Monday, June 17, 2013

Passion, Wisdom, and Humility

Guy Kawasaki, giving a speech about innovation in Minnesota recently, repeatedly spoke of the destructive combination of arrogance and stupidity. I had to wonder if some, in an audience filled with business and IT leaders, found themselves relieved to be arrogant and intelligent.

While this recipe for success might be true for them. First off, intelligence is not enough. What value is intelligence if it can't be articulated? What value is it when it is articulated but no one can stand the message?

What's required is wisdom. Arrogance erodes wisdom. And no wise person , in my estimation, will ever be arrogant-- not openly.

The recipe arrogance and intelligence is as useless as arrogance and stupidity. Failing to understand this and, worse, failing to see a difference between intelligence and wisdom is just plain stupid.

What about passion? Is it enough to be passionate about what you do? What if your passion is used to drive destructive outcomes? Not wise.

Arrogance and stupidity are catalysts to one another (whichever dances lead is dominant). The outcome is destructive. Arrogance and wisdom are antithetical. The outcome is also destructive; unless, of course, the practitioner feels so full of wisdom that it doesn't matter what quantity is eroded by arrogance (surely an idiot at heart).

What about passion and humility? Passion without humility is almost always destructive. Humility without passion is simply good showmanship. Passion and humility are catalysts to one another with a positive outcome (whichever dances lead is made whole by the closeness of the other). Passion and stupidity are, of course, destructive... and common. Arrogance, passion, and stupidity is a lethal recipe.

With this, I'm left with some explanation of the irrational experiences that I occasionally have to put up with professionally. What's most maddening is that it is always the least rational person that dresses up their destructive habits in rationality. The Socratic method is the weapon of choice, or some wild interpretation of it anyway. This is, no doubt, the arrogant and intelligent recipe for (apparent) success.

What lurks behind these episodes is often transparent to all who are too kind to speak of it: poor past decisions, failures masked in diversion, incomplete work, unrealized vision, lack of understanding, incomplete knowledge, fear of incompetence, etc. I see ambitious people who seem to spend the bulk of their energy on the hard work of holding all of this at bay. Of course, the simple alternative is to admit when something didn't work or became an outright failure. But this is not the path. And once you start down the wrong one, it's nearly impossible to change direction.

Why should we care? I have seen this behavior fuel territorialism that erects barriers between organizations that really must work more closely for mutual benefit. I've seen it block attempts to measure quality, essentially rigging the results so that problems are obscured allowing claims of success where failure is the eventual outcome (institutional ADD aids in this deception since time most often erases the path to accountability).

We should care because it deeply effects performance. Often these people with destructive tendencies are in positions of power and/or influence. They are most often the passionate defenders of status quo and work against true innovation. While defending the status quo is a perfectly rational position in a company that has success, it is often contrary to the values espoused by leadership. A company that doesn't innovate can only ride on past success so long before they are passed up. Chances are comfortable margins will shrink and inefficiencies will stand out plain as day over time.

We should at least encourage defense of the status quo with transparency about the positions being held; leave the challenge to those who want change to criticize and offer cogent alternatives (they can otherwise be charlatans). But the legion of the arrogant and intelligent often cannot articulate a true defense of the status quo. They tap it only as a source of power to keep up their charade. They tell senior management that there is no need to improve what has already served us well or dress up the old as something new (apparently the true meaning of big data). They'll use wise sounding phrases like "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" when what's being defended is not actually good enough but is instead fractured and brittle-- and, this, they know too well.

Again, why should we care? Because, if we're worth our pay grade, we're ambitious and crave innovation. We aim to build and rebuild entire markets. We can't do that with illusions about what we know and what we've accomplished already.

Nassim Taleb wrote “true humility is when you can surprise yourself more than others; the rest is either shyness or good marketing.” In other words, you have to be keenly aware of what you don't know-- what you aren't.

If we're not careful, we'll be building skyscrapers with gravel foundations. It is dangerous to operate from illusions.

Let's call the spades spades and let them either adapt or bring their con elsewhere. Let's be passionate, wise, and humble. Otherwise let's change our mission to: enrich the current stewards while congratulating them for the accomplishments of the past.
Written with StackEdit.

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