[April 28, 2019] An elemental part of intelligent leadership means being able to hold an idea in your mind and not accept or reject it. To examine an idea for its value and to entertain its significance is difficult. Nothing is more challenging than the ability to study, debate, and think through a concept without immediately accepting or rejecting it.
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle, ancient Greek philosopher
Ideas can change the world. Many have done so throughout the history of humankind. These ideas are so ingrained into our system of life that we barely notice. For example, the idea of farming for food, vaccination against disease, or the printed book has all made for a better life. Such ideas did not, however, spread because they were “obviously correct” but because they worked.
Ideas are often rejected out of hand because their obvious value is not easily recognized. The Brooklyn Bridge, which was a new type of suspension bridge, was called impossible to build. Even once constructed, there were prominent people in politics and business that said the bridge would collapse and kill thousands of people. Of course, that never happened.
In late 2006, I was part of a team of senior staff officers who acted as a Red Team to find deficiencies in the idea of targeting insurgent networks during the Iraq War. Our job was to think like the insurgents, incorporate their ideas, and see how we could defeat U.S. military forces. Their extremist ideas are repulsive, but we used their ideas (i.e., ideology and values) to good effect.
It is the intrinsic duty of leaders to hold forth ideas for their value. Like Islamic insurgent ideology, it is important for a leader to be able to use an idea (regardless of what we may think of as good or evil) to find its usefulness. Many find this a difficult task.
Open debate is one common technique that allows for the study of such ideas. Sadly, our formal educational institutions today are reluctant to follow this Western tradition. I find this a serious failure in academic leadership. However, I see many young people who can hold forth an idea, dissect it, and methodically and unemotionally find its worth.