Descartes Error: You Can’t Think Your Way Into Leadership

In 1637, Descartes’s famous postulate, ‘I think therefore I am’ was first published in his Discourse on the Method. Descartes’s premise served as a fundamental element in western philosophy and became a foundational premise in human consciousness. While the power of analysis and the human intellect is unquestionable, we live in a world that is suffering from the unconscious belief that thinking solves all ills and is the primary means in business success.  This postulate is also the basis behind many MBA programs that train many future executive leaders.  The overemphasis on the analytical side of running a successful business creates a kind of blindness that leads to many poor decisions within organizations.

There is no doubt the process of analysis is crucial to success in business. After all, innovative thinking has led to great leaps in technology and the tools of analysis which are invaluable to running a business and supporting its success. And I myself partner with many consulting firms that provide stellar analytical tools, and these tools add tremendous value in the assessment and development of culture, sound executive hiring and onboarding of executives and measurement of existing leadership competencies in managers.

However, when it comes to developing leadership, we are seeking to awaken a deeper, more resourceful part of ourselves that is closer to our core, which is the source of intellectual capabilities.  Certainly, the best leaders are incredibly smart and engage analysis, but well-honed thinking is a tool in their quiver, not the basis of their leadership. A true leader finds center in their heart and being, not in doing or thinking.

For many years the attempt has been made to develop leaders using a highly analytical process that includes:

  • Studying high caliber leadership in others and breaking leadership down into its parts that become a list of competencies. The underlying belief is a mechanical one that assumes if we can break leadership into its components, we then assess and train a human to take up the skills of leadership.
  • Building training programs to teach these leadership skills to the emerging leader populations. Again, the idea is, if we share the technical aspect of leadership competencies, they individual will begin to practice them.
  • Sending executives to expensive programs at highly esteemed academic institutions in hopes that greater leadership will be awakened through academic immersion into the technical nature of leadership and engaging case studies to learn application.
  • Encouraging senior executives to regularly read leadership books as a way to integrate leadership into their day-to-day management practices.

But the honest truth is, this approach has been a failure because when we follow this path, we are trying to ignite leadership using the same manner we engage in training technical skills.  And the failure of our current leadership development approach can be seen through our current leadership crisis.  Bottom line, we cannot merely download leadership conceptually into the human being.  Leadership is a matter of increasing awareness, presence, intuition and heart. All of these qualities are ALREADY available in the person, ready to be ignited when they come to realize, through experience, that they are MORE than they think. The question then becomes how to encourage this shift?

So, How Do We Develop Leaders?

What is this deeper original place we are tapping into when we develop leadership? It is about realizing that awareness that is the source of thinking and emoting. This upgrade in the consciousness of the human being involves igniting the part of us that is more attentive to context than content, that is more creative and less reactive towards what is happening. And while this might feel hard to grasp, it is easy for anyone to recognize.

For instance, take a moment and look at your left hand. If I were now to ask ‘are you your left hand?’ You would likely look at me like I was crazy and say ‘of course not, that’s just my left hand.’ You realize this because you are the one looking at it. Now let me ask you; how do you know what you are thinking or feeling? Just as when you looked at your left hand, it is because you can observe it.  The question then becomes, who is the one observing your left hand (or any outer objet) and your thinking (or anything within you)?

This hunkering down into our ‘right-ness’ all happens because we are like fish in water with our thinking. When we strongly believe something is true, it becomes a fact for us. We will debate our ‘rightness’ till we are blue in the face if we firmly believe in our opinion. Again, in the same way, that you are not your left hand, you are not your thinking. Why? Again, this is because you can observe both your left hand and you are thinking. That means there is something beyond thought in you that is observing what and how you are thinking about something. If this were not true, you would not be able to observe your thinking.

Therefore the core of leadership development requires one to be more attentive to the awareness that is always in the background observing everything, and that is also the source of creative ideas. In fact, Neuroscience has proven that 60% of decisions made are non-analytical. Again, when leadership awakens in the human being, individuals automatically being to appreciate the truth that context is (e.g. vision, culture, leadership) reins over content (e.g. results, processes, actions). This emphasis on awareness and context is not saying results, process and action are not essential. Of course, they are paramount! A leader realizes that when people feel inspired and embody the vision, their actions will be equally inspired and aligned.

When I develop leaders, I begin by helping them understand such distinctions and support them in recognizing where their true power lies, which is not on the analytical side of themselves. I assist them to learn the value of presence as a backdrop for generating more creative approaches and actions. It is important to emphasize; this shift does not discount the usefulness of analysis. In truth, it magnifies the power and practical use of it.

The problem is we have not learned to integrate an appreciation of being more self-aware and attentive to how we are thinking or emoting, assuming ‘well that’s just the way I think or emote – and there is no changing that.’ That is absolutely a lie and The unfortunate outcome of ‘Descartes Error.’ But now it is time to correct this for the sake of igniting greater leadership in the private, public and nonprofit sectors.  The correction will come when those aspiring to become leaders begin to recognize their ultimate power resides in understanding how befriend and rest in the true power within them.

About the Author David

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