Friday, May 15, 2009

Wisdom is Not Enough

I love history. I am also an entrepreneur at heart. Recently, I combined my passions by developing a business that uses battlefields as classrooms for corporate leaders. Since the fall of 2007 I have taken twelve groups of approximately 180 managers to the Gettysburg and Little Bighorn national parks. We have had incredible experiences together while studying these momentous events through the lens of individual leadership and team dynamics. I am continually struck by the power of history to teach. The learning from these battles is amazingly timely and highly relevant for leaders right now, especially in the deeply troubled times in which we live.

The challenges in history were the same as business leaders face today: How do we manage through profound change? How can we motivate our people in chaotic circumstances? How do we make good decisions despite imperfect information? How can we communicate more effectively? How do we see things from another person's point of view? How can we understand another culture in a global economy? How will we win or even just survive in a highly competitive and uncertain world?

One of the most dramatic leadership lessons that repeatedly presents itself is the idea that "wisdom is not enough."

Author and humorist Douglas Adams said: "Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so." How true. When faced with problems and challenges, no matter how complicated and unfamiliar, we all have a strong tendency to rely on skills, abilities and methodologies that have proven successful for us in the past. But sole reliance on personal experience can be a severely limiting factor and can hinder the new insights that are frequently necessary to achieve complex problem solving.

George Armstrong Custer had seen intense combat in the Civil War and was a veteran Indian fighter after the war. Everything in Custer's experience taught him that swift offensive action resulted in victory. He had led charge after charge at the head of his troops. He survived all of this violent action over many years virtually untouched, despite having eleven horses shot out from underneath him.

Further, Custer had never seen his Plains Indians opponents do anything other than scatter when attacked directly by a body of U.S. soldiers. Time and again he had known smaller numbers of white cavalry and infantry, and even scouts and civilians, to defeat larger Native American forces. Finally, Custer was a well-trained soldier and practitioner of the military arts. The conventional tactical wisdom of the day was that to split a combat unit, allowing one contingent to hold the enemy while the other moved around his flank, might be risky but could potentially provide a big payoff.

Given all this, Custer's decision-making at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana on June 25, 1876, was not surprising. He had received warnings from his frightened scouts about the immense size of the Native American village they confronted. Nevertheless, he moved quickly into action, confident in his own charmed existence, leading in the saddle and from the front. Despite his numerically superior enemy, he divided his forces into multiple wings in hopes of moving around and entrapping the village. To what was undoubtedly his shock and dismay, the angry young manhood of the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne nations turned and fought. Every man in Custer's immediate command perished.

For Custer, what might have been we will never know. Could he have risen above conventional wisdom- indeed his own wisdom based on hard-won personal experience- to think differently about the extraordinary situation he faced? Could he have decided differently based on his own studies of military history (he was a great reader and student of his profession)? Could he have behaved differently out of sage advice from people who knew what they were talking about- his scouts- but whose counsel he disregarded? In all probability, old mental models blocked the possibility of new insights. For his poor choices, disaster befell the team Custer was entrusted to lead.

Simply put, wisdom is not enough. Most of the time our lifelong learning serves us well (don't put your hand on that hot stovetop or you will feel pain). The challenge for today's leaders is, first, to recognize and acknowledge situations that may on their surface appear familiar, but are in reality new and more complicated than what has come before. Next, the trick is to marshal resources and elevate understanding. This can come through reading and study, discussion with knowledgeable people, feedback from diverse and unbiased sources, or development of rigorous processes. The goal, in the end, is to achieve better awareness and the higher level of decision-making capability necessary to make good choices in tough and unique scenarios.

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