Saturday, December 23, 2017

Leadership and persuasion

I mentioned here that I don't think leadership and persuasion are real subjects. Can I back that up? Let's see.

A first point to make is that teaching a practical subject seems pointless unless it focuses on doing the thing in question well or correctly. A course in French that spends as much time on how to speak French incorrectly as it does on how to speak it correctly would be absurd, unless the point was to guide people to correct French by showing them what not to do. This might sound obvious, and hence not worth saying, except that many people who reject the very idea that some novels, say, are better than others do believe in teaching writing. And this only makes sense if there is such a thing as good writing. We might have to add that what is good in one context will not necessarily be good in every other context, but this concession is easy to make.

So what is good persuasion? It would be both effective and ethical, surely. What works is the province of psychology, especially the areas studied by behavioral economists, and, to a lesser extent (I would think) the arts. What is ethical in persuasion is partly a matter of ethics, partly a matter of logic. It would be worth considering also the kind of persuasion engaged in by writers like Dickens, in Hard Times, say, which is arguably both rational and ethical without being likely to be covered in many logic courses. So a course on persuasion should probably include psychology, literature, ethics, and logic. But approximately no one is qualified to teach all these subjects well, so it would be better to require three or four courses, at least, if you really want students to learn how to persuade. In fact it would probably be best to require something like introductory psychology, behavioral economics, marketing, at least two literature courses, critical thinking, logic, introductory ethics, a course on the ethics of communication (maybe--if enough readings to make up a course could be found), and a course on literature and philosophy. That's more like a major than a general education course, but it would make some sense. And it wouldn't all be in one subject.

Now what about leadership? There's a rumor that I might be asked/told to teach leadership, so I've been thinking about this a bit. Leadership is a lot like persuasion, but effective leadership probably requires knowledge of whatever situation you are in (so decisions are informed), intelligence (so decisions are smart), and things that cannot be taught, such as charisma. In this society I would guess that it is easier to get people to follow or obey you if you are good-looking, tall, white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, Christian, middle-aged, college-educated, etc., but these things cannot be taught. To the extent that they can be they almost certainly shouldn't be. (How to be good-looking--dressing for success, getting sculpted abs, etc.-- could possibly be taught, but isn't a subject that belongs in a university.) I would think that good leadership--the only kind it makes sense to teach--would be about one part getting people to do what you want, one part ethics, and one part making good decisions. Getting people to do what you want is part charisma, etc. and part using incentives well. There might be something to be learned about this, but not much, I think. (I have seen multiple job talks by prospective professors of leadership and have come to the conclusion that what is worth knowing on this subject, so far as it can be taught at all, can be taught in one hour or less.) Ethics is a real subject, but no amount of ethics courses will turn students into good people. And how to make good decisions is another non-subject. There might be some rules of thumb to pass on, but they would all surely be (what ought to be) common sense. The course of study I outlined above for persuasion would cover everything, and more, that can be learned from books about leadership. 

At least that's how it seems to me. And that's what I mean when I say that persuasion and leadership are not real subjects.



  2. You write about persuasion engaged in by writers -- but don't mention persuasion as we find it in (for example) Lincoln's speeches and the great speech by Frederick Douglass, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? but if you start thinking about persuasion in speeches, you might well want to look at the Gorgias.

    1. Yes, that's true. (I feel as though I should say more than that, but I should probably re-read the Gorgias first.)

    2. CD, imagine it would be tough (impossible?) to really measure the impacts of such historical efforts, no?

      DR, this might be of interest:

  3. Sure, persuasion and leadership are difficult subejcts to teach and learn. Yet your claims, it seems to me, are plainly false: Might an orator not learn anything from reading Aristotle's Rhetoric (the Greeks conceived of rhetoric exactly as the art of persuation)? And might an Italian prince not learn anything from reading Machiavelli?

    You seem to be unduly restricting "teaching" as presenting "a body of doctrine" rather than giving examples of certain kind of "activity" (to pun rather freely on TLP 4.112). It is only if you think as teaching as restricted to presenting doctrine, i.e. explicit and universal theories, that your claims might come out as true. But surely, most teaching consists in providing examplars and giving rule-of-thumbs, even within the hard sciences (note e.g. Kuhn's emphasis on exemplars as that which makes paradigms teachable).

    PS: As Heidegger reminds us in one place, the word mathematics is derived from the Greek "tà mathémata", i.e. "that which is teachable". Yet not only formal subejcts like mathematics are teachable.

    1. I have no objection to the teaching and learning of rules of thumb or useful examples. Nor do I deny that it is possible to learn something about persuasion or leadership by reading books. My point was more that there is not, it seems to me, one subject, an advanced degree in which would qualify someone to teach either leadership or persuasion. A specialist in rhetoric could teach something about it, a philosopher could teach something, and a psychologist could teach something. But few people are qualified to teach all of these subjects. So a single course that aimed to cover all the relevant fields would be unlikely to be taught well. A single course on the psychology of persuasion might teach someone a lot (I don't know), but it would be very unlikely to teach them the difference between a valid argument and an invalid one, for instance. Moreover, a course on how to persuade effectively (but not necessarily ethically) might encourage bad behavior. I would want anyone taking such a course at least to think very carefully about what would and would not be ethical uses of their powers of persuasion. And, of course, such thinking is no guarantee of ethical behavior in future.

      What I'm objecting to is the idea that whatever seems or sounds useful must be teachable in the sense that one could take a course or two on it and then become a different, better kind of person. People behave badly? Let's teach them ethics--that'll solve the problem. People can't lead? Teach them leadership. Etc.

      I do think you can learn something from a course on, say, ethics. I even think it's possible to become a better person as a result of such a course. But I think it's a mistake to think that any number of such courses will guarantee any improvement in performance, and certainly a mistake to think that one or two courses in leadership, for example, will turn a bad leader into a good one.

      There is probably a lot one could learn from Machiavelli, but do the people who promote the teaching of leadership mean to promote Machiavellian behavior? I don't think they do.