Without a doubt

question-606955_1280 Back in my rock & roll days I spent more than a few late nights in gin mills and honky-tonks, downing beers with world experts on economic policy, foreign relations, and national security issues. Well, they sounded like world experts.

I was always impressed with the certainty and assurance with which these self-ordained authorities offered solutions to every societal problem imaginable. (I also wondered how these barroom denizens found the time to do the exhaustive research upon which their confident pronouncements had to be based.)

Likewise, in the public square today I am struck by the fact that candidates (at least one, anyway) for the highest office in the land can expatiate with total certainty on solutions to decades-old issues—without any apparent education in them.

Yet in a world of VUCA (a business acronym for the Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity of the modern marketplace) many industry leaders—who do have the education and experience—now profess to not have the answers, and suggest we not expect to have surefire responses to threats in this volatile and uncertain political, social, and economic climate.

In fact they're saying beware of those who make preemptive and presumptuous judgments on topics that are inherently complex and entangled. (In the economic realm, for example, we seem to assume that a trade deficit is bad, that immigrants never create jobs, and that Big Anything is evil.)

If all of this sounds familiar, you may recall my earlier post on the Dunning Kruger effect which postulates that individuals who are relatively unskilled at a task have an illusion of superiority at it—while lacking the metacognitive ability to recognize this! And individuals who are more skilled are likely to have more doubts about their ability. (Perhaps because of their recognition of the complexity of things?)

But as long as self-identified authorities have the swag to go with their proposed cures, we figure they must have or know something we don't.

Such overconfidence has worked fine for celebrity entertainers and their devotees over the years. Young fans eagerly followed Mick Jagger, Sting, Prince, etc. wherever they went—just as they do for Beyonce and Justin Bieber today. After all, uberconfidence is attractive and appealing. (And it suggests that these larger-than-life gods and goddesses must have the answer.) But in the fantasy world of pop music there's no real harm done when fans eventually wake up to the (mostly benign) illusion.

But in the world of business and finance, international relations, and governmental policy—where billions of lives can be affected by a single decision—Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity should command the respect of any societal leader. VUCA—like Shiva, the Hindu god of paradox—warns us that overconfidence can be fatal.

I should add that the Dunning Kruger effect is not new. Over a century ago British philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell observed, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

View the archive »

Never miss a post… get 'em by email or rss »


  1. It's obvious who the cocky blowhard is who's running for the "highest office in the land" and knows nothing about any of the issues -- and even less about the US Constitution. He lacks the ability to assess his own weaknesses and continues to delude himself. And to think that this doofus may have the nuclear codes.

    1. I used the term "metacognitive" deliberately, because individuals who lack emotional intelligence (such as the one you are referring to) are not adept at observing and evaluating their own thinking process. More specifically, it's a lack of "intrapersonal intelligence"—with which one can reflect on and evaluate one's own strengths and weaknesses. This is a weakness of someone with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as this individual apparently possesses. Check out NPD at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissistic_personality_disorder. It's a legitimate mental disorder.

    2. It's really frightening to me. He has no decorum, and decorum is what's necessary to deal with the blowhards running some of the more volatile/
      threatening countries in the world.

      1. Safe to say we're in uncharted waters here. Those US voters who decry the "status quo" assume that anything that upsets the status quo will be an "up statistic"—forgetting the lessons of WWII, Vietnam, the Iraq invasion and its aftermath, etc.

      1. VUCA should keep any leader humble but those running for office are never at a loss for the answer. It's not just Mr. T who has a problem there.

        1. Very true, for ALL political parties. That's one reason I never got anywhere running for office. I was never absolutely certain I was right about anything! But I did manage to finish a close fourth for Governor of Connecticut decades ago as an Independent. (Pause for applause.)

          Yet The Donald—of all the candidates I've witnessed in my lifetime—best exemplifies Dunning Kruger and a lack of intrapersonal intelligence. Perhaps psychologist David Dunning was referring to him when he said, "The incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge."

          The Donald is also a terrific exhibit of insecure, self-centered leadership. He'll keep me—as a leadership trainer/coach—in business for a long time as some business managers will try to apply his playbook.

  2. I suspect there's an inverse ratio between VUCA levels and public desire for sure and certain leadership. Until we can learn to live better with VUCA, self-centred leaders will prosper. And of course, if these self-centred leaders take us down the dumper, the public will want an even more self-confident leader to rescue us.

    "It's a volatile world and I'll do my best for you as things happen" is probably too honest to win.

    1. "if these self-centred leaders take us down the dumper, the public will want an even more self-confident leader to rescue us." Brilliant. A basic feedback loop that explains so much of what's been going on in the world, especially in the Mideast.

  3. Over my 73 years I've worked for about 60 of those years. In that time I have encountered many, many self described leaders. And I've experienced many people claiming to know they know what makes leaders. My experience was that most of them were wrong. I hear it all the time with "community leaders", "business leaders", religious, education, cooking ...throw any noun/adjective in front of leader and you'll find someone claiming to be one, or someone promoting someone else as one.

    So, I'm skeptical about and suspicious of self proclaimed/or flack proclaimed leaders.

    I have encountered perhaps 50 people in my career who I thought were real leaders (too hard to say what made them so...suffice to say I would trust them and work hard for and with them).

    So leaders, in my view, are scarce. The word is hugely, hugely, overused. I do hope that a genuine leader emerges from the present political soup.

    1. In fairness to a lot of those "community leaders" and "business leaders," I suspect the title has been foisted on them rather than assumed by them. And I also suspect a lot of the foisting is done by journalists who want to self-aggrandise themselves by appearing to have the ear of these "leaders." It's a lot more glamorous than saying, "I spoke to the GM of Corporate Communications..."

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

View the archive »

Never miss a post… get 'em by email or rss »