A Concern for All Good Leaders: The End of Why

by | Oct 29, 2015 | High Road Leadership

“I didn’t know how to fix the door lock so I found a video on YouTube and discovered how” my friend Jon reported to me recently. When my son-in-law and daughter decided to paint the interior of their house—something neither had ever done before—I expected them to call on me (a self-titled expert) for advice; they didn’t. Upon completion of this project they told me, “We watched some videos on painting.”

Jon and my children are not the only ones who find answers on how to acquire a ‘skill’ in a just-in-time manner. I constantly hear this comment, “I found out how to do it on the internet.”

Seeking the How
According to DMR , the year-by-year growth for YouTube views beginning with “How To…” is 70%. In the first 4 months of 2015, over 100 million hours of “How To” content was viewed. 67% of millennials believe that they can find a YouTube video on anything they want to learn.*

Looking for answers on how to make, build, fix, remove, or do something is now a habit, even though in the scheme of things, this is a relatively new phenomenon. We used to call on or seek out experts when we lacked a skill. We once searched for the information needed in the Yellow Pages, a hardcover dictionary, an encyclopedia or similar reference book. Speaking about doing book-based research, at its peak in 1990, Britannica (publisher of the most used reference book in history) sold more than 100,000 units of its 32 volume, 129-pound product. Britannica killed off its 244 year-old encyclopedia product in 2013.*

Before this ‘information age’ we find ourselves in, when I sought out how to paint or fix a door lock, the expert who showed me how usually shared with me hard won wisdom which included a lot of the why, the context for the knowledge I needed.

I am not lamenting this transformation. I too use Wikipedia, Google, Bing, Yahoo! and (of course) YouTube to fill in my knowledge gaps. I am concerned however that mankind could quickly lose something valuable and necessary to our growth as a species. A critical element of learning will soon be lost because of our instant gratification demand of finding answers.

People will not know the why behind what they are doing.

The oft-quoted Chinese proverb of “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” might seem applicable to our instant search habit. It is not. However, the concept that “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it think” is the more appropriate idiom.

Having data points at your fingertips may feel like you are smart. It is not! True intelligence comes from understanding and being able to decipher the context of those data points. The human brain retains the reason longer than it retains the how. Children are learning machines and acquire information at an astonishing pace for the first 10 years of their life. Not only do they seek out how, they also want to know why. Have you been with a 2-year old recently?

Our brains always need a context or framework for newly acquired information so that it can convert it to recoverable knowledge and repeatable wisdom. I fear that the more we rely solely on the Internet for answers to our questions, we will become more like a robot: a machine that follows its coding (the how) but is unable to determine the reason it has been given that instruction (the why).

Quite often, when I seek out meaningful information on the web, the most popular sites are blogs and answer wikis. Both of these popular website types contain opinions, not facts. Yikes! If you want proof, try this: On any search engine, enter “answers” and see what sites come up first. Search for a timely newsworthy story and notice how many blogs are listed on the top 20 sites. Double yikes!

Questioning Accuracy
Another concern I have is that the data points people seek out may not be entirely accurate and by lacking the framework for the information you seek, you will not know if it is wrong or misleading. Searching for knowledge on Wikipedia is the acceptable standard even though the accuracy of these ‘facts’ are always in question. It is ironic that when I search for “How accurate is the information on Wikipedia?” I found this page on Wikipedia.

Reliability of Wikipedia: The reliability of Wikipedia (primarily of the English-language edition), compared to other encyclopedias and more specialized sources, has been assessed in many ways, including statistically, through comparative review, analysis of the historical patterns, and strengths and weaknesses inherent in the editing process unique to Wikipedia. Incidents of conflicted editing, and the use of Wikipedia for ‘revenge editing’ (inserting false, defamatory or biased statements into biographies) have attracted frequent publicity. [citation needed].

That is akin to you asking a colleague with a personality defect, “Did you know that people can’t stand you?” The response you will likely get is “I don’t have a problem!” because of a state of denial and the person’s desire to save face after your embarrassing question.

I find it amusing that Wikipedia’s assertions about “revenge editing” lacks a citation and this underscores my point. The first part of this information has apparently been researched and citations provided. Therefore, I could choose to accept it as accurate or factual. But the second part that starts with “incidents of conflicted…” has no documented credence. As a result, the reasoning part of my brain automatically puts up a caution flag: ‘reader beware!’ However, if I did not know the ‘why’ behind basic research such as why I should be skeptical and why I must seek out multiple sources of information, I will likely accept this information as entirely factual.

Connection to Leadership
Leadership is having influence and impact. Good leadership is about having beneficial impact and positive influence. Yet throughout mankind’s history bad leaders – dictators and such – always get rid of their country’s or society’s thinkers. They change the prevailing narrative, ban the native language, and prohibit the sharing of historical lore. They usually attempt to strip away basic reasoning so that no one can question why the ‘leader’ is making the transformations that usurp power. The bad leader does not want the followers they subjugate to think or to question, but instead simply obey and do as they are commanded. A bad leader wants and needs people to be robots.

The good leader wants and needs followers to think for themselves and to question authority. These actions make the team, company, and nation stronger. Followers who ask why cause the good leaders to question their motives and to stay on the High Road®. The good leaders acknowledge that they do not have all the answers nor all the skills needed to make the group successful. These leaders need people on the team to share their knowledge and wisdom necessary to creating intellectual synergy, which makes the whole team stronger. The good leader wants and needs smart people, not robots.

Imagine trying to lead a group towards some distant and challenging future. Imagine that every time you pose a question, your followers search for the answer on Google. Imagine that no one can make a decision without checking out a YouTube video first.

Ludicrous, right?

And yet, unless you instill in your people the need to grasp the context or explore the why of what they are doing, this is a very likely scenario for all leaders in the very near future. Teach your followers to discover the why before that they seek out the how on important decisions and critical actions.

*DMR website. DMR is a clearinghouse for original and curated digital marketing tips, statistics, and strategy.
*Harvard Business Review, March 2013