Research conducted by Cornell University concludes that many people hold excessively favourable views of their own abilities – particularly the ability to think clearly and execute good decisions.
Apparently the boneheads among us routinely reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices. But get this… Their lack of self-knowledge also robs them of the metacognitive ability to recognise their stupidity.
In fact the intellectually impaired are more than likely to overestimate their capabilities, remaining supremely confident of their performance even when this is pointed out.
The report documents the case of McArthur Wheeler who, in 1995, walked into two Pittsburgh banks and robbed them in broad daylight, with no visible attempt at disguise. He was arrested later that night, less than an hour after videotapes of him taken from surveillance cameras were broadcast on the 11 o’clock news. When police later showed him the surveillance tape evidence, Mr. Wheeler stared in amazement. “But I wore the juice,” he mumbled. Apparently Mr. Wheeler was under the impression that rubbing one’s face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to videotape cameras.
Now this explains a lot. None of us is perfect. But if you are like me, you probably wonder why so many people in positions of power seem to behave like Mr Wheeler, frequently making wretched decisions yet still manage to convince themselves, and their constituencies, they are doing just fine. I am particularly thinking of some contemporary political and corporate figures (one hesitates to call them leaders) who cause immense harm by their actions with no thought whatsoever that they could be wrong. Think “weapons of mass destruction” and you will get my gist.
How is it that anybody can make such appalling errors of judgment while retaining such an air of confidence – and even superiority? Is it hubris? Willful negligence? Poor advice? Or sheer bad luck?
Actually it is none of these things if the Cornell researchers are to be believed. For the report insists these people make decisions that are imperfect at best and wrong-headed, incompetent, or simply dysfunctional at worst.
To leave you in absolutely no doubt I will translate for you: these people are ignorant! Clearly Charles Darwin knew a thing or two when he noted ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.
I started taking a personal interest in the relationship between leaders and pathological stupidity after my second book bombed. Compared with The Management Myth, which attracted rave reviews and quickly became a best-seller, Burying the 20th Century was a total flop.
At the time I blamed myself. I was distraught and totally non-plussed by the fact that it sold less than 3000 copies. My friends, colleagues, and my publisher shared my misery, trying vainly to comfort me and to help me come to terms with the fact that I had written a dud. ‘It’s the fickleness of the market’ my editor assured me. Others nominated everything from the book’s title to the esoteric nature of the writing. None of these excuses made me feel any better; nor did they really ring true. My intuition pointed me in a different direction, although it was not until a year or two later, when we were just starting research for my third book, The Five Literacies of Global Leadership, that I realised what was really going on. And it correlates to the Cornell study.
At the time we were working with some of the world’s most extraordinary and successful leaders – men and women from all walks of life, young and old, from diverse cultures, who were as successful in their professional undertakings as they were loved in their private lives.
It dawned on one of my colleagues, while she was testing for common traits of great leadership that, without exception, all of our subjects were highly literate. They devoured new books, magazine articles, academic papers – in fact anything they could get their hands on that would help them make sense of the world around them. Even dyslexia couldn’t put a stop to this craving: one incredibly successful entrepreneur has stuff transcribed into an audio format which he listens to in the gym and in his private jet.
It was only later that we discovered many of them also had a copy of Burying the 20th Century on their bookshelves. Indeed, some could even quote entire passages from the text.
I am now convinced that my shipwreck of a book had nothing whatsoever to do with the writing, the title or the market, but simply with the ability of people to comprehend (or not) what it was about.
The airheads, who are not literate, would have given it a wide berth, for sure. It describes a world full of meaning while they are caught up in a bundle of banal imagery and trite slogans signifying nothing. They are insufficiently self-aware to apply its lessons. They have nothing to say – and they are saying it by their actions. Whatever their expertise – policy, program or profit, it is the only thing they know or care about.
Sadly they have no need for books such as mine for they have no need for new data or knowledge. Nor do they have any truck with mysteries, uncertainties or doubts that might cloud confidence in their own abilities. They embrace certainty. And we admire and reward this certainty by continuing to appoint these McArthur Wheeler replicas to our company boards, governments and management teams. Now isn’t that stupid?