Certainty of anything is rare so good leaders work to develop their personal capacity for identifying gaps in their knowledge such as knowing a question but not the answer (known unknown), recognizing there are times when we overlook relevant information (unknown known), and embracing situations in which we don’t even know the question that needs to be asked (unknown unknown).
- Stephen Pinker, Entrepreneur Magazine, July 26, 2018
Learning to accurately judge what we know and acting accordingly is crucial to managing uncertainty. Indeed, asking questions has been critical to human progress and evolution. For many centuries, humanity tended to trust charismatic authorities who told people to not ask questions and to blindly accept what the leader believes as the truth, often at the pain of death. As the great American philosopher Charles Sander Peirce said in 1877, “when complete agreement could not otherwise be reached, a general massacre of all who have not thought in a certain way has proved a very effective means of settling opinion.” (C. Peirce, The Fixation of Belief, Popular Science Monthly 12 (Nov. 1877), 1-15.)
Over time, unquestioning acceptance of a leader’s belief has gradually given way to a more scientific approach of searching through data and experience to create working hypotheses, testing them, and replacing them with new hypotheses. In today’s complicated and complex world, we create knowledge in a professionalized and structured manner through networks of experts (e.g., universities, think tanks, and systems such as hospitals, courts etc.) that are comprised of trained people. This institutional capacity to create knowledge works best when fueled by individual curiosity and continuous inquiry.
Why then don’t more leaders follow the example of Paul O’Neill and Stanley McChrystal who we profiled earlier as models of how to build powerful group intelligence that is able to thrive in a state of perpetual uncertainty? Why do some leaders rarely ask for help? Some of this hesitancy to ask questions occurs because society tends to celebrate exceptional individuals and to ascribe progress to them.
Consequently, leaders face strong social pressure to appear confident which may keep them from asking questions and taking the time to weigh issues fully in a collaborative manner.
The truth is that most of us have a superficial understanding of how the brain works. Omniscience is physiologically impossible because the human brain is not made to store details like a computer or the “cloud.” Cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach explain in their book, The Knowledge Illusion, Why We Never Think Alone (2017), that the brain’s primary function is to determine the best course of action in any given situation. It performs this function by extracting the most useful and important information from every phenomenon it encounters. The brain then abstracts this knowledge into general principles that it can apply to different situations. These general principles are known as heuristics which are mental shortcuts and rules of thumb that help the brain to handle the massive influx of information we process on a moment-by-moment basis. In short, heuristics are valuable because they shorten decision-making time and allow us to function without constantly stopping to think about the next course of action.
An inherent weakness of heuristics is that they create an illusion that we know and understand more than we really do. Think about everyday life – trying to fix a leaky faucet and flooding the bathroom or trying to a help a child with math homework and ending up stumped by algebraic equations. Heuristics also explain why some people are vulnerable to wild conspiracy theories or readily accept pessimistic predictions. All of us have fallen prey to flawed heuristics – refusing to consider a new truth without absolute evidence (“all or nothing fallacy”), giving more weight to evidence that supports our views (“confirmation bias”), and forming opinions based on a memorable event or news story (“availability heuristic”). Yet we know that it’s better to work with probabilities because total certainty doesn’t exist, to seek input from those that don’t share our perspective, and to engage in quantitative fact-based research.
Ultimately, the leader’s job is to not only set the example of how much more there is to know (by asking questions) but to demonstrate a belief in progress. Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, makes the case for such leadership in his book, Enlightenment Now (2018), which is a treasure trove of facts and research demonstrating how, contrary to the perception of some, life is getting better across a host of measures. For example, rates of disease, starvation, poverty, illiteracy, crime, and workplace injuries have been steadily decreasing in the United States and across the world. Yet because of heuristics and the daily news, it’s tempting to think that things are getting worse, not better.
How can leaders keep things on an upward trajectory? Some of it is mindset – problems are best seen as part of living in a world of uncertainty, not simply as “the decline of Western Civilization.” Problem-solving becomes practicable when we form diverse teams who can examine data and engage in open-minded hypothesis testing. Effective leadership, therefore, means rejecting those who claim nothing could be worse than the flawed status quo and who undermine institutional capacity to improve the human condition (e.g., liberal democracy, science, markets, the rule of law, and international organizations etc.). Outstanding leadership requires something more; it requires understanding that human progress comes when we use problem-solving to help others flourish in the same way that each of us seeks to flourish.
In sum, helping an organization flourish means recognizing what we don’t know and turning to other people to fill the gaps. With complicated and complex uncertainty, the most powerful thinking is often produced through collaborative expertise that is the product of harnessing the collective brain power of the team. We turn to the challenges of facilitating collaboration among experts in the next section.