Pavlov Didn’t Train Leaders

Posted 05.05.2010

Pavlovs-dog Anyone who had Intro to Psychology in school knows the story of Pavlov’s dog. The Russian psychologist is best known today for his research in conditioned response. In his most famous experiment, he would ring a bell every time he gave his dog a tasty treat. The dog learned to associate the sound of the bell with food and, pretty soon, was salivating at the sound of the bell even when Pavlov wasn’t throwing a kibble his way.

I’ve read a couple of articles lately that have really made me think about the way we train leaders today. In their own way, they both reminded me of Pavlov. The articles point out the paths of least resistance that can condition society’s most promising young leaders into salivating when the bell is rung.
The first of these articles was a post by author James Kwak on his Baseline Scenario blog entitled, “Why Do Harvard Kids Head to Wall Street?” Building on an interview conducted by the Washington Post’s  Ezra Klein, Kwak says the answer is not what you might think. It’s not about the money (at least initially). It’s because the Goldman’s and McKinsey’s have a world class recruiting process. They make it easy for kids who have achieved at every step of their lives so far to view a Wall Street job as the next logical step in their development. They reinforce that conventional wisdom through a lot of different steps that Kwak describes in his post. It feels pretty accurate to me because it’s essentially the same process that led me (an increasingly long time ago) to take a one year detour to Wall Street myself following graduate school.

The other article was one a good friend sent me a week or two ago. It’s called “Solitude and Leadership,”  and it’s a speech that the essayist William Deresiewicz delivered to the plebes at West Point in the Fall of 2009. You owe it to yourself to take a half hour or so to read the entire speech and spend some time reflecting on it. Talking to a roomful of high achievers, Deresiewicz makes the case that they are the product of an education system that turns the highest potential people into “world class hoop jumpers.”  The competition for the best opportunities is so high that kids pursue 10 or 12 extracurriculars in their high school years so they can get into West Point or Harvard or Stanford or wherever. By the time they get there, they’re experts at working the system and keeping the routine going. The upshot is very little time or encouragement to just stop and think for themselves – to move beyond the conventional wisdom that is all around us. Deresiewicz describes the overall impact of this:

We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them.

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves.

Here’s the thing -  it’s not just kids in their twenties who are being conditioned not to think for themselves. We are all at risk for that. This is what I’ve been thinking about lately – what are the conditioned responses I have that I’m not even aware of? What decisions am I making without being as mindful as I should be about the impact of stimulus and response?

Anyone else out there asking similar questions? What are you doing to give yourself some space to think and then respond?