Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2011:
DOUBT & LEADERSHIP

by John H. Lienhard

Today, thoughts on leadership and doubt. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I've been thinking a lot about doubt, certainty, and leadership lately. Leadership has become the new catchword of the 21st century. Every organization wants the word in its name. We have schools and workshops on leadership. And, if we are to be leaders, we must never, never, telegraph uncertainty.

Indeed, the Alpha males and females of our present world have taken to salting their language with phrases that express the certainty of tribal war lords. Instead of discretionary funds, a leader has a war chest. When a leader says, "at the end of the day" our eye scans the battlefield to see who's been left standing.

A leader trumpets determination with phrases that make of him, an admiral: "Not on my watch will this happen." For I shall "stay the course." Or a general: "We need to assume an aggressive posture." One that I find particularly odious is the leader who says to an underling who's asked a question, "Walk with me." That's a chillingly clear indication of whose time is valuable.

Think about people who phone "on behalf" of bosses too busy to dial their own phones -- of people who make appointments, rather than talking to you on the fly. The new breed of wannabe leaders see time, not as a gift to be savored and used, but a commodity to be possessed and controlled. I mourn the time wasted in one-hour appointments to deal with matters that could've been solved better and more humanely in five minutes of focused passing conversation.

So, what does all this have to do with the way inventive minds work? Well, learning and inventing are kin; both are processes of seeking out the surprise of something new. Certainty is learning's enemy, for it already knows and it cannot be surprised.

I offer a water analogy: If we want water, we head for the valley, not the high ground. Water flows to the humblest point, so that's where we'll find it. Once we really identify our ignorance, knowledge will flow in to make it go away.

But the certainty that comes with either leading or being led is so much more comfortable than coping with new ideas. Art historian Kenneth Clark once remarked that Leonardo da Vinci never took "Yes" for an answer. Like TV Detective Columbo, Leonardo always dug a little further to find what else he didn't know.

Columbo may've been fictional, but he very accurate role-modeled the value of following our ignorance instead of leading with our certainty. Though he never would've passed as a leader of anything, he used that near-saintly ability to create positive outcomes. If we stop and think, we all know people like that. But we have to stop and think, because they don't show up on our radar.

I suppose that leaders really do exist, but we can identify them only after the fact. They're the people who make good things happen. They're the people with the confidence that's required to doubt themselves.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Some will doubtless regard this as an indictment of some specific administration. However, the language that I quote, as well as the warlord concept of leadership, has been common to political leaders of both parties throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Indeed, it has been present as long as we've had written language to describe it.


Leadership (clipart)


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H. Lienhard.