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Let me start with a telling quote from Russell Ackoff: “the appeal of gurus lies to a large extent in the simplicity of the doctrines they put forth. They are simple no matter how complex the problems at which they are directed. They provide a life raft to those who are incapable of handling complexity.”

In today’s fast paced life, the “5 steps to…” recipe for success is pervasive. This type of headline template dominates both mass media and social media.

I will pick just one of the many examples to make a quick argument for the “5 steps to…” template being intellectual noise at best, and dangerous advice to follow at worst. One of the newly minted “thought leaders” on the LinkedIn social network recently posted the 6 lessons he lives by. Number one on his list is: “surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and move out of their way”. My assertion is that this basically tells us nothing. It is an incomplete statement devoid of context. It sounds great but doesn’t provide any meaningful path to wisdom.

I picked this one example because I usually take issue with the “people smarter than you” leadership anecdote. It’s insufficient in that it doesn’t tell what the leadership still adds to the mix. Your employees can be “smarter than you” in terms of information, knowledge, and even understanding. The leader still has to supply the wisdom, which is synthesized knowledge and understanding, and it is future oriented. Russell Ackoff proposes a clear hierarchy of mental content value going from data to information to knowledge to understanding and finally to wisdom, which is the hardest to acquire in life. These simple classifications of reality that start with “5 simple ways to…”, “the ten traits of…” and so forth are counterproductive to understanding the full beauty and complexity of life. In Ackoff’s words, they provide a false life raft. The modern world, not unlike the ancient world, is full of false prophets. The problem of calling their bluff remains.

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