Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Marketplace of Big Ideas.

Nietzsche once said that we learn more from the errors of great minds than we do from the truths of small minds.

It follows, logically, that we learn more from the errors of great minds than we learn from the errors of self-important mediocrities.

What matters is that we learn. And that means engaging with big ideas, a practice that has largely gone out of fashion. People who indulge in deconstruction are doing something to the text, not learning something from it.

In its Schumpeter column the Economist explains that business leaders have much to gain by learning about the big ideas,that is, by studying the great philosophers.

In fairness, the problem begins much earlier than the first corporate retreat. How many students in the American university system have had the opportunity to study Aristotle and Plato, Hume and Kant?

In an age of political correctness, these thinkers, and others of their ilk are most often labelled part of the white male canon. In many cases their works are not read. If they are read, students are told what is wrong with them, not what they can learn from them.

Worse yet, many students learn about ideas by reading Slavoj Zizek and Judith Butler. If you want to know what Johnny and Jane don’t know how to think, you need look no further.

The business world is not much better. Schumpeter suggests that business retreats are more likely to engage budding executives in tug-of-wars and even sensitivity training. Surely, they are less controversial than big ideas.

He sets out the argument:

IT IS hard to rise to the top in business without doing an outward-bound course. You spend a precious weekend in sweaty activity—kayaking, climbing, abseiling and the like. You endure lectures on testing character and building trust. And then you scarper home as fast as you can. These strange rituals may produce a few war stories to be told over a drink. But in general they do nothing more than enrich the companies that arrange them.

It is time to replace this rite of managerial passage with something much more powerful: inward-bound courses. Rather than grappling with nature, business leaders would grapple with big ideas. Rather than proving their leadership abilities by leading people across a ravine, they would do so by leading them across an intellectual chasm. The format would be simple. A handful of future leaders would gather in an isolated hotel and devote themselves to studying great books.

Let’s say we want to teach executives how to engage with the great books. How would we do so?

Schumpeter responds:

Inward-bound courses would do wonders for “thought leadership”. There are good reasons why the business world is so preoccupied by that notion at the moment: the only way to prevent your products from being commoditised or your markets from being disrupted is to think further ahead than your competitors. But companies that pose as thought leaders are often “thought laggards”: risk analysts who recycle yesterday’s newspapers, and management consultants who champion yesterday’s successes just as they are about to go out of business.

The only way to become a real thought leader is to ignore all this noise and listen to a few great thinkers. You will learn far more about leadership from reading Thucydides’s hymn to Pericles than you will from a thousand leadership experts. You will learn far more about doing business in China from reading Confucius than by listening to “culture consultants”. Peter Drucker remained top dog among management gurus for 50 years not because he attended more conferences but because he marinated his mind in great books: for example, he wrote about business alliances with reference to marriage alliances in Jane Austen.

Surely, he is right. To take one example, how many executives doing business in China have read Confucius? How many know what it means in Chinese culture to save face? How many of them understand what a shame culture is?

If they are getting their information about shame from Brene Brown, they don't have a clue.

Since I once wrote a book about these topics, they are near and dear to my mind. Yet, the truth remains, if you want to learn about China, you should read and study Confucius.

Schumpeter recommends that companies offer philosophy seminars. He calls them inward-bound courses:

Inward-bound courses would offer significant improvements on all this. Mindfulness helps people to relax but empties their minds. “Ideas retreats” feature the regular circus of intellectual celebrities. Sessions on the couch with corporate philosophers isolate managers from their colleagues. Inward-bound courses offer the prospect of filling the mind while forming bonds with fellow-strivers. They are an idea whose time has come.

But, how could we sell such an idea, especially when it is sure to be controversial.

One might begin by saying that philosophy will help executives formulate policy and articulate concepts. Knowing how to think will help them to lead and to manage. After all, executives who know everything there is to know about logistics or IT might be unprepared to deal with complex human dilemmas.

Out political discourse also suffers because too many though leaders cannot deal with big ideas. How many of those who tout the value of equality, in the sense of equal rights, are confused to the point of thinking that equal means same? How much nonsense is purveyed around the notion that everything a man can do a woman can do too… and vice versa?

And how many of our thought leaders understand the dangers in trying to make life fulfill an idea, a theory or a narrative?

To be fair and balanced, how many people on the other side of the political spectrum really understand the idea of freedom? Or better, how many people think it’s an idea and how many people think it’s a practice?

How many people believe that freedom is another term for free-for-all? How many people believe that in a free market everyone can do as he pleases? How many people can explain the difference between freedom for responsibility and freedom from responsibility?

Those who love freedom and who tout the virtue of freedom often do not know how to define the concept. Thus, they end up confused to the point where some of them believe that multiculturalism is the ultimate expression of freedom.

We also see the cost of failing to understand big ideas when billionaires, feeling a need to break out of the constraints imposed by their businesses, decide that they should be making policy.

A billionaire who does not know his way around the world of ideas is more easily manipulated by someone who does. He can be manipulated into giving his fortune to people who pose as experts, but who want merely to advance their own cultural agenda.

Whoever decided that this or that billionaire knows how schools should teach children? The unfolding debacle that is Common Core seems largely to have originated in the mind of a billionaire who had too much time on his hands and who allowed his mind to be hijacked by people who want to impose their bad ideas on an unsuspecting public.

And, think about what would have happened if Sheryl Sandberg knew enough philosophy to have seen that the empty platitudes she learned in Women’s Studies are merely bad advice?

After all, what is “leaning in” but macho posturing? In other terms, it’s a bluff.  It is of very limited value, whether it is practiced by a woman or a man.

The point of any negotiation is to achieve a goal, not to pretend to be tougher than you are. Sometimes it’s good to lean in; sometimes it’s counterproductive. Some of those who learn to assert themselves might gain an advantage from it. Most, however, will not.

Obviously, it’s worse when the public debate over ideas is being led by celebrities. When people in the media spend time debating ideas that were promoted by an empty-headed celebrity they harm the ideas and make it even more difficult for anyone, business leader, politician or man on the street to think coherently, cogently and rationally.


David Foster said...

The management consultant Michael Hammer argued that the best undergraduate preparation for an executive job would be a double major: a tough scientific or engineering major combined with a rigorous humanities major. Electrical engineering and philosophy. Mechanics and medieval history.

I excerpted Dr Hammer's thoughts here:

Sam L. said...

My thought is that errors of great minds would be more likely to result in thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions, of corpses.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

I've often thought that deconstruction means taking apart a great work, slathering personal opinions and ascribing self-absorbed dalliances onto the author and characters, and then leaving the work in a pile of vomit on the floor. Destroying things is fun, but building things is challenging, requiring real thought. Today's liberal arts produces a lot of critics, but sadly few creators. But this is to be expected. After all, deconstruction leaves literature in an incoherent heap of its parts, and then expects the student to put it all back together and understand why the work is great. This rarely happens, because the approach to "study" of the work leaves it in ruin. No wonder young people don't think much of these old white guys. Instead, today's student peers into his glowing box, carrying on about a "new economy" and a "emerging consciousness." Yeesh.

Anonymous said...

"Surely, he is right. To take one example, how many executives doing business in China have read Confucius? How many know what it means in Chinese culture to save face? How many of them understand what a shame culture is?"

Continental Europeans dismissed the British as a nation of shop keepers, and China was steeped in the big idea of Confucianism for 1000s of years.

The English were more into small truths than Big Ideas.

But the English beat all.

Why? Truly good big ideas are built from small facts than imposed by a mega-conceit.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

True enough, good big ideas are built from facts, not imposed by a mega conceit. But that, after all, is basic Aristotle and it is surely a big idea.

I wonder how much China was really steeped in Confucianism over the millennia. Keep in mind, many if not most of the Sage's writings were destroyed by emperors who did not want people to read them.