The Knowledge We Choose or “What?” vs “How?”

What kind of knowledge should a manager possess to be able of helming a company? What skills of his would let the team achieve the set goals and become competitive in the long run? Before answering this question, I suggest that we should have a general look at the system of education and labor market we have in the present-day context.

From my point of view there exist two types of education. The first type is education whose meaning lies outside of it. In other words, a person gets education not for the sake of education but in order to enter a certain professional realm. Take medicine, for example. A person studies at a medical institute not to master medicine per se, but gain access to a certain occupation and practice. The same goes true for jurisprudence, engineering business, journalism, etc. We get this education not for the sake of education, but for the sake of some options that derive from it.

There is only one science which is a thing in itself, valuable, self-sufficient and requiring no special meaning beyond itself. This is philosophy. People study philosophy not for the sake of providing certain services by leveraging their knowledge, or manufacturing some goods, or entering some occupation and becoming an expert in a certain field. They study philosophy to be able to think, reason, speculate and draw analogies. Unlike other disciplines, philosophy is not an applied science, its fundamental difference being that it teaches us to answer “what?” questions, not “how?” questions.

Now let’s look at how the system of education works in principle. What are we taught at universities and why is this knowledge sometimes insufficient for being a successful manager?

It is the labor market that shapes a request for teaching some or other disciplines at educational institutions. It is this market that decides why we teach “this” and not “that” at universities, also what education is relevant and in demand in the current and nearest outlook. The labor market scans the demand for certain knowledge, certain specializations, revealing free niches, where there is demand for certain competences but the supply is lacking. Given that the labor market is ready to pay generously for special competences, the society generates respective demand for the education which would enable the candidate to master this special, possibly rare competence and become a unique.

Suppose the labor market has formed the demand for professionals developing new technologies, with many companies looking for specialists who would raise the subject of new technologies to a new level and bear it. In the eyes of potential candidates this occupation becomes prestigious, well-paid and in high demand, coupled with limited supply. Eventually, higher technological education becomes popular and many understand that future belongs to it. To prove this point, it would suffice to remember Massachusetts Technological Institute which is thought to be one of the most advanced institutions in this sphere.

Parents whose children must decide on their occupation in the near term certainly keep track of the public demand for some or other competences, the prestige and promise of this or that vocation. “Study mathematics, not arts”, they often instruct their offspring. But, wishing a better lot for their kids, they regrettably do not realize that they seriously limit their children’s potential with this advice.  
And now we’ve approached the gist of our subject. The labor market, because of labor intensity and recognized economic effectiveness of outsourcing, as well as explosive growth in the number of candidates (global workforce being close to 5 billion and each must get a job), is getting ever more specialized. While a long time ago we had doctors of the broad profile, who treated all kind of diseases and delivered babies, now we have experts in sinews, phalanges, late teeth. Accordingly, specialization is narrowing in education as well. Deep penetration into a certain field in educational institutions begins almost immediately after enrollment: once the market wants professionals of a narrow profile, education must have higher precision and depth. Eventually, after mastering a certain trade we know everything about it. But… only from the perspective of “how to do it”, not “what to do” – because the entire system of specializations is built on “how?”, not “what?” One reason is that the question “how?” is very specific and applied. Unlike the “what?” question which is very general and universal, implying a wide array of replies…

And here we face an obvious problem which can be described as a scourge of our time. The problem is that we know how to tread upon our path, but we do not know which way to choose and what the right direction is, because nobody has ever taught us how to answer the “what to do?” question. Never need to say that it is the “what?” questions which constitute the competence of any top manager, because “how?” questions are dealt with by the rest, and only the boss sets the direction.

“What to do?” is the question to be answered long before asking the “how to do?” question. Without it nobody can lead a team or manage a business.

Look at today’s political leaders. In the current context we face major global problems – possibly because “what to do?” questions are more than a match for them. As specialists of a narrow profile, they have not learned to make universal “what-to-do” decisions, since they have never been taught how to do it. It comes out that their knowledge is irrelevant in the reality they operate in. Yet the moment any person becomes a manager, his or her education must be changed as the knowledge obtained is to be refocused. The problem is that there is no place in this earth where they could be taught to answer “what?” questions. That’s why the manager should learn these skills somewhere else, thus creating a different quality of knowledge and a fundamentally new approach to knowledge, to be able to answer an incredible multitude of “what to do?” questions, as part of making managerial decisions. But you certainly would like to know what can help the manager turn the tide in his brain? What sources of information will provide pabulum for reflection on this subject?

In this respect, I have perhaps three key recipes, the first one being philosophy – the only discipline teaching to reflect and reason, which means it is hypothetically capable of assuming the role of science that can answer the “what to do?” question.

I strongly encourage any manager to study philosophy. While it is useless for him as a specialist, it is extremely instructive for him as the leader and guide. “Why reading Plato? I must steer my company. Better teach me managerial competences, psychology, time management, etc.” – perhaps every second student pleads with me. Many demand a reference list of books worth reading. But instead of giving them the list of business literature, I recommend Socrates, Aristotle and Plato, since these authors could be much more successful in teaching to answer “what to do?” questions than all business books combined.

In one of his books Socrates asks what the difference is between a bad and a good liar and answers his own question: the good liar knows the truth very well while the bad one does not fully know the truth. Is this information relevant? Does the manager need it? You bet! This knowledge helps me personally in business. When are people at their best in lying? When they lie about themselves, because in this situation they know the truth too well. So in this case a person can be a talented liar. Is it for this reason that we often hire a wrong expert at our interviews? Is it for this reason that we are so often mistaken in people, when we judge about their worth by their words, rather than works. Therefore, be careful, when a person tells you about his personal merits and achievements.

When I am in talks with a person and he tells me something important, I always try to assess what the odds are that he knows the truth in this situation, which means he can hoax me – who if not him can be well-informed about his company’s performance? But if he shares with me information about a third party’s business while maintaining no business relations with this party or communicating with it on a daily basis, I can assume that my interlocutor can hardly be a good liar because he does not have a whole picture for telling masterly lies.

The closer a person is to the essence of what he is talking about, the more professional he can mess around and, accordingly, the higher the need to check information from this source.

Here is another example of philosophical rhetoric useful in business. How does Socrates define a courageous person…? In the philosopher’s opinion, a jump from a dizzy height, a deep submersion, long-distant swimming are neutral acts. Everything depends on why you do this, because it is your motivation that bears a certain message. If you jump into a river to rescue someone’s life, then this is a very brave move, but if you do it merely to impress spectators, this is not courage, but a show, a self-PR or presentation. If you run into a house on fire to rescue a child, this is braveness unlike the situation where you jump into the fire to prove yourself that you do not fear the fire. This is very important in management as well. When you have this knowledge, you may analyze the conduct of your colleagues and subordinates at different angles. You most certainly have a person in your company who likes making a show at work. But is he good as a manager? Does this show allow him or her to earn any preferences for their company and attract new clients? Or are these just dry shots and this show does not pursue any high corporate goals, whereas a showman simply scores points for building his profile or tickling his vanity by claiming a spotlight among his colleagues? Analyzing philosophical rhetoric, one could draw interesting parallels with the company’s corporate life and arrive at certain conclusions, which person deserves promotion and who will never be adequate to the competences trusted to them.

Or here is another illustration showing that basic philosophical thought can be relevant in management. The well-known phrase “you cannot enter the same river twice”, coined by Democritus, may have several interpretations for business. This is not only about the second entry meaning that you enter a different river, but also about your own transformation at the second entry. You have changed because this is your second experience. One of my interpretations of this stock phrase is a call to proper motivation. If you want to motivate a person you cannot do it by using the same bonuses and preferences. You must change them, looking for new growth opportunities, to match your employees who change all the time, developing new needs, expectations and self-attitudes.

In our realities, though, the manager often lacks an ample diversity of “carrots” or “candies” to encourage the employee. But we must constantly work to widen the range of “niceties” matching the current expectations of employees and inspiring them to new exploits. By the way, this also pertains to personal relationships: how many trumps you have in your pocket, to make relationships versatile, self-sufficient and exciting? There are not so many options and you need to look for new ones again and again, to develop relations and to make them relevant. Yes, this is incredibly difficult. Time and again I see people giving up on their relationships, unable to find new “carrots” or “candies” which would uphold and enliven their relations. After living 10 years in marriage, where will you find resources to celebrate another Christmas and make it special and unforgettable? You are monstrously tired during the year and want just to relax, rather than racking your brain, how to adorn the X-mas table or buy gifts for all. But if you find resources to overpower your fatigue and make a holiday new and unforgettable again your effort will be repaid.

Philosophy is capable of answering many business questions – about managerial skills, personal relationships as well as building the client policy, etc. And this is indeed a much more valuable and profound instrument, than business literature.

The second recipe of getting “what competences” partly repeats the first one. I have several mentorship projects, studying with young people who would like to prosper in business and life. I meet with them, give them advice and we analyze specific cases. One of the most efficient and authentic mentorship formats are books or fiction, my wards reading the books I recommend, and then we analyze the conduct of characters, cause-effect relationships, challenges faced by those characters, their lost opportunities, fears and lies. I believe in this format of studies as much as I do in specialized or vocational training and sometimes even more (though all of my students have higher professional education). Books do not pursue any utilitarian applied goals, but they learn how to think, draw parallels and work with “what questions”. And this is the most important source of drawing diverse managerial competences in building interpersonal relations and developing communication skills. We also discuss self-mounted barriers and psychological portrayals.

And the third recipe: however strange this may sound, any manager should move away from everything that makes him a professional, allowing to answer the “how” questions. The farther he moves away from his/her profession and the sphere of his/her competences, the faster s/he will get the “what-answers”. Not in vain do they say that a good manager can manage equally well companies of various profiles – from glass works and logistics companies to a chain of dry cleaners. Being estranged from operational details, repeated processes, figures, field reports, a good manager can look at the company’s algorithms from on top and from beyond, draw needed parallels and propose a solution which may have never been used in the given industry, but it is capable of enlarging the managerial tool kit. The crux of the matter is that if you know how to manage processes without knowing an answer to “how to do it?” questions, then you’ll know exactly “what to do”.

I’ll give you a simple example. Let’s take an editor-in-chief of some magazine, a humanities’ major to his fingertips who knows how to put words together, to polish texts in a masterly manner and to manage a small editorial board. To make a good top manager capable of quality management of various processes, he’ll have to change its angle or frame of knowledge and learn, let’s say mathematics, physics or biology – not to become an expert in mathematics, physics and biology or expand his vision, but to look at the situation at an absolutely different angle. It turns out that decisions can be made differently in other spheres and there are other ways of arriving at a conclusion in this or that matter. An editor draws conclusions on the basis of, say, five information sources available, but a person studying logic in philosophy deals with arguments, the latter being different from information sources. It’s not the same as evidential base in physics or axioms in geometry. Each science uses its own methods for arriving at conclusions, which differ from those used in other disciplines. Using a multidisciplinary approach, you may look at any managerial situation from different angles, see relativity of each approach, and get rid of fanaticism in using certain solutions and approaches usually faced by professionals in narrow disciplines.

It is symptomatic that all three sources capable of teaching the top manager an answer to the “what to do” question are somehow connected with deliberate departure from the conventional thinking scenario and implies the capability of looking at a scenario in a different context. Both philosophy, fiction and knowledge maximally distanced from professional education – all of these pull the carpet away from under feet, teach thinking in broader terms, and deal with diverse matters which are important for mastering the “what competences”. 
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