Getting to Why

By Art Dykstra

Recently, I had a disconcerting conversation with a college freshman. She was telling me about her course work, the nature of her exams and the required readings. Psychology seemed to be her favorite class, so I asked her a question about the philosophical underpinnings of this field of study. Without any embarrassment or concern, she responded with the quick observation, “Oh, we had that first quarter. We don’t need to know that anymore.”

Surprised by her response, I nevertheless denied my impulse to engage her in the merits of cumulative learning, connectedness, or the true meaning of education. However, I began to think about the responsibilities of leadership and personal growth. I wondered if the student’s response was a product of her social and intellectual upbringing, or was it an instrumental response to an unmotivated professor or teaching assistant?

Perhaps she is a victim of our disposal-based society. Once we’ve used something, it goes straight into the trash. We rarely think about that item again. None of us is completely free of this impulse. For instance, when you took your last driving test, did you memorize every rule of the road to be sure to never violate one? Or, did you hastily commit enough of the rules to memory to pass the test? Do you remember when and where it is okay to make a U-turn? Or, how close to an intersection you can legally change lanes? When we first learn to drive, these may seem like unimportant details. But, a close call on the highway will usually change our minds.

As leaders, how do we think about the person who feels he or she doesn’t need to know something—a relationship, a fact, a dynamic or a why. What do we do with them or for them?

In our effort to reach and teach, we need to find out where an employee is right now. Is she simply in a college cram mode because of time pressures? Is her personality a factor? Maybe she is a very concrete thinker who dislikes philosophy.

Is information overload a factor? Too much information can, by itself, cause us to forget what is important, to throw up our hands and curse the complexity of the world. How can we help our employees sift through the information and retain what is important? Do we find the why in what we do and keep it at the forefront?

It is our responsibility as leaders to create a commitment to learning and to competency. It is not enough, as Neil Postman has observed, to know a lot of things; we need to know about them.

Fast Foreword: 
Winter 2002