Learning: A Key to Dealing with Disruptive Times

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Change.  [more info]

I grew up in Detroit and learned a good deal about the auto industry. That learning began with Henry Ford. He was a brilliant entrepreneur, he built a strong company and a great car—the Model T—the first car that was affordable to the masses. But Ford was a control freak who wouldn’t delegate and tried to run everything himself. When one of his senior executives told him that consumer tastes were changing and that they had to update his beloved Model T, he fired the exec on the spot! The Model T was hot, and he wouldn’t change.

Twelve years after the Model T came out other auto companies began to offer new options that consumers craved, and they overtook Ford in profits and customer satisfaction. Some auto leaders learned and changed; Henry Ford didn’t. Why not?

What Hinders Learning?

There’s a host of factors that can prevent leaders – and all of us – from learning. Interestingly, one is success. Bill Gates put it well: “Success is a lousy teacher; it seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” That was clearly an issue with Ford. The Model T had outlived its success, but Ford was rigid. He blamed people around him for the car’s problems. And that points to another learning issue: egos.

“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” – Bill Gates

Ford simply couldn’t accept others’ suggestions. In fact, when he turned over Ford’s leadership to his son Edsel, he kept running the company from behind the scenes. He frequently overruled Edsel’s ideas for modernizing the company’s products. You might think that people like Ford, who demonstrate supreme confidence in themselves, have inflated egos. Some do. But, ironically, people who appear super confident are often compensating for a weak ego. Change, to them, is seen as a weakness. As psychologist Dave Waters puts it, “A fragile ego is a terrible burden to bear.” And that, too, is a barrier to learning and change.

Some Factors That Can Hinder Learning:
• Continual success
• Egos
• Groupthink

“Groupthink,” the tendency to go along with others even when we have doubts, is a problem in many organizations and a huge barrier to learning and change. A classic case was the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Kennedy Administration’s effort to initiate a revolt against the Castro regime in Cuba. None of the members of the planning team ever raised serious questions about the plan’s chances of success, although several later admitted to having serious doubts about it. Nor did Kennedy ever insist that they debate the plan’s potential downsides. After it ended in a humiliating defeat, Kennedy later recalled, “We looked at each other and asked, ‘How could we have been so stupid?’”

To his credit, the president then spent many hours listening to advisors and others to learn from the debacle. He put those lessons to great use 18 months later during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Among other changes, he insisted that the planning team give him at least two different ways to deal with the Soviet missiles that had been placed in Cuba, and that they analyze the pros and cons of each.

And What Promotes Learning?

Again, there are several approaches. One is to adopt an attitude of curiosity. Creativity expert Chic Thompson puts it this way: “Curiosity before criticism.” When someone offers an unusual idea, start by exploring it: what are the potential upsides? How might it fit into the organization’s culture? Can we learn from anyone who’s tried it? Then (but only then), subject it to critical examination: what are the risks and costs? Possible untended consequences?

The story of Joseph in the Torah is a wonderful example of curiosity. His father’s favorite, he was an arrogant youth who earned the hatred of his brothers. But after a near-death experience and later a prison sentence based on trumped-up charges, he matured. He took a genuine interest in those around him, got his ego under control, and became a wise leader.

Another way to foster learning is to focus on our changing, disruptive environment. If the ongoing pandemic has taught us anything, surely it’s that we need to keep learning from the new discoveries about COVID and adapt. The great economist John Maynard Keynes used to tell people, “When the facts change, I change my mind.” Tragically, tens of thousands have died from COVID because they paid attention to conspiracy theories and myths, not to facts.

And that brings up a third potential source of learning: seeking out others’ perspectives. I say “potential” because too many people are creating their own “facts” today. But if we use our judgment and listen to those who have credibility, it can be a powerful source of learning. Here’s a wonderful example told by Bill Ury, a highly experienced mediation expert:

A man left 17 camels to his three sons. On his death bed he told them that the eldest would get one half of the camels, the second would receive one third, and the other would have one ninth. After he died the brothers started to work through the numbers and they got stuck: 17 doesn’t divide by two, it doesn’t divide by three, nor by nine. Tempers got hot; they were desperate.

So, they found an old woman known for her wisdom and asked for advice. The woman went away and thought about the problem for a while, then returned and said, “I don’t think I can help you. But, if you want, I’ll give you my camel.” Now they had 18 camels, and voila! The oldest son took his half: nine camels. The second took his third: six camels. And the youngest took his ninth: two camels. Nine plus six plus two equals 17 camels. They had one camel left over, so they gave the wise old woman her camel back!

I love this story. The brothers realized they were stuck and went to a credible outsider with no stake in the issue. The old woman didn’t give a quick answer; she left and contemplated and then came up with something. Finally, her answer was available to the brothers from the start, but they got too emotional to see it. Sometimes the solution is hiding in plain sight.

Henry Ford was allergic to others’ perspectives, and he didn’t learn. We need to be smarter than that. What can you do to continually learn and grow?