Real Life Leading #10: "The Illusion of Enlightenment" -- The Danger of Thinking We Know More Than We Do

Real Life Leading #10

“The Illusion of Enlightenment” -- The Danger of Thinking We Know More Than We Do

Last February, I was involved in a significant car wreck while traveling home from soccer practice. It was dark, it was raining, and while I was driving at 65 mph down Highway 431 in Alabama a large truck pulled out from a gas station when I was about fifty yards away. For some reason, the truck was slow to pull across my two lanes, and so as I approached, I was faced with having to make one of three choices: 1) pull my car right, off the road, and into a ditch; 2) go straight into the side of the truck (I drive a small sedan) at high speed; 3) pull my car left into oncoming traffic. Now, when I tell this story to my high school students, the typical question I get is, “Why didn’t you just hit the brakes?” usually asked in a tone of condescension reserved only for those who are blissfully ignorant of key aspects of a discussion.

In response, depending on my level of patience that day, I (either patiently, or less patiently) explain a few things to my students (mostly freshmen and sophomores whose average driving experience is less than a year): 1) that hitting the brakes on a wet road at 65 mph wouldn’t have actually stopped the car in the space available; and 2) it might cause hydroplaning, causing me to have even less control of the car; and 3) it’s always interesting that people who don’t really know how to drive suddenly seem to feel qualified to give advice to people who do.

To be fair to my students, all generations have the tendency to assume they know better than previous generations, and so my students may or may not be any more arrogant than we were as children. In fact, I would argue that the propensity to assume we know much more than we do is something of which we are all guilty, especially in today’s society fueled by smart-phones and internet access.

That is, as leaders and simply as people, we often have a tendency to assume that we know much more than we actually do. Students are convinced they don’t need to study because they can simply look up whatever they need to know using wikipedia or similar sites; parents are convinced that they know as much as doctors because they spent time researching on webMD; and people like myself are convinced that we’re smarter than everyone else simply because we try to remain informed about news, sports, current events, etc.

As if this illusion of enlightenment wasn’t enough, the tendency to have our preconceptions or assumptions confirmed is furthered by the self-imposed echo chambers of social media. On our facebook, twitter, and instagram feeds, we are often only exposed to articles or statements that confirm our own opinions, confirming what we already know, or think we know. This in turn reinforces our belief that we know what we think we know, and it also lessens the likelihood that we’ll continue our research with openness, since we’re already convinced that we’re right. And as leaders, this is extremely dangerous territory.

If we are to lead well, we must 1) be aware of the dangers of this illusion of enlightenment, and 2) take steps to avoid it and to lessen the effects of it when we have already fallen prey. In leadership positions, we are often the decision makers, the managers, the ones responsible for making things function the way they are supposed to. As a result of that, we are in danger of, as coaches are often warned about, “believing our own press,” or becoming satisfied in our own knowledge and expertise. When that occurs, our leadership is likely to stagnate, since we are no longer pursuing ways to improve because we are already convinced that we know what we’re doing. We may not think of it in these terms, but this pattern can be observed in many situations: husbands who become inattentive of their wives, coaches who lose the commitment of their players, teachers who refuse to consider new methods or different classroom projects, etc. In all of these situations, the result is the same: the illusion of enlightenment leads to a lack of continued intellectual growth.

Thus, after becoming aware of these dangers and the negative results that inevitably follow, we must examine our current leadership situations and see where we have already become stagnant, and we must takes steps to correct this. In short, we must begin anew the process of becoming a leader, an expert, a student. The solution, then, is humility: we must be willing to admit that we don’t know as much as we think we do, and we must back this up by seeking information even when we think we are already experts in our given areas. We must purposefully seek out new information, even from sources we know we disagree with. We must humbly ask others for guidance or suggestions, and we must be willing to consider their answers, rather than immediately rejecting them based on our previously held assumptions.

The purpose of leadership is to positively influence others in whatever roles we are in. This can be accomplished in a wide variety of ways, in different stages, at different times. But throughout all of those, the danger of becoming self-satisfied, of becoming prideful, of being convinced that we know best, is ever-present. The danger of the illusion of enlightenment is very real, and thus our response must be conscious, it must be intentional, and it must be continual. Good leadership is crucial, and in our ever-changing world, good leadership requires constant learning, an open mind, and a willingness to entertain alternate viewpoints while remaining true to our worldview and underlying beliefs.

Action Step: This week, identify one area in which you feel like an expert, and then go and spend ten minutes researching that same area. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you find something new that you didn’t know, or a new perspective to consider.