Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Leadership and Focusing on Facts

This was posted first to Facebook and has been copied here.

 Can we talk? Of course, I can only speak for myself.

So, you know I’m a preacher, right? When I was in seminary, we talked about a big change in how we do things (in Western culture) that took place in the 13th Century. With the teachings of Albertus Magnus and of Thomas Aquinas, European culture made the change from seeing the world based on the teachings of Plato to seeing the world based on the teachings of Aristotle. Without getting too deep in the weeds (but, please do invite me! I love the weeds!), the difference was about what you could know and how you could know it (and what follows is a clearly Christian way of using these categories). For followers of Plato, the truest truth was in the mind of God, and if you thought long and hard enough you could intuit the truth as God saw it, or as close as you could get. For Aristotle, you couldn’t know God’s mind directly but you could see what God had done in the world; and by carefully observing you could see that and from that deduce the truest truth, or as close as you could get.

My professor of Christian Thought and Systematic Theology (same professor, different classes) had a clear understanding of why Aristotle’s position quickly became dominant in Europe: “it built a better cannon.” It was by observing, trying, and adjusting that you improved useful and effective things were, and in those days better siege weapons were considered really important. Sure, cannon would not come to western Europe until the 14th Century, but in those days that was “quickly.” Still, they were clear that observing, trying, adjusting, and observing facts was more effective than simply imagining in making things work better.

We’ve come a long way with those principles, even if we don’t always use those terms. One shorthand we have for that approach is the scientific method. In keeping with our European cultural heritage, we’ve used it to make better bombs. We’ve also used it to make better medicines. The scientific method was critical with getting us to new vaccines for coronavirus that are going to help bring us out of this pandemic (along with mask wearing and social distancing, also supported by scientific method). 

We’ve used them in our industries. Whether we’ve heard of it as performance improvement or continuous quality improvement (CQI) or total quality management (TMQ), we’ve seen how it reformed the Japanese auto industry and then the American auto industry, and many other industries besides. They stopped just imagining what might work and started finding and focusing on facts of how things worked, and used those facts to make things work better.

With all that demonstration of the value of using facts for decisions, perhaps we should expect the same things of our leaders.  If our leaders focus on facts rather than simply on theories and principles, they should be able to offer better programs, better government. If we focus on facts rather than simply principles, or worse, rumors, we should be able to select better leaders who will then offer better programs, better government. Principles have a place because they can help us think about how to use facts. I am after all a Christian and that certainly informs how I might want to respond to the facts in front of me. But I can best apply my principles if I start with observing and testing facts.

Of course, I can only speak for myself.

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