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  • Dan Connors

Stuck on Mount Stupid

As a society, we depend on leaders to make decisions for us in most areas- politics, business, medicine, education, and just about everywhere. They are the crucial link between knowledge and action that determines all of our fates. So you'd like to think that most leaders are smart but wise, full of ideas and energy but also open to the feedback and critiques, strong but flexible. In today's age of information overload, getting there is more challenging than ever.

Most leaders and experts fall into two categories. Some have what is called impostor syndrome, where they secretly feel like they're in way over their heads and are quietly dreading the day when the rest of us figure them out. They bluff their way through most crises and hope that someone below them will come up with the answers.

The other, more dangerous, extreme is characterized by overconfidence and what's now known as the Dunning-Kruger curve. These leaders get so high on power and status that they grow disastrously out of touch with reality and willingly lead those who rely on them into spectacular failures. Overconfidence is a sticky trap, and it's also known as getting stuck on Mount Stupid, the early peak of the famous Dunning-Kruger curve. At this summit, they think they've learned more than everybody because of early successes and lessons. The problem is that those at the top aren't aware if what they don't know- the 95% they can't see. Beyond Mount Stupid there's a dark and scary world of unintended consequences and black swans like Covid and Global Warming that none of us can predict or completely understand.

Beyond the peak of Mount Stupid is the Valley of Despair, where all of our early assumptions fall apart and more information comes in that conflicts with our initial beliefs and opinions. At some level, we know that our information is incomplete, but we cling to it anyway because it makes sense and reconfiguring our models of how the world works is hard, never-ending work.

I think about Mount Stupid a lot, and have had to face my own Dunning-Kruger demons when things didn't turn out as expected. But that summit of confidence is a mirage, and I feel a thousand times better after testing my assumptions and getting closer and closer to the truth. (via the scientific method). Clinging to certainty has cost countless lives, while humble curiosity has inspired countless inventions.

I noticed the latter with our new mayor here in Granite City. Mike Parkinson has started his first year in office with The Mayor's Listening Series, a great set of public events at the local cinema where the new city officials talk about what they are planning and ask for input from local citizens. Watching the mayor, treasurer, city clerk and other officials talk with concerned citizens is refreshing in this age of partisan rancor. The feeling of having input and agency in your own community makes people care about it more and want to do more- a virtuous feedback loop.

Businesses could look to places like the Muny, who have been communicating with its audience during all of Covid and asking for their feedback as they prepare for a tricky new season. Politicians need to behave more like Ladonna Appelbaum, my state representative who actually listens to her constituents, and less like my US representative, Ann Wagner, who refuses to hold townhall meetings or attend debates. And all of us need to spend twice as much time listening and taking in information as talking and dishing it out. (That's why we have one mouth and two ears, ya know)

Most of our leaders are stranded on Mount Stupid, and the rest are hiding behind impostor syndrome. They rarely interact with diverse and complicated "regular" people, and depend instead on a small clique of like-minded elites for cues on what needs to be done. They hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest. The lack of honest debate, honest curiosity, and informational humility is why we're still struggling as a nation to get anything done while other nations pass us by.

There's a sweet spot between overconfidence and imposter syndrome, but it takes hard work to get there. It's a hard slog up the slope of enlightenment, but it's worth it. The view from Mount Stupid may be impressive, but it's 95% wrong. We need more leaders like Mike Parkinson and fewer like Jeff Bezos.

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