Posted on Linked-In, June 5, 2015
For years I’ve marveled at the many models generated by scholars, academicians, authors, and the media about complex topics: leadership, relationships, love, emotion, cognition, motivation, etc. People seem to believe their models capture the underlying construct and can then be reduced to 5 or 6 variables, connected with directional arrows, and studied empirically via experiment and observation.
Alfred Korzybski, the famous Polish-American scholar & philosopher is credited with saying: “the map is not the territory.” Unfortunately, his quote has been distorted into “the map is not the terrain”.
Whichever quote you prefer, the message is clear: our representation of reality is not reality. Our models are not reality. Probably not even close. Philosophy struggles across the centuries to understand and define what ‘reality’ is. In many ways we have not progressed beyond the early philosophers like Aristotle and Plato and their notion of a mind/body split. However, I am not suggesting we stop trying.
A mentor during my graduate school days commented on academic psychology and psychologists: “they’ve taken what is important and atom-ized it”. Said another way, we reduce complex ideas, constructs, and thoughts into models of 5 or 6 (or more) boxes and include causal arrows to tie them together, then study, collect data, and develop theories about how the pieces work together.
Psychology, sociology, and the other social sciences have a more challenging task in some ways than chemists, biologists, and physicists. We are attempting to measure, bracket, and codify abstractions conveying vast pools of underlying meaning into words, and from words to models. But words are ephemeral and ambiguous representatives of what is occurring, they are time-bound and culture specific. We are asked to build out from a platform of these words to predict human behavior.
My major point is the need for caution, modesty, and humility when trotting out a new leadership model (or any leadership model) and expecting people to revise their thinking and see the world our way. I doubt reality is so cooperative. Perhaps we should spend more time on thought and experience… and produce fewer models…and be more tentative than declarative when we do.
Randy Cheloha, Ph.D. has been consulting to senior executives for over 30 years. He is a licensed psychologist with graduate degrees in both industrial and clinical psychology. This foundation anchors and informs his perspective. He has expertise in executive assessment and coaching, succession planning, and career transition.