Leadership & Self-Deception

This is a good book. For two main reasons.

Reason #1: it frames leadership as being part of being in a relationship to others and to the environment (vs. simply “influencing others”).

From the Introduction:

“To give you an idea of what’s at stake, consider the following analogy. An infant is learning how to crawl. She begins by pushing herself backward around the house. Backing herself around, she gets lodged beneath the furniture. There she thrashes about, crying and banging her little head against the sides and undersides of the pieces. She is stuck and hates it. So she does the only thing she can think of to get herself out—she pushes even harder, which only worsens her problem. She’s more stuck than ever. If this infant could talk, she would blame the furniture for her troubles. After all, she is doing everything she can think of. The problem couldn’t be hers. But of course the problem is hers, even though she can’t see it. While it’s true that she’s doing everything she can think of, the problem is precisely that she can’t see how she’s the problem. Having the problem she has, nothing she can think of will be a solution.”
The Arbinger Institute (2010-01-11). Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting out of the Box . Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Reason #2: it talks about leadership as being a fundamental stance you take towards others (vs. being just a question of  skills or techniques). It reminded me of “I & Thou” by Martin Buber.

“Either I’m seeing others straightforwardly as they are—as people like me who have needs and desires as legitimate as my own—or I’m not. As I heard Kate put it once: One way, I experience myself as a person among people. The other way, I experience myself as the person among objects. One way, I’m out of the box; the other way, I’m in the box. Does that make sense?”
The Arbinger Institute (2010-01-11). Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting out of the Box (p. 37). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.
I highly recommend the book.
Despite our best efforts, all of us, at least some of the time, are “in the box”.

Of Dan & Dan

Since I am taking a short vacation, I will not be posting again in 2 weeks (my usual interval between posts) but in 4 weeks. To compensate for it, here is an extra-long post. Enjoy!

I am going to contrast and compare two different books: Dan Ariely‘s latest, The Upside of Irrationality; and Daniel Pink‘s  Drive.

Both books are terrific. They read very well. They are very engaging. The authors make an extra effort to illustrate their concepts in the simplest and most understandable way. They both use metaphors that are clear and effective in their power to explain. Not only these two books are a pleasure to read – they are also very informative.

Ariely’s book is sort of a sequel to his hugely successful Predictably Irrational: the Hidden Forces that Shape our Behavior. However in The Upside of Irrationality Dan Ariely’s takes a more compassionate stance towards the bias that make us irrational decision makers, a.k.a. humans. In keeping with this softer perspective, the book shines with many personal stories that are going to touch the reader. And it is no accident that the focus of this book is not “the consumers'” behavior but how people behave at work and in their own personal life. So we have 5 chapters about “how we defy logic at work”, and another 5 about “how we defy logic at home”.

Dan Pink’ s Drive feeds on the work of Ariely and many others on the science of motivation. Pink is a master in making the insights gained by recent research  understandable and readily usable by managers and businessmen. Drive is a call for a general and comprehensive rethinking of the ways in which we organize what we do.  Pink’s metaphor of assumptions that societies have about human behavior as being their operating system is brilliant and enlightening in and of itself! Moreover, the second part of the book is a treasure trove of practical advice - simple strategies to implement the ideas illustrated in Drive.
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How Pleasure Works


Yale psychologist Paul Bloom gave us a book about pleasure that is a pleasure to read.
Though it is basically a pop-psych book, it reads almost like a collection of short stories – each one with the aim of illustrating from different angles what the nature of pleasure is, each one solidly grounded in psychology or neuroscience.

In the author’s view, human pleasures are universal and are not culturally determined: “we start off with a fixed list of pleasures and we cannot add to the list.” When we derive pleasure from new technologies or cultural habits, it is because they connect to pleasures that humans already possess.

However, most of these hardwired pleasures are not adaptations, but rather are by-products of mental systems evolved for other purposes.

For example, we can get a kick out of coffee, but this is not because “coffee lovers of the past had more offspring than coffee hater” – it is because we like to be stimulated, and coffee is a stimulant.

This is just the starting point for Paul Bloom – the book itself is a journey through the pleasures of food, of sex and love, of collecting objects, of art, of imagination, of sport, of science, of religion. In each entertaining chapter the author argues for his main claim: that “the pleasure we get from many things and activities is based in part on what we see as their essences”.

In other words pleasure is grounded in our BELIEFS about the deeper nature of a given thing – even our sensations are always colored by our beliefs.

That is why an original Picasso is worth a lot of money, but a perfectly executed replica is not. That is why sexual pleasure is not merely a matter of sensations, but it is also rooted in beliefs about who someone really is and what someone really is – as illustrated by the use of bedtricks in plays and fiction, and by our preference for partners that are faithful, smart and kind. That is why how we think about food and drink affects how we judge it – orange juice tastes better if it is bright orange, yogurt and ice cream are more flavorful if described as “full fat”, and experts rate highly the same Bordeaux if it is described as “grand cru classe” but not if it is labeled “vin du table”.

I found particularly interesting the chapter dedicated to imagination, where the author develops a very tight explanation of how imagination arose in evolution and why now we take so much pleasure in it – from daydreaming to playing videogames.

I was also intrigued by philosopher Tamar Gendler’s notion of alief, introduced by the author in that very same chapter regarding imagination.

While beliefs are attitudes that we hold in response to how things are, alief are more primitive – they are responses to how things seem.

Psychologist Paul Rozin found that “people often refuse to drink soup from a brand-new bedpan, eat fudge shaped like feces, or put an empty gun to their head and pull the trigger. Gendler notes that the beliefs here are: the bedpan is clean, the fudge is fudge, the gun is empty. But the aliefs are stupider, screaming, “dangerous object! Stay away!” (p.169).

In Bloom’s essentialist framework, even science and religion can be seen as an obvious source of pleasure – even though they are very different, both science and religion share the basic assumption that there is a deeper reality that has significance. Science can tell us about it, religion provides tools to experience that reality.

Our essentialist nature appears in us as infants, as research carried out by the author and others has demonstrated. With science and religion we come full circle: essentialist properties are attributed to the very fabric of the Universe – and in this insight I, as a reader, took a great pleasure.

Checklists & Solution-Focused Coaching


I am reading the latest book by Atul Gawande: The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right.

I have always been a fan of checklists: I think they are immensely useful. When I think of checklists I think of pilots in the cockpit of a jetliner getting ready to take that marvel of technology and complexity into the air.

Moreover, I had the chance to appreciate the writing style and the insights of Dr. Atul Gawande in the past.

So it was pretty obvious to me that I had to get his latest book.

And it is no surprise that I loved it.

A little bit more surprising are the connections that can be made between Checklists and Solution-Focused practice.

  1. to begin with, checklists are a simple and elegant solution to a complext problem – and we already talked in this blog about how Solution-Focused is elegantly simple yet very effective.
  2. Dr. Gawande makes a distinction between two issues when facing problems: ignorance and ineptitude. Ignorance means that we do not have enough knowledge to deal effectively with the problem – as an example, Dr. Gawande mentions the differences in treating heart attacks now vs. in the 60s. Back then, we simply did not know. Now we know much more about heart attacks and we have a whole array of surgical options, interventions and drugs to treat heart attack victims. Ineptitude is a different thing altogether – it means we have the knowledge to deal effectively with a problem but somehow we fail to take the necessary steps. For example, on average, according to Dr. Gawande, less than 50% of patients with suspected heart attacks receive the proper protocol within 90 minutes of their admittance to the hospital – after 90 minutes the chances of making it through a heart attack significantly drop. It is not a question of lack of will or improper training – it is just that procedures can be very complicated and require the coordinated performance of many specialists. Checklists, then, are a way to deal with this problem: making sure that nothing is missed, making sure that the knowledge acquired is properly applied right here and right now with the patient. It then struck me that SF questions are just that – a way to help clients appy their own experience, successes and insights to the problem at hand. As SF practitioners we assume clients have all the knowledge they need to solve their own problems – they are the experts. They come to us because, for whatever reason, they got overwhelmed by the problem – the sheer complexity seems too much. But our questions, such as the Miracle Question, or the Scaling Question, are ways for clients to make a checklist of their successful strategies and apply them to the problem they are facing now.
  3. I admit it – I have a pre-session checklist. Things to do before a session, to make sure the session runs smoothly. I also have a post-session debrief checklist – with a Solution-Focused twist, since it is a checklist made of scales. But it is still a checklist.
  4. Another point that is made in the book and that I felt was very interesting is that checklists can be used also to deal with emergencies. Such checklists are not made of routine operations. Rather they make clear who needs to talk to whom and when in case of emergency X – as Dr. Gawande shows, that is a brilliant solution. The checklist still gives structure and tells people who to talk to – but it allows for maximum flexibility in responding to the emergency, shifting responsibility to experts and people on the ground rather than on a single decision-maker.
Like all simple solutions checklists seem dumb in retrospective – yet as recently as 2001, as an experiment, a simple 5-step checklist to avoid infections when putting in a central line in ICU patients was tried in a Boston hospital. The infection rate went from 11% to 0. In that one hospital that meant preventing 43 infections, 8 deaths and saving 2 million US$.
Do you still think checklists are dumb?
Update: and here is a video with Atul Gawande himself talking about the book