How now, Brown Cow? Leadership and Ignorance

 In Communication, Leadership, Uncategorized

A story declaring 7% of American adults believe chocolate milk comes from brown cows has been republished, retweeted and giggled at by smart people across the globe.  I stumbled across the Washington Post article republished on the Sydney Morning Herald website last Friday.

The article reports that this ignorance is understandable; indifference about where food comes from is a by-product of an industrial food chain.  Add a dearth of food education and some researchers marvel that the number is not higher.

The tweeters and Facebook posters have been less kind.  A warm front of smug superiority has circumnavigated the globe; “how dumb are these people?!”

None of us should feel too superior.  In reality, most of us believe things to be true that aren’t.  There is a spectrum of course, but blind spots and delusions abound.  Whether it is the beneficial power of goji berries or consuming massive quantities of whey powder, the myths of trickle-down economics or that a millionaire President will make millionaires of all of us, human beings are reliably awful at assessing the nature and degree of our own ignorance.  As Michael Shermer convincingly posits in The Believing Brain, we want to believe.

Consider the Dunning-Kruger effect, that describes the phenomenon in which people of low ability are incapable of recognizing their own ineptitude.  I would expand researchers Dunning and Kruger’s definition to include people of moderate and even superior ability, who don’t notice that there are subjects they know little about, ignorant of their own ignorances.  Can we include the corporate oligarch, who with an inflated sense of their own importance, fails to address those drivers of organizational performance that fall outside their understanding?

I am grateful to the people who believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows, because I am like them.  I once thought that comedians and entertainers could hurt no one. That Christians, by definition, were even more trustworthy, and certainly, those kind shepherds tending the flock possessed, one and all, unimpeachable motivations and conduct.  Even as a worldly adult, I know I am more likely to suspend my powers of critical thinking and believe whatever is being said when in the thrall of a charismatic speaker.  This particular weakness seems to be common to all of humanity.

There are clearly more dangerous inaccuracies that plague human existence than giving brown cows credit for something only Big Food can accomplish.  There are some notable inclusions on the list or dangerous inaccuracies.

  • The majority is always right.   
  • That some races, genders or nations are entitled to more power, wealth and privilege than others.
  • The only games humanity is capable of playing are zero-sum-games; when someone wins, someone must lose. 
  • That the exploitation, abuse or vilification of human being, or any sentient creature, can be cleansed by a religious, economic or nationalistic argument. 

While there is a spectrum of ignorance, and a diversity of intelligences – be they in deficit or abundance – belittling the person who “doesn’t get it” achieves nothing, apart perhaps from a squirt of pleasurable neurotransmitters between the ears.  Smug, self-satisfaction is no nobler than this.

For a better response to the identification of ignorance, we can return to the Washington Post article, and Cecily Upton, an educator, who in reference to the research sees this as a cue for better education; “At the end of the day, it’s an exposure issue.  … Knowledge is power. Without it, we can’t make informed decisions.”

I believe that people, organisations, nations, and (what the heck), the whole planet will have a better time of it, when we focus on the important questions, come up with the best possible answers and take effective action.  I know that’s an almighty generalisation, but I think it’s a sound argument across all levels.   The process begins with people seeing something that warrants attention and naming it.

For some people and some issues, the best approach is to name it in a tweet; the chocolate milk of public discourse.

For others, a Facebook post, blog or LinkedIn article will connect the idea to an audience.

For others, it’s a multigenerational, evidence-based study published in a peer reviewed journal.

And for others, it’s a song, a documentary, a film, a play, a pamphlet, a wall poster or graffiti.

And the list goes on.

What this means to people who work in business large and small, is that when you see something that matters, you name it.  And you name it in a way that the people who need to know, get it.  Avoid belittling those who don’t know it or who can’t immediately see it.  It might be risks to safety, both physical or psychological.  It might be competitive threats, market opportunities or operational impediments.  I know this is old territory for the Business Improvement/Continuous Improvement folk.  If it’s not yet happening the way you want it, I recommend looking at the cultural dynamics and systems that either encourage or discourage people to speak up.

For individuals, consider those moments of truth when you feel the perhaps you are the only one in the room who can read the writing on the wall.  In the team meeting, the strategy session, the post-incident review, the pitch workshop;  what stops you from stating the obvious or even turning over the applecart altogether?  If it’s important, you should act.  It’s it’s hard to act, you should seek support.

What’s critical is that people keep naming the important things.  Not capriciously.  If every observation or revelation is declared to be important, then nothing is.  This not about creating more noise.

Nor should the argument lack relevance, logic or compassion.  My family and I returned from a visit to the Newseum in Washington with a fridge magnet that declares that Freedom of speech is not a license to be stupid.  There are standards of thought and or expression.

Whatever the medium, the onus is on the author, the composer, the poet, the artist to earn access to an audience’s nervous system through making their work enjoyable, thrilling or easier to consume through craft, humour, structure and discipline.  The desire to say something doesn’t entitle you to an audience.  If I want my writing to be read, I must be a better writer.  (I have resolved to join some of the conversations that I think matter.  I might even instigate one or two.   This has been a year of embracing my ignorance and diving into deeper waters of the unknown.  The more I learn, the more I discover how little I know.)

But if not now, when?

I didn’t start this post with the intention of pitching our services, but if you feel I’ve challenged you to act without providing a solution, then, yes, we help people in business clarify their perspectives and craft effective communication strategies to put their viewpoint onto the table in ways that change the game, but avoid the dramas created by belittling colleagues.  Sometimes it’s just about developing a concise elevator pitch.  I hope you know how to make contact if you think we can help.  Email me here.

But in a much broader context, I think we all must talk about the seeming conflicts between collectivism and individualism, the tensions between progress and preservation, how to combine the best outcomes of socialism and capitalism, and learn how to open up and keep people safe.  We must end the pointless, cyclical distraction of left versus right while people any political orientation, or none, get away with exploitation, abuse and slavery.  We can’t stand in silence while others suffer.

Leadership begins with seeing clearly what is present in your environment and gaining insight and understanding about why things are as they are.  Call it “Situational Analysis” if you will, but remember, it does not just apply to the macro-economic, political, social, technological factors influencing your organisation.  It’s also about the intimate, personal realities that shape perception and decision-making between the people in your team.

Leadership expresses itself by naming it.  Becoming a better leader involves getting better at naming things; naming the things that need to be named.

I’ve heard that the only way to get better at writing is to write.  So I will continue writing in the hope that my particular flavour will appeal to some.  Chocolate milk isn’t to everyone’s appetite.

It’s worth considering that 7% of American adults is about 17 million people.

And while chocolate milk isn’t everyone’s favourite, there seems to be a market for it.

David McCubbin
Corporate Dramatist, Communication and Collaboration Coach
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