Monday, November 14, 2011

Herman Cain and the Apple of Knowledge

No matter where you are or what situation you're in, it's incredibly difficult to be an effective leader if you don't have effective information to go with it. Sure, charisma is an important quality for a leader, as is the ability to make good decisions - but good decisions necessarily require good information backing them up, or they become bad decisions. Something that seems like a good idea may only seem so because of critically flawed or missing information. With that said, I feel it should also be the duty of leaders to have good knowledge - if not in their own heads, than in the heads of their staff. There's nothing wrong with falling back on someone else for some answers; the brain can't hold everything.

Sometimes it can't even hold enough to convince people that presenting themselves as anti-intellectuals with tunnel vision is a good idea.

Case in point: Herman Cain, one of the challengers for the Republican nomination in the United States, and who the elevator at the office tells me was tied in the polls with Rick Perry last week. While Perry's recent problems have had more to do with tongue-twists and mind-slips, Cain's views on the duty of leaders don't seem to have had that much traction in the media; after all, they've got sexual harrassment stories to go after instead.

It's still important to consider, though. During an October interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Cain explained how he would react to "gotcha" questions - that is, questions meant to trip up a politician - thusly:

“When they ask me who's the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, I'm going to say, ‘You know, I don't know. Do you know?' And then I'm going to say, ‘How's that going to create one job?' ... Knowing who is the head of some of these small, insignificant states around the world, I don't think that is something that's critical to focusing on national security and getting this economy going."

Not exactly the most diplomatic tack, no... but it also tells us something about the man himself, if only we're willing to pay attention.

You know, I don't know why that sculpture hasn't been cleaned recently. Do you know? That might create one job!

Tunnel vision is not something to aspire to; tunnel vision is dangerous. Relentless focus on one issue to the exclusion of all others invites problems by the score - since you're so focused on your pet issue, you won't see the others creep up on you until it's too late to do anything about them. Being focused on one or two things is not sufficient justification to abandon your attention on all other things.

Really, though, what this suggests to me about Cain is that he lacks appreciation of the value of knowledge. If this quote is a valid representation of the way he thinks, then it seems to me he thinks that knowledge is only worthwhile when it is of direct application to the problem right in front of you, and outside of that circumstance it is valueless. It's not just whether or not you know who the president of Uzbekistan is - leading the United States is a fantastically difficult and complicated job if you're trying to do it right, and all that knowledge and information needs to be at the President's fingertips so that the best decision can be arrived at.

Seems to me he may have been trying to prove his "chops," that he wouldn't be willing to use kid gloves with the media - but the fact that he chose to say what he did, rather than something like "I don't know off the top of my head, that's why I've assembled the best people in the country, so I can have this information at hand while I focus on national security and getting this economy going." That seems more leader-like to me - someone who knows he doesn't know everything, knows what his priorities are going to be, but doesn't dismiss something because it's outside those priorities.

There's not going to be one simple road out of the situation the United States is in; it's going to be long, winding, obscured, and take multiple routes with long detours. There's a place for focus on a problem, yes, but focusing when it comes to solutions is dangerous.

And by the by, Islam Karimov is the President of Uzbekistan.

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