same idea as a logical form of explanation.

And sure enough, in Blackwell’s, which is a fine bookstore in Oxford, I found evidence* of just such a trend in Rhea Duttagupta’s 2012 book “Leadership: It’s in your DNA” (Bloomsbury Press, available – evidently – in many fine bookstores).  By way of mini review, the book appears harmless enough at first glance, and is written using a reflexive, folksy style. I’m sure it is well-intentioned in its central assertion that Leadership can be defined in 10 key ingredients. Be warned, the list consists of a set of concepts which are drawn from a rag-bag of the usual suspects in central casting, such as “Self”, “emotion”, “fear”, “dark side” and “intuition”… you get the idea. There is nothing new here, though.

One first sees that this list is built around an assertion that these elements are innate traits. This is the long-standing pop psychology mantra of “you have all the ingredients for success as a leader inside you”, is a well-worn path to an individualist and reductionist notion of the person. Second,  there is an equally well-worn path to a behaviourist tradition in the realisation of the self in management practice. It is within the paradigm of these grand antecedents that the logic of the metaphor ‘these 10 ingredients = the DNA for Leadership’ is selected. This feels like  a worryingly literal, not to say absurd, suggestion. It’s a shame, really, because using an abductive form of inference could have been a really good way to try to understand this phenomenon we call leadership. The problem is that there are no ‘things’, no nouns, no ‘instinct’, no ‘self’ etc. in our DNA, despite many of us finding this a useful way of processing what we think DNA really does. DNA must operate, if it can be said to operate in an isolated way at all, in a system of relationships. It functions relationally, in dynamic and complex arrangements of contexts, boundaries and thresholds, and not in terms of coded properties which are embedded as traits. It is incorrect, though tempting, to say that DNA contains ‘information’, because information is always a matter of relationship and ratio. A trait-view of genetics, however, fits nicely with a trait-view of human beings. And this, despite the humanism evident in the choice of the 10 ingredients, is what I think Rhea’s book is claiming.

Doubtless anyone using this phrase will be aware that they are employing it as metaphor, but I suspect that paradoxically it is a message of the book that the metaphor be understood literally. It would follow that  all the incredible technical advances in neuroscience and in our understanding of the biological functioning of the brain is also  the explanation of how we think and act. The basis for this claim is flimsy, but not because the examples Rhea uses in the book aren’t any good, or aren’t interesting, or that she lacks conviction. All three of those things are there. The real problem is that this is just, to borrow a phrase from Bateson, ‘shoddy epistemology’. In other words, when the way we think we know things is not in line with the way we know things, the results will end up being catastrophic because our ability to use technology and abuse our intelligence in pursuit of short-term domination of our situation is always unsustainable.

Postscript

I found my thinking got a bit knotted in writing this, and I’m not sure the main point comes across. So, I’ll re-state what I think it is I’m trying to say:

1. it is a trap to take metaphor literally.

2. Metaphor is the key to understanding how the world actually is (it is just a shame to say it).

3. To confuse the properties of the referents of a metaphor with the metaphor itself is to make a categorical error in thinking.

*A quick review of Amazon books later showed me that the use of this DNA metaphor is spreading… see also Judith Glaser’s “The DNA of Leadership: Leverage Your Instincts To: Communicate-Differentiate-Innovate” (Platinum Press, 2007), or Thomas Harrison’s “Instinct: Tapping Your Entrepreneurial DNA to Achieve Your Business Goals” (Business Plus 2005), or Silverman and Honold’s “Organizational DNA: Diagnosing Your Organization for Increased Effectiveness” (Davies-Black Publishing, 2003)…

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I don’t know where Malala Yousafzai will be in the future, nor can I know the context in which as a 14-year old campaigner for education for girls in Pakistan she was the target in a deliberate, ignorant and contemptible assassination attempt, but right now as a clear-thinking and brave 16-year old, she is incredibly important to the idea that education has a purpose, and that education is the only thing that holds any hope to break the unbroken global cycle of economic, ecological and ideological hubris.

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Henley, on a cold and frosty morning

Henley, on a cold and frosty morning

I warn you now, I’m not sure this posting will be of any use to you.

I can’t help but notice that many who come to spend time at Henley arrive with a particular outlook on action, and a particular attitude toward thinking. I’m going to label that outlook “pragmatist”, though in truth this is just a piece of second-guessing on my part. That I venture an opinion on this at all is merely and partly from crude, subjective observation, and only with some hesitation.  I shall try to defend this by defining how I think a pragmatist thinks, and then counter that view by suggesting a shortcoming or two, as well as (not surprisingly) a hint at a different outlook.

The term ‘pragmatist’ has a reassuring allure to most managers (arguably, less lustre for those identifying themselves as leaders) because it holds the promise of getting things done, and done in a way that is neat, doable and matter-of-fact. It is almost shorthand for no-nonsense, if not quite common-sense. A pragmatist is a realist, conscious that the world is complex, yes, but equally aware that too much contemplation can get in the way of getting to the next thing. And there is always a next thing to be got to. The pragmatist will tolerate intellectual dilly-dallying only for so long, and will press sooner or later (sooner, actually) for reason to prevail and action to follow.

But the word has a long and fine history in thought, and a deserved place in the story of the philosophy of science. It has in its time been the informed view of many management thinkers and educators, especially in the US, where the term was coined in the late 1800s.

I take the four basic premises of pragmatism to be:

1. A focus on human action in any given situation

2. A view that knowledge is learned, remembered or acquired only according to its utility (or usefulness to action).

3. Humans respond to their environment indirectly, and through a process of interpretation (a big one, this, because it follows that descriptions are abstractions of experience, not experience itself).

4. in any given situation, the usefulness of objects influences what humans select to notice.

Pragmatism is important because it  wants to show that knowledge (which is the focus for action) is open to a scientific method of enquiry. The route for this is inference from empirical sense-data. This is clearly an attractive idea in the world of management – which wants to exert control over a world understood to be concrete and measurable. Enquiry, thought leading to action, becomes the process of better getting to grips with (and better getting control over) one’s environment. Whether or not what one believes to be true is in fact, or in someone else’s opinion, ‘the truth’ matters only so far as it affects that goal. Pragmatism is realist, but only as far as is minimally necessary in that particular ecology of inquiry to inform an action. In the last 100 years, and just as forcefully today as in the periods of social upheaval before and after the Second World War, pragmatists have influenced the formation of policy in science, education, democracy and public policy (including the formation of laws and norms that dominate the context of nearly all global trade, commerce and business). At an individual level, our identification with material gain, consumption, our views of what constitutes ethical practice in business, our tolerance of work practices and acceptance of the functional superiority of a ‘belief’ over a ‘truth’ all owe something to the legacy of the pragmatist tradition. We all go along with the prevailing view because we believe that, all things considered, it works. Whether it is in some sort of abstract or meta-level way true is less important.

In terms of drawbacks, I would like to suggest three.

First, a pragmatist has nowhere to go in terms of explanation other than to the linking sense-data and experience. In other words, they are limited to the forms of inference that rely only on the links between empirical data and events.  By this (and as mentioned in several previous musings on the blog) I mean induction and deduction. What is absent here is abduction. It is worth stating that the early proponents of pragmatism coined and were very interested in abduction, but something seems to have been lost along the way.

Second, this brings me back to whether or not a Business School has any business to disavow someone of the view that it doesn’t really matter how the world really is as long as how YOU believe the world is seems to produce results. I suspect not, but doubt that others do.

Third, and the original point of departure for this whole rant, the usual mantra of “the purpose of contemplation is action” ought to be turned round.  Reframed “the purpose of action is contemplation”, it changes everything.

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