Two Polanyi Principles for Better Leadership

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Michael Polanyi did so many things so well that it’s difficult to classify him in a phrase or two. One of his roles was that of “philosopher of science,” which sounds quite grandiose.

What has captivated me about Polanyi’s work is how helpful it is when you tether it to the everyday realities of leadership. Here are two Polanyi Principles that will improve your leadership results.

Polanyi Principle: It doesn’t matter what you know if it doesn’t affect results.

Polanyi calls this “personal knowledge.” It should be your test for every educational program you attend and every book you read to improve your performance.

Ask yourself: “How will I use this?” and “How can I apply this?” Realize that live fire practice and feedback are keys to learning most important leadership skills. No one ever became a great leader by simply reading a book or taking a course. As my friend, Rod Santomassimo says, “Don’t KID yourself. Knowing Isn’t Doing.”

Polanyi Principle: We don’t start with facts.

Polanyi studied how scientists worked but his conclusions work for managers, too. He points out that scientists’ skills, biases, and passions determine what they work on and how they work.

In other words, scientific method is not a simple process where you turn a crank to generate truths. Instead it’s a messy human activity where our humanity helps us discover truth as much as our method does.

Think about how we describe problem solving. We usually say that we begin with facts, but that’s not accurate. Most of the time we begin with opinions based on our own biases and history. Those opinions determine where we look for facts.

There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s just our humanity at work. You know most of us begin problem solving and decision making with unstated assumptions and opinions.  Now you can spend time rooting them out and exposing them to the light of discussion.

Bottom Line

Give everything you learn the “doing” test. What difference will it make? Remember that research, decision making, and leadership are human processes with all that’s good and bad about theat.

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