It is not going over the cliff that's the problem. It's looking down after that.
The Lesson of Wile. E. Coyote
This piece was motivated not so much by current events but rather by reading something I wrote almost 10 years ago in a piece called Facsimiles, which was mainly my reaction after the fact to being a faculty member at the Educause Learning Technology Leadership Institute. But as is my style, I meandered into my subject matter by touching on some other themes first. This is the paragraph that triggered that piece I'm writing now.
We are in the midst of the post competence era. As I’m sure you’ll agree, the Bush White House can rightly claim naming rights for this new epoch that we find ourselves in. And thanks to the likes of Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich, for making it clear that the Bushies make the same mistakes over and over again, due to a combination of extreme hubris and an abiding cronyism.
I should note that 10 years ago was still before the burst in the housing bubble. So this was a reflection not based on the economy. The primary factors were the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina. Following that paragraph I went on to describe a different example, outside the world of politics. The Ford Motor Company had made a botch of things, acquiring a variety of more exotic car companies (Land Rover was one of those) based on overly optimistic forecasts of sales that didn't materialize. While the particulars are not part of the current conversation, the general approach seems like a perfect foreshadowing of the present.
In my fall course on The Economics of Organizations, somewhere in the middle of the semester we do a session on conflict (how to prevent it) based on Bolman and Deal's Chapter 8. I have a slide that gives a one-word approach to leadership. In honor of my mom, the word is in French. The word is - écoutez - which means listen. I have the students say the French word aloud in class as a group. Then they repeat the exercise. I'm not sure whether the message gets through to them. But I am pretty sure that in one brief session like that nothing else will.
Listening is actually quite difficult to do. It requires patience and humility. The listener might not like what he is hearing. The listener might not understand what he is hearing so ends up garbling the message. And the listener might not be willing to devote the time necessary to understand the full message. I will add a further issue that I experienced while an attendee at the Frye Leadership Institute, where there were 50 of us all very bright and able. The pace of discussion was faster than was my preference. I found myself wanting to linger on a point made 10 minutes ago but to do so I would lose the current thread. That seemed to happen repeatedly. Listening in that setting challenges getting a good balance of breadth and depth.
Near the tail end of my career as an administrator on campus, I found it harder to listen both on campus committees where I did not embrace what the committee was ultimately going to choose to do, and with my own staff, where it was far too easy to monopolize the conversation. So I believe I have some experience with the pitfalls. It is one reason why I prefer one-on-one conversation with peers, where there is more give and take. I enjoy those discussions. They seem all too rare now.
Many people don't listen. Such people opt for the heroic assumption as an alternative. It provides a quicker path to making a choice and doesn't challenge the person in their own held beliefs, at least not till after the fact when the evidence that the assumption was erroneous can no longer be ignored. One wonders if there is learning by doing, so people who make heroic assumptions get their just desserts, after which they are reformed in the future.
My conjecture on this is that if such an experience happens early enough in life then there is indeed the necessary sort of learning. The school of hard knocks has some excellent teachers. But people may be sheltered from the bad consequences early on in their lives. Making the heroic assumption then becomes a habit, one that increasingly hardens over time. How else does one explain the paragraph I excerpted from my Facsimiles post? It certainly seems to give an example in the old-dog-and-new-tricks category.
But I also expect there are cultural factors at root. In other words, if in your cohort of friends everyone else seems to be making heroic assumptions, you will too. Economists are not immune from the problem, witness the old joke with punchline - assume a can opener. Also, particularly in macroeconomics where controlled experiments are simply not possible, schools of thought may provide the heroic assumptions and may become so entrenched in the economist's worldview that he may not realize he is making any assumption at all. That's the problem with self-evident truths which eventually prove not to be true.
An old movie we should watch every so often is The Oxbow Incident, which demonstrates the nature of the people who make heroic assumptions, and how it comes about that people take the law into their own hands. Ultimately, this leads to tragedy. There may be learning after that, but the realization may also be too much to bear, which is what happens near the end of this movie.
Competence requires working backward inductively from the bad outcome to trace out the probable causes. Where those are human decisions, the competent leader avoids making those choices, opting instead for something different. I have the sense that competence is getting increasingly scarce. It certainly seems that way with our politics. I wonder if it is true in the business world as well. Bernie Madoff may well have been a canary in a coal mine.
It is unsettling to think this way. I would prefer a more optimistic view of the future, if that could be had without making my own set of heroic assumptions. Right now, however, I just don't see it.