We’ve built education systems which teach us to be obedient. They make us experts in following instructions. It is hoped that eventually through this obedience will emerge self-control that will enable us to become leaders. Leaders need self-control, there is no doubt that. They need to obey themselves, only then will they be able to make a difference in the important roles that play.
Seth Godin writes today about how it is an expensive mistake to assume that obedience will lead to self-control and thus to leadership. He asks
Help me understand why obedience is the way to get there?
That’s a rhetoric, of course (compliant sergeants rarely become great generals). Interestingly, I’ve found myself asking that question again and again over the years but without the clarity of expression that Godin possesses.
At high school, I remember that if we ever solved a math problem in a way that wasn’t shown in the ‘Ideal Answers Guide’ then we were doing something wrong. If we answered a question in a history test without using bullet points then we’d lose half the marks. If an English essay did not have some quotation by a legendary person then our teacher never gave us that elusive A, no matter the brilliance. Making up arbitrary rules seemed the prerogative of a teacher. If someone dare asked why, the answer was always ‘do you want to score marks in the finals or not?’.
Things don’t stop at high school though. Even in university, I remember that we were told by lab instructors to add some chemicals in the stated order if we wanted to finish the experiment and leave in time. No explanations. Want to study abroad at a good university? Publish something somewhere. Want to write a good Statement of Purpose? Use a quotation by a legendary person (yes, he crops up everywhere this legendary person).
Arbitrary rules to teach us to become obedient are everywhere. And if the purpose is to teach us to become disciplined individuals then the rationale is that anything that makes us more obedient will only help - Do as I say if you want to become a leader.
But no. That’s not how things work. Some of my most rewarding experiences have come because I’ve not broken rules that did not make sense to me. I’ve taken bigger strides when I’ve challenged the status quo. The most fulfilling writing experience have come to me when I’ve thought without rules and constraints.
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We had a creativity workshop in the lab last week. In the very first exercise of the day, we are shown a A3 sized sheet of paper with nine circles (like I’ve shown above). We were then asked to connect all the nine circles with straight lines only and report the number of solutions we could come up with. That’s it, no more instructions.
Virtually everyone sat there drawing out the dots and then connecting them with straight lines. The answer is infinity of course but that wasn’t the point. We were at a creativity workshop and the presenter was looking for some creative answers. But may be one or two people came up with something that was close to being called creative.
‘That was usual’ the presenter said at the close of the exercise, ‘remember I’ve given you no rules here. That is a sheet of paper with nine circles on them, that’s it. You can do what you like with it.’ Then he helped us think out of the box to come up with creative solutions and we found so many of them. Start drawing a straight line and rotate the paper to cut through all the circles. Cut the sheet into nine pieces and re-arrange them to put all the nine circles in a line and draw a straight line through. Use the same nine pieces, stack them on top of each other and then pierce a pin through the paper…. you can keep going this way and come up with many solutions to the same idea but none that resemble the solutions that the group had before. That’s because we had just broken the rules that we had set for ourself. There were no rules set by the presenter, all of us just set the rules for ourselves and kept working in two dimensions.
The creativity workshop wasn’t part of a leadership exercise but it might as well could be. Every leader needs to be creative. Of course, there are solutions to the common problems and leaders can solve them without being creative but the great leaders are those who are able to solve the uncommon problems that need a creative approach. Obedience not only may never lead to the emergence of self-control but also stifles creativity. And yet we build institutions to produce leaders who are obedient students.
PS: Just to be clear. I am not making a case against rules (I think they are important) just against the requirement of being obedient no matter what.
Written while Air played Alpha Beta Gaga on repeat.