Do Leaders Make a Difference?

There’s a great podcast over at BBC4 that considers the question of how much influence do leaders really have. It’s well worth the 30 minutes (only up on the site until October 2013, so hurry), but if you don’t feel like bothering, I’ll try to summarize.

It contains snippets of interviews with a variety of people (economists, politicians, historians, psychologists) of different political stripes (mostly left-leaning, but not all) talking about leaders in the spheres of politics, business, and sports and how much impact they really have.

One of the psych folks cited the fundamental attribution error as a driving force behind people’s tendency to blame or praise individuals for the success or failure of everything from the world economy to football teams. The fundamental attribution error suggests that people tend to attribute the cause of an event to the personalities of the individual actors (people involved in the event) instead of looking at situational factors (the context in which the event occurred), which often play a greater role. For example, if a company does poorly, we might be tempted to say, “they had poor management practices and made a series of bad decisions.” But other companies in a similar situation may have made the exact same decisions, but with very different outcomes. What was the economic climate like in general at that time? Was their target market particularly affected by a change in it? Were there geo-political issues? Some other factors not brought to light?

The reality often is more complicated than we want to admit, but we don’t want to consider that, because it’s too much work. It’s much easier to put a human face on it and lay the blame at the feet of some person when things don’t go our way. It works the other way too. If things go unexpectedly well, we might want to attribute it to some seemingly unique individual. Then we proceed to over-analyze this person in search of that elusive quality that others can cultivate in the hope that they too will one day be able to reproduce that success. As if the Midas touch could be distilled, bottled, and sold. 7 Habits, anyone?

So, we overemphasize the importance of individuals and their abilities, which leads organizations to focus on finding “rock stars” with mad skillz (at least until the next upstarts come along) and egos to match instead of finding people who are not only good, but more importantly, are able to raise the group’s collective capacity to do great stuff. And this, not by carrying them, but by helping them to up their individual game.

Anyway, that’s what I took away (with my two or three cents added for emphasis) and I agree with it for the most part. The one thing I think they all either neglected to mention or failed to recognize is that there are leaders that do affect positive change within their spheres of influence. Whether that change translates into financial success is another thing. But ultimately, it isn’t even about how much money they make, how many trophies they take home, or whatever legacy is important in their field. It’s about how they serve the people who work for them. Real leaders represent values that others can aspire to. They model behavior that makes others think, “hey, I can do that too.” When real leaders fail, they don’t point the finger at everyone else. And when real leaders succeed, they’re humble about it and they make everyone feel like they succeeded. These are the leaders with the greatest legacies of all.

The Presumption of Decency

Edward Glaeser is a professor of economics at Harvard who does research on urban growth and he’s written a short essay on a topic completely outside his area of knowledge. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting read. It’s titled The Presumption of Decency and I urge you to check it out.

I think he touches on a deep-rooted flaw in human thinking habits, one that frequently puts us on a path to a mindset that enables us to justify committing some the most atrocious acts against other human beings. And despite the remorse we may feel afterward, we do it again and again.

The fact is, our perspective-taking abilities are generally not very good. We also have incomplete access to the situational information of others. So when we try to understand the behaviors of others, we tend to assume it’s due to negative motivations or personality flaws. Social psychologists refer to this as a fundamental attribution error.

For example:

Ellen is ignoring me. She’s being a bitch.

Ummm, maybe Ellen is busy?

On the other hand, when reflecting on our own actions, we tend to be more forgiving. For example:

I have so much to do right now. I don’t have time to answer that email.

Are you really so busy, when you’ve already answered messages from several other people?

I suspect we are doubly likely to fall back on this heuristic when trying to understand those who are in conflict with us:

The police won’t let me take my bike through this gate. They are morons.

Maybe at one time, this was a useful heuristic, helping us to quickly identify potential threats so we could eliminate them before they became immediate dangers. But if something is not an immediate danger, shouldn’t we not be relying on a heuristic when we try to understand it? Shouldn’t we be making the investment of time to investigate more deeply to form a better conclusion?

Now that humans have armed themselves with weapons capable of death and destruction on a massive scale, perhaps it’s time to call this out as detrimental to us as a species. That is, if continuation of the species is important to us.

Let’s start by not always assuming the worst of others.

Cognitive Dissonance: Dealing With Yours

Sour Grapes!

If you’ve read any of my posts, you will quickly realize that I’m not highly edumacated. That doesn’t mean I don’t like intellectual challenges. I’m curious about a great many things, but I tend to lack depth of understanding because I’m simply not disciplined enough to work hard at anything, especially learning. Nevertheless, I like to talk about stuff and I don’t need a doctorate to do so.

Psychology (and more recently the more “technical” cognitive sciences) has always intrigued me. I fondly remember my ‘tween years, perusing the Intro to Psychology section of my single-volume Random House Color Encyclopaedia and being convinced I was afflicted by fully 3/4 of the mental illnesses it described. Good times. Anyway, over the last year, this concept of cognitive dissonance has been itching my brain.

For the uninitiated, an example[1] to illustrate. Assume the following are two statements made by the same person:

“I’m a law-abiding person.”

“I download Hollywood movies from torrentz sites like[2]”

Do you see the conflict between these two statements? If you don’t, you are a fucking idiot and/or you’ve arrived at cognitive consonance through some deft mental manoeuvring, aka rationalization.

Perhaps your rationalization involved some lame excuses such as, “The Hollywood-industrial complex is bilking consumers out of millions”, “I can’t afford it”, “movies, like information, software, games, art, and beer, should be free”, etc…

Whatever the case, you are able to justify to yourself a behavior (statutory theft, which is what it is whether you agree with that law or not) that conflicts with your purported beliefs (that you don’t break the laws of your jurisdiction).

We do a lot of this excuse-making on a daily basis. So much so that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. If we were to stop and analyze the motives behind most of our actions, we might uncover a rather unpleasant truth. But we don’t do that. Because we need to do X, Y, Z, because <excuses> (“I need to survive”, “I have a family to support”, “it’s for the common good”, “to protect democracy”, blah blah blah).

And this excuse-making, we do it both individually and collectively, and there are always those who will seek to leverage this. (And no, this isn’t a conspiracy blog, sorry to disappoint!)

The unpleasant truth is most of our actions and choices are based on what’s most convenient. If we can be honest with ourselves about that, then hopefully we’re in a better position to honestly question ourselves, at least as far as such a thing is possible.

“I recognize that I am making the expeditious choice, but at what cost? To me? To others?”

When someone challenges you on your beliefs or your motivations and an answer is on your lips in 0.2s instead of 0.5, check yourself. Is that rationalization cached somewhere? Where does it come from? You? Your peers? Society? Does it need to be reviewed? Check yourself before you wreck yourself.

The theory of cognitive dissonance was first expounded in Leon Festinger’s aptly titled A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. I have not read it, because tl;dr, reasons, etc. 😉 But I highly recommend it to others!

Footnote 1: For a more neutral example, see Aesop’s fable of the Fox and the Grapes.

Footnote 2: At the time of this writing, is not a real site, but feel free to report back if it becomes one.