Executive Education

“Teach the concepts” they say. “If the kids know the concepts then <something magical will happen>.”, but when it comes down to doing the dirty work (like computation) there’s a visceral counter argument that’s of the type “but why should they do this, when they’ll never use it?”. Oh boy! Such prescient arrogance! We have an unspoken hierarchy in our thinking about education. That somehow knowing the concepts is better than knowing the mechanics. The mechanics are viewed as peasant work. The thinking, however, that’s high brow! That’s elite society!

We use phrases like “problem solver” and “critical thinking” to mean really thinking about the question at hand and finding an intellectual solution. That is, a solution that is of the form of an outline of abstract steps. But the actual problem solving? That’s dirty manual labor that’s somehow beneath our kids to do — with numerical computation probably topping the list as the lowliest of chores.

Another example is our use of “plug it in” and our general requirement that students memorize formulas. It’s sort of an amazing thing we’ve done. Even recall of trivia is deemed to be more worthy than the grunt work of doing. And even more ridiculous is that if we are going to do something it has to be mindless “plugging it in”. Hey, if you know the ideas and can plug things in to formulas you’ve memorized, then you’re a-ok! This is how kids are taught.

Slowly and steadily this type of education creeps forward into adulthood.

We see this within the corporate executive class where they casually ask that the process be “optimized”; or that if the problem is X and company A has previously solved something similar to X, the solution then is to poach executives from company A so that they will “devise a plan” (think of a major retailer that hired a tech company executive to lift sales — want to guess how that went?), and the list can go on.

The executive I can respect is the one who can “critically do” as well as “think critically”. The abstract executive whose only contribution is some lofty idea with no technical know-how on execution, but a hierarchical ability to dictate what to do, is a lucky person who couldn’t survive in a world of doers. But our society is a bit upside down. It’s not “with great responsibility comes great power”, it’s unfortunately, “with great power, let’s hope you’ll be responsible”. But how responsible can we expect someone to be if they have no idea how to do anything?

Look at our (US and probably global) politics! We have a guy who says “when I’m in office, I’ll be able to assemble the best team”. Ha! What nonsense is this? Admittedly, national governance does require abstract execution, but hell, that’s the plan? To assemble a team?

Look at the film industry as a prime example of “plug and chug” and “formula fishing”. Explosions work! Have more explosions!

We even have idioms to that end: “recipe for success”. And we love reading things like “Ten Things That Successful People Do”. That somehow if we did those ten things, we’d be successful too. But do you know what successful people do? They do. And, they think.

When we emphasize critical thinking without emphasizing critical doing, we’re engaging in executive education. And the only people for whom this will serve are those born into the executive class. They’ll never have to worry about the pesky details of doing. But for the rest of us, the more we continue to accept that doing is low class, low brow, peon work, the longer we’ll work those empty mechanical jobs where our mandates will come from incapable executives.

Take the reins! If you do and you think, your ideas are already better than the charlatan in charge. Doing is not below thinking. They are two sides of the same coin.

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2 thoughts on “Executive Education

  1. Robin Hosemann

    As always, so spot on! We seem to hit roadblocks in education when we can’t “figure out” if we should do OR think…the AND is the best operative. And I also agree that we are doing a disservice in privileging the doing over the thinking. There’s definitely an attitude that someone else should be doing the doing. Big conflicts occur when there is such a wide gap between knowing how something is done and actually being able to do it. Poor leaders are too distanced from the work to actually impact those doing it with their ideas and decisions. Fascinating.


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