Oct 092008

Dr. Earl R. Smith II

When I am starting on a new coaching engagement, I often ask the client what books they have read lately. I find that this helps me ‘bracket’ their thinking and better understand where they are coming from. I pay particular attention to a taste for the pedantic.[1] Most of the time such appetites are an indication of a tendency towards oversimplification – and that is dangerous when you are talking about the complexities of running a business.[2] The problem with these approaches is that one or more ‘founding assumptions’ drive the process and the results can sometimes be counterproductive.

Logical systems that are based on one or more founding assumptions are forms of theology – and everything flows from this narrow range of founding principles. For the most part, they result in ‘artificial realities’ that may prove less than useful when put into practice.

As early as the fifth century BCE, the Greeks discovered the weakness of this approach. Zeno put forth a number of paradoxes that were founded on simple assumptions.[3]

Early Greeks realized that, if the founding assumption was accepted, the implications of the logical structure were unavoidable. However, they also realized that many of these ‘unavoidable’ results conflicted with everyday experiences. These paradoxes eventually lead them to understand that, if one thing is everything, then everything is nothing.[4] If you question the founding assumptions, the whole house of cards tumbled down.

The American contribution to this debate was pragmatism.[5] It was a duel attack on the thesis of René Descartes that the universe was best thought of as a mechanical devise – a clockwork – and his founding principal of Cogito, ergo sum.[6]

The Pragmatists took the perspective that things are what they are independent of what we describe them to be. An early, and very productive, attack on the Cartesian view of the world focused on the formulation that A is A and not B. One of the earliest and most effective attacks was mounted by the German mathematician Georg Cantor. Most of us are familiar with the most graphic demonstration of this formulation – Cantor Sets.[7] This argument was advanced by one of the great thinkers of our time – Dr. Lotfi Zadeah. Zadeah suggested a perspective which he called fuzzy logic.[8] He observed that, pragmatically, things are never either only A or B, but always partially both.

Fuzzy Logic was one of the founding perspectives of Systems Theory.[9] For Systems Theory, it is the relationships among things that matter most. One of its core arguments is that focus on founding principles can result in artificial perspectives which miss the importance of the complex systems being studied of worked on.

One of Professor Zadeah’s favorite sayings is “When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail!” This can be interpreted to mean that when you start with a founding assumption, the logic of the perspective takes over and you are likely to end up living in a synthetic reality. This is reminiscent of the criticism of Cartesian-like world views – “philosophers build castles in the sky but live in the tool shed on the ground”. The most effective critique of logical systems founded on a single principal is:

  • The assumption may not prove useful
  • The ‘working out of the implications of the principal may be simply wrong.

This shift to relationships from founding principles became an important part of the evolution of my approach to coaching. I had learned – sometimes the hard way through the experience of building six companies – that adherence to pedantic perspectives comes with a cost. As a result of those experiences, I now work with clients to focus on what is rather than what appears to be through a pedantic lens. For me, the effectiveness of my coaching is measured by its practical results rather than its validation of any founding principal.

The responsibility of a coach is to help the client overcome challenges. As a coach – whether our focus in on executive, organizational or leadership issues or on the process of the business of business – I am committed to bring whatever wisdom and experience that I have accumulated to the service of the client. I do that client a great disservice if my actions are focused on proving that a particular theology – system of thinking – is correct. Coaches, at their best, are theologically agnostic.

© Dr. Earl R. Smith II


[1] Marked by a narrow focus on or display of learning especially its trivial aspects – a pedantic person is one who is overly concerned with formalism and precision, or who makes a show of learning.

[2] One new client has just come off an engagement with a consultant who saw everything in the light of emotional intelligence. Emotional Intelligence is often measured as an Emotional Intelligence Quotient (EQ), describes an ability, capacity, skill or (in the case of the trait EI model) a self-perceived ability, to identify, assess, and manage the emotions of one’s self, of others, and of groups.

[3] Zeno’s arguments are perhaps the first examples of a method of proof called reductio ad absurdum also known as proof by contradiction. They are also credited as a source of the dialectic method used by Socrates.

[4] To paraphrase the old vaudeville saying “If you buy the premise you bought the bit.

[5] The line of American Pragmatists runs from Charles Sanders Peirce through Emerson to Richard Rorty.

[6] I think, therefore I am

[7] Cantor Sets are sometimes represented by two or more overlapping circles. The set of things that are A are represented by one circle and those that are B are represented by a second circle. The issue is drawn when the two circles overlap. This presents a problem to the A is A and not B formulation. Some of the set A how is also part of the set B. In real-life terms, all tall people are the set A and all brown-haired people are of the set B. There are members of one set that are also members of the second set.

[8] The best reference on Fuzzy Logic is Fuzzy Thinking: The New Science of Fuzzy Logic by Bart Kosko.

[9] Systems theory is an interdisciplinary field of science and the study of the nature of complex systems in nature, society, and science. More specifically, one can analyze and/or describe any group of objects that work in concert to produce some result by a framework. This could be a single organism, any organization or society, or any electro-mechanical or informational artifact.

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