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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Tarker, MFA, Ed.D.

Escaping Plato’s Cave: Non-Teleological Leadership in Times of Crisis

If our present moment teaches us anything, it is that we live in a complex world where determining the truth of a situation seems increasingly difficult to do with confidence.

The intersection between the COVID-19 pandemic, the subsequent economic downturn, and the simultaneous protests for racial justice have highlighted how flawed habits of thinking can cloud our understanding of reality. When dealing with a crisis – an event that by its definition is ambiguous – the danger of flawed habits of thinking among leaders becomes more apparent.

For leaders of any organization, the act of sensemaking – the collecting of information one needs to understand reality - is vitally important. Making critical decisions based on a flawed understanding of reality may make a crisis situation even worse – or even create an entirely new crisis.

Sensemaking & Leadership

Sensemaking takes many forms. Talking to experts. Reading research reports. Consulting team members. But there is also an internal component to sensemaking. As leaders take in information from the external world, they have to make meaning of it based on their cognitive schemas.

A cognitive schema is a mental map that forms in a person over time based on lived experiences, education, and training. As leaders receive new information, they fit it into this mental framework to help them develop an understanding of a situation.

For instance, when looking at the same situation, a leader who has a background in business will probably make sense of what is occurring in a slightly different way than a leader with a background in human resources. There will be commonalities in their perceptions. But their understanding of the situation will be nuanced – colored and textured by their past work history.

This is important in crisis situations because leaders often have to assimilate the complex and often ambiguous information they are receiving quickly in order to make decisions.

But what if a leader has developed a flawed habit of thinking that interferes with their sensemaking process?

Teleological v. Non-Teleological Thinking

In their book The Log from the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck and Edward Ricketts share their insights on the differences between teleological and non-teleological thinking as it relates to leadership and sensemaking.

More than just a travelogue about their journey down the Pacific Coast on the Western Flyer to collect sea specimens to sell at the Rickett’s Pacific Biological Laboratories in Monterey, CA, their book is also a philosophical manifesto about how to make sense of reality through the scientific lens of biology.

As Jain Pravin states in his paper “Leadership and Steinbeck’s non-teleological thinking: A framework for embodying emergence in visioning”, Steinbeck and Ricketts weren’t just exploring the tidepools along the coast of California and Mexico – they were also exploring a philosophical question humans have been wrestling with since Plato’s Allegory of the Cave or the East Indian concept of Maya emerged. Does the human mind have the capacity to perceive reality as it is?

Steinbeck and Ricketts argue that most people are not able to perceive reality as it is because they think teleologically. They define teleological thinking as a naïve mindset that looks for a direct cause and effect in events that emerge. It produces the post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy.

This fallacy is based on a limited analysis of a situation: the mind observes that event x preceded event y, so it concludes that event x must have caused event y. Using statistical parlance, this habit of thinking confuses correlation with causation.

For instance, hiring a particular employee may have coincided with a decline in productivity within an organizational unit, but arguing that the employee caused this decline without further investigation is spurious. The correlation may be coincidental. There may be larger systemic issues at play within the organization impacting productivity.

But people like simple, absolute answers without ambiguity. So it becomes easy to fall into the trap of basic cause and effect explanations. Your preferred political party’s presidential candidate gets elected, then the economy improves, so it must follow that the election of your candidate caused the economic boom. Steinbeck and Ricketts identify this type of teleological thinking as “wish fulfillment”.

Physical and Spiritual Teleological Thinking

Steinbeck and Ricketts identify two types of teleological thinking: physical and spiritual. Physical teleologicalthinking looks for a direct cause and effect relationship between different corporeal events. Spiritual teleologicalthinking looks for a direct cause and effect relationship between the psychological, emotional, or spiritual state of a person and a physical event.

Being Renaissance men who studied both art and science, they used the artist Vincent Van Gogh’s suicide to demonstrate how these two modes of thinking may try to understand this event. At the time of Van Gough’s death, he was suffering from epilepsy, struggling financially, and working feverishly to produce as much work as he could.

The physical teleological fallacy argues that Van Gough’s suicide was caused by improper health care during times of strenuous activity coupled with sun exposure that exacerbated his epilepsy. The spiritual teleological fallacy would argue that he foresaw his own death, and he wanted to produce as much as possible before the end, which led to a spiritual breakdown.

In contrast, the non-teleological mindset would take both the physical and spiritual teleological explanations into account, and be open to other variables that may have contributed to the emergence of this event.

Non-Teleological Sensemaking

Steinbeck and Ricketts describe non-teleological thinking as “is” thinking. Unlike teleological thinking, which looks at events in terms of how things “should be” in order to better the conditions of the world, non-teleological thinking strives for acceptance and understanding by viewing events as things emerging from a system.

Rather than focusing on a particular cause and effect relationship when examining an event, non-teleological thinking examines variables within the larger system to achieve a more complex understanding of it.

Non-teleological thinking does not ask why because there really is not an answer to that question. Things are just so. Non-teleological questions instead focus on what things are or how they happened.

Non-Teleological Analysis of Pandemic Data

Marie McCullough’s June 27, 2020 article for The Philadelphia Inquirer “COVID-19 has not surged in cities with big protests, but it has in states that reopened early. Here are some possible reasons” provides a contemporary example of non-teleological thinking. The article explores a paradox emerging from the protests that occurred in metropolitan cities like Pittsburgh, PA after the death of George Floyd during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two weeks after the protests began, there is little data demonstrating a direct link between participating in the protests and increased rates of transmission of the virus. A teleological, cause and effect, interpretation that could be drawn from this observation is that the virus is not as easily spread outdoors as it is indoors.

However, a non-teleological approach that broadens the scope of its field of inquiry and examines other variables within the system has produced another possible explanation. A new study by the National Bureau Of Economic Research used cell phone tracking data to determine that larger portions of the population in cities where protests occurred opted to stay home.

This avoidance behavior may also explain why we have not seen significant spikes in cities where protests occurred. So while there were thousands protesting and potentially exposing themselves to the COVOD-19 virus, a surge was mitigated because more people than usual stayed home to avoid the protests.

This is offered only as an example of how non-teleological thinking broadens the scope of one’s thinking to help see reality as it is. Clearly, more research needs to be conducted to fully understand how the COVID-19 virus behaves – and how our behaviors impact its transmission.

Non-Teleological Leadership

Steinbeck and Ricketts also differentiate between perceptions of leadership between the teleological and non-teleological lenses. They argue that the teleological perception of leadership is of a person who is causing a group of people to follow the path the leader is trailblazing.

The non-teleological definition of a leader is a person who is moving in the same direction as the “weight” of the people. This means that instead of setting the course of a movement in a particular direction, leaders may just be people who happen to get in front of a movement that a lot of others are already moving toward anyhow.

However, in order to assume that leadership position, a leader must have the sensemaking skills to understand the reality of the situation their community is in. They must be able to spot the trends and identify the direction that the “weight” of people are moving toward.

And as they move with the people in the direction of change, they need to strive to see the world as it “is” in order to make informed decisions – decisions that have more potential to solve a crisis rather than exacerbate it – or create another one.

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