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Occam's Razor and Leadership

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails. - John Maxwell

A Medieval English philosopher and excommunicated Franciscan friar can help you markedly with your leadership today.

William of Ockham (1295-1349) is credited with the concept of Occam's razor, a heuristic used in many disciplines but neglected in leadership.

Ockham wrote, "Pluralities non-Est ponente sine necessitate" or "plurality should not be posited without necessity." In other words, one should always choose the simplest explanation of a phenomenon, the one that requires the fewest assumptions. He used the razor to criticize the intricate elaborations of the educational philosophy of his time, criticism which led to his ex-communication.

Today, Occam's razor is applied in science, helping winnow out the more promising theories from masses of available ones; in biology in evolutionary hypothesizing and Systems constructs; in medical diagnostics, identifying the fewest probable causes that will account for all the symptoms; in manufacturing, making products using the most irregular parts and least amount of energy; in engineering, getting maximum output from minimum input. And in many other fields.

But Occam's razor has not been used extensively in leadership; it has been applied as a problem-solving tool rather than a tool to help promote people's motivation.

Problem-solving is part of a leader's portfolio. But if your leadership job description is to solve problems, you might as well call yourself a manager or a technician. As a leader, you need to be more than an analytical person. It would help if you motivated people to achieve extraordinary results.

Motivation is the operative word. Leadership devoid of motivational strategies and tactics is leadership that is running around in the dark.

Let us apply Occam's razor to motivation in leadership. Most leaders do not motivate people because they misunderstand the concept of motivation. To understand what motivation is, you first must understand what motivation ISN’T. Motivation is not what you do to the people you lead. It is what the people do to themselves. You cannot motivate anybody to do anything. As a leader, you set up an environment in which the people make a choice to be inspired. You communicate; they inspire.

Occam's razor, then, is a tool to help people make that free choice. The device is effective because it slices through the clutter that multiplies the opportunities for error.

Today, many kinds of clutter prevent the people you lead from making the choices you want. There is the clutter of the Leader's Fallacy, the mistaken idea that just because you are a leader speaking, people will automatically want to hear from you and agree with you. There is the clutter of your misunderstanding their needs. There is the clutter of your focusing on your needs and the organization's needs at the exclusion of a focus on their needs. There is the clutter of confusing what is changing for you and the organization with what is changing for them. There is the clutter of misreading or ignoring their primary problem, the chaos of not understanding what gets them angry, and the mess of being oblivious to what they genuinely aspire to.

To wield Occam's razor against clutter, let us understand how the razor interplays with three critical factors of motivation: logic, emotion, and time.

Since Aristotle, it has been well known that the choice people make to be motivated is predicated on both the rational and the emotional. The word motivation comes from the Latin root meaning "to move." When you want to move people to act, you engage their emotions. Yet before they can become involved emotionally, your communication must make sense to them. This is an important psychological point. Before people make an emotional commitment to act, they usually undertake, however briefly, however adequately, or inadequately an assessment of the logical necessity of what they are being asked to do.

To understand this, try this mind experiment. Picture a crying police officer, hair disheveled, weeping into his hands. We do not know what to feel about that police officer until we can logically connect who he is and why he is crying with what we are. He might be a crazed, mad-dog killer who has been shooting at people and is weeping because he is running out of bullets. On the other hand, he may have been trying all night to talk someone from jumping off a bridge; the person has jumped to his death, and the police officer is weeping over the tragedy. Your logical assessment of the police officer, either a crazed killer or a compassionate Samaritan, lays the groundwork for your emotional reaction to him.

That is where Occam's razor comes in. To communicate so that people choose to be motivated means "plurality should not be posited without necessity." Introducing extraneous factors into their assessment process may frustrate their making that assessment in your favor.

Furthermore, simplicity promotes motivation because of an extraordinary feature of the human heart: its ability to be profoundly changed instantly. Experiences that take place in the blink of an eye can propel individuals to radically alter their behavior and even the course of their lives. Once you understood precisely why the police officer was crying, you could at once form a judgment about him; and brought to bear that quick judgment is a wealth of values, experiences, viewpoints, and suppositions that you had learned throughout your life.

This simple experiment is borne out by many studies in neuroscience, especially findings detailing the brain structure called the amygdala and its electrochemical interactions with the brain's reasoning regions. The "blink of an eye" was precisely measured decades ago by pioneering neuroscientist Dr. Manfred Clyne. In his groundbreaking findings, Clyne’s discovered that two-tenths of a second is the shortest time humans can consciously respond to stimuli. "All consciousness depends on time," he said. That fraction of a second is the unit of awareness of the mind. I give that is the time it takes for somebody to choose to be motivated.

History is replete with instances of people's lives being changed in an instant of understanding. One example out of countless: In 1835, when Wendell Phillips saw William Lloyd Garrison dragged with a rope down Boston Street by a pro-slavery mob, Phillips became so outraged that he joined the abolitionist movement and became one of its most effective activists. I am sure you can look back in history and back on your life and produce examples in which a moment's realization prompted a change in thinking and behavior.

Since it is in the realm of heartfelt words and actions that great leadership results gain, and since you understand and use the heart's miraculous capacity to be instantly transformed can boost your leadership, the razor can be one of your most important assets. It will help you cut away the sapwood of extraneous thoughts, speech, and actions to reach the heart of the genuine motivational impulse in the people you lead.

However, be careful not to cut into or cut away that heartwood. Apply the razor adroitly by taking Einstein's advice about using it in physics. He said, "Theories should be as simple as possible but no simpler."


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