How we know what we know

Meltzoff (1998) wrote that, “first learned, deeply ingrained modes of thought continue to affect people as they go about the task of evaluating what they are told orally and in print and to influence what evidence to consider valid” (p. 3). This statement readily applies to the way in which I conceptualize leadership. To this day, I compare leaders to my archetype, my father. Growing up, I observed him interacting with his team when I visited his office and during the annual firm picnic. People were always coming over to tell me how much they loved working with and for him. They described him as compassionate and demonstrating great care for them, deeply knowledgeable in his field and eager to share what he knew, firm and fair, and providing as much transparency as he could into how decisions were made that affected them. As a child, I knew that I wanted to be like my dad. I wanted people to say those things about me when I was (eventually) in a position like his.

Early on in my career, I had a boss who was like a father to me. When I discovered that he was embezzling money from the organization, I faced a serious ethical dilemma. I was the only one who had put the pieces together, no one else knew or even had an inkling. I was young and loyal, but I also had a fixed sense of right and wrong. Turning him in was one of the most difficult things I have done in my professional life. What was most challenging was that, up to that point, he had seemed to embody everything I thought a leader should be. Where my father was rough, he was kind. He fit my mental model of ideal leadership. When that was wiped away, I realized that I had a uni-dimensional view of leadership, similar to what Thomas Carlyle defines as the “Great Man” theory of leadership. My focus was on the individual and the intrinsic traits and characteristics that made a great leader. Centering the leader, as I later learned when reading Mintzberg (2011), only serves to marginalize and demote the followers and obscure the environmental factors that play a critical role in the evolution of organizations.

Isaac Asimov (1989) wrote a response to a letter from a somewhat impertinent English Literature major concisely explaining why theories that build on one another are fundamental to expanding human knowledge. That the same open-mindedness is critical to understanding leadership. False binaries and belief systems that require the wholesale adoption of one theory to the exclusion, or even denigration, of others only serve to stifle intellectual growth and future knowledge.

Epistemology, the study of how we know what we know, is dependent upon our being open to learning new things and having our existing beliefs challenged. Reflexivity is a foundational skill for any researcher because it calls for the investigator to examine and reexamine the individual biases and perspectives affecting the work (Bechara & Van de Ven, 2007). Only by interrogating own points of view and philosophies are we able to continuously develop as individuals and leaders of ourselves and others.


Asimov, I. (1989). The relativity of wrong. The Skeptical Inquirer, 14(1), 35.

Bechara, J. P., & Van de Ven, A. H. (2007). Philosophy of science underlying engaged scholarship. In A. H. Van de Ven (Ed.), Engaged scholarship: A guide for organizational and social research (pp. 36-70). Oxford University Press.

Meltzoff, J. (1998). Critical thinking about research: Psychology and related fields. American Psychological Association.

Mintzberg, H. (2011). Managing. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

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