Today I am in the midst of leading big changes at the University of Southern Maine, but I am not talking about those right now. Instead, I’m asking this question: In times of big decisions, how do we have the courage to make them?
Here’s my answer: Accept that we will never have enough time, enough data, or enough certainty to make the perfect decision. We have to come to terms with our own imperfections and act anyway, with the best information we have. If a definition of courage is lurking in here, this is where it is: Decide “as if” you know for sure, and take action. Then be open to correction as you put your decisions into action.
A German philosopher, Hans Vaihinger, a disciple of German philosopher Immanuel Kant in the 19th century, said that this is how human knowledge works. We don’t know with 100 percent certainty, so we have to act “as if” our scientific theories and conjectures are true, until the world proves us wrong, and then we can refine our ideas.
I read his book, “The Philosophy of âAs if’,” when I was an undergraduate, and it has stuck with me. “As if” is a really good basis for deciding in the face of limited information. It also fits in with the innovation engineering exhortation to fail fast, fail cheap. Not that you make decisions expecting to fail, but you test them by applying them to reality. And then you refine them.
In the kind of decision-making I’m doing now, I have teams of helpers — the senior leadership of the university, faculty, staff, students and community members, and colleagues from the University of Maine System. Teams are a tried and true means of getting more opinions and ideas, testing alternatives, trying out scenarios, and trying to foresee unintended consequences. They’re not perfect, but they help get beyond the limitations of your own singular experience. Teams give courage to themselves and the leader as well. I love my teams.
I started to learn this many years ago, when I became the assistant to the president of UMass-Dartmouth. The boss put me in charge of the strategic planning process and its committee. I charged in there every week with my do-it-all-yourself model left over from graduate school and presented the committee with my latest draft. After a few weeks of boring critiques, one of the members said, “You know, Theo, this would be a better product if we helped you write it.” So I invited them each to do a section, and by golly they came back with something that was about a million times better than anything I could have done by myself. Revelation.
But isn’t leading a team hard? Yes, it takes a definite skill set. But it can give benefits that you might not imagine.
Here’s an illustration. Once upon a time, more than 40 years ago, I was teaching a class in Introduction to Philosophy. It was about the middle of the spring term. I handed back a set of papers with red marks all over them (I would never do this today), and one of the students totally lost it and started berating me for being an awful person and a lousy teacher. I didn’t know how to handle this, and ran out of the classroom and into the nearest restroom, where I howled, blew my nose and then tried to compose myself. As I was wondering how to go back in there, a couple of my students came in and said, “OK, you can come back now.” When I entered, the student stood up and apologized. I was amazed. Afterwards, when I asked the students what they had done, they just said, “We took care of it. She was out of line, and we let her know.”
I didn’t even know I was creating a team in that class, much less that I could rely on them to rescue me. But I was, and they did.
Finally, my mother always used to say, mostly in times of grief or trouble, “This too shall pass.” As I have gotten more experienced in living, I have come to understand that she actually may have meant this about everything. This too shall pass. It’s a good reminder to treasure every day, because even as we are in the midst of difficult decisions, tomorrow will bring its own gifts and its own challenges.
Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be reached at [email protected].