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“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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