Getting the Gurus We Deserve

In a democracy, it is said, we get the government we deserve. The same can be said of bestselling guru prescriptives. 

Malcolm Gladwell's new book What the Dog Saw, a compilation of some of his favorite New Yorker pieces, has drawn both praise and criticism. Personally, I'm not a big Gladwell fan. Shoot me. I'm told he's an interesting person. And he knows how to tell a good anecdote. But, at the risk of oversimplifying my critique of his work ... he oversimplifies. 

The general thesis of Blink, for example, was "trust your gut ... except when you shouldn't." Okay ... but why can you trust your gut sometimes, but not others? What does that tell us about what "gut" instinct really is? And what does that mean in terms of how we process information in the world? And what do we do with that knowledge? The really interesting points are left dangling. Why? I don't know, but I suspect it's because they're complex and not easily summarized ... and might muddy the simple and easily-grasped ideas or conclusions that are a trademark of Gladwell's work. 

If I'm not a fan of Gladwell, it's because I want to see robust logic behind an argument, depth to its exploration, and acknowledgment of the complexities and contradictions it may entail. Simple, neat answers don't appeal to me, because they don't resonate with what I've experienced in the world. But clearly, I'm an outlier in that regard. 

Judging from the sales of not only Gladwell's books, but the plethora of "3 step," "7 habits," "9 insights" and other success-formula books on personal and business improvement, there's an almost ravenous hunger in the world for simple answers on how things work and how to get the game right. And that hunger has only gotten more intense as the world has gotten more complex.

It's an interesting phenomenon. Surely one part of our brain knows that the world, or even the world of business, is more complex than the raft of simple, success-formula books promises. And yet, like a woman who, despite multiple failed affairs, convinces herself that this married man will surely leave his wife, we ... or at least a good number of us ... keep buying the fantasy. We keep being drawn to simple-sounding answers and solutions--to the tune of almost $13 billion a year. Even when, or perhaps because, they don't pan out to be true, as a writer for The Economist pointed out in a recent column.

"The Three Habits ... of Highly Irritating Management Gurus" takes the writers of those "3-step" and "7-habits" books to task on several fronts. First, for repackaging stale ideas as breakthrough insights. Second, for using seemingly "model firm" anecdotes to prove their points without a lot of rigorous research--anecdotes that often prove embarrassingly untrue several years down the road. And third, for  ... well, peddling those "three habit" success-formula lists and prescriptives. 

But "the most irritating thing of all about management gurus," the author writes, is that "their failures only serve to stoke demand for their services. If management could indeed be reduced to a few simple principles, then we would have no need for management thinkers. But the very fact that it defies easy solutions, leaving managers in a perpetual state of angst, means that there will always be demand for books like Mr. [Stephen] Covey's." 

Ironic, but true. If writers come up with list-based solutions, and oversimplified trends or observations, it's because there's a far larger audience for that kind of book than one titled, "Some interesting ideas that might prove useful to think about as you make your way through a very complex world." 

But why is that? One would think that we'd rather have a book that offers realistic assessments and thoughts on the tough choices and complexities we face than simple panaceas that sound terrific or comforting but describe a world that bears little resemblance to the mess we generally find ourselves navigating. 

If we don't, it's at least in part because humans are just so uncomfortable with ambiguity. There are all kinds of psychological studies on that point. We desperately want there to be a pattern, an orthodoxy, a model, or a formula we can simply implement or follow to find our way back to safe, clear, and happy endings. Even if we're told that real wisdom, strength and growth come from figuring it all out for ourselves, as we go. 

What's more, this tendency may be getting stronger in the next generation. I interviewed a business school professor yesterday who told me that she thinks MBA students today have a far lower tolerance for ambiguity than students she taught 20 years ago. She attributed the shift to the fact that many of today's students grew up with tightly scheduled lives and activities, leaving them little experience in exploring the world without structure, expectations, or guidelines. I think another factor may be the pressure they feel to achieve and get the "right" answer. 

But whatever the reasons are, if her observation is true, then it's cause for concern. Because there are dangers to oversimplification, as recent events in both our economy and Iraq have painfully reminded us. No matter what we might like to be true, successful leadership in an increasingly complex world is going to depend not on condensing it to simple terms, or finding the right prescriptive formula, but on getting comfortable enough with ambiguity and complexity to see a way through it. One thoughtful, creative and unique step at a time.