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The discipline of learning through education

“A well-trained man knows how to answer questions, they reasoned; an educated man knows what questions are worth asking.” – E. Digby Baltzell

This quote appears inside of an article about the Bell Telephone Company’s experiment with educating executives in a broad range of topics.  The executives attended a 10 month program designed to expand their horizons by reading a wide range of books, engaging in discussion with leading thinkers, and listening to guest lecturers.  In the end, even though the graduates better understood the world around them, were more interested in the workings of society, and could see more than one side of an argument, Bell ended the program. The unexpected outcome was that in expanding their confidence and critical thinking capabilities, the executives  were more likely to put their families and communities ahead of the company’s interest in the bottom line.

Katzenbach and Khan in Leading Outside the Lines write that today’s formal leadership programs can create a “self-reinforcing system” when they are based on templates designed to reproduce more leaders like those already in place. Choosing formal leaders is usually based on a process defined by degrees and certifications, alongside demonstration of increasing responsibility and delivery of bottom line results. Many training systems have been adapted from the Bell experiment to better serve the company interest in the bottom line.

Or do they serve it better? I would suggest that both are needed. The discipline of learning through education should be broad as well as deep. People need to be well-trained in technical skills. And, people need to be educated in a wide range of subjects and how to be critical thinkers. No company stands alone. Each is part of larger systems that include families and extended families, communities that are connected to schools and housing, and the global community.  We need leaders who can debate and consider all sides of a question, but most importantly, “know what questions are worth asking.”

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