Too much overview, too much leadership

Imagine you’re part of a group of about twenty people that has the task of ordering a number of pictures into a sequence within fifteen minutes. Each participant gets a picture and may look at it but not show it to anyone else. Instead of showing it, you can describe your picture to others. While you’re told that the task is called “zoom”, you are not given any clue about the aspects by means of which the pictures connect. So it may be the colour, the figure or shape or some other motif that makes your picture connect to another one. Now what do you do?

This task was part of a course on philosophy and leadership that I had the pleasure to co-teach a few weeks ago.* The students participating in this course were truly excellent. As often is the case with good students, I think I learn a lot more than I teach. This little task was particularly rewarding in that it taught me a lot about group dynamics in a setting that is crucial for philosophy: We might have goals but no clear idea what the goal states would look like. We want to get on, but we don’t really know where we stand or where we go. Put in Wittgensteinian terms: “I don’t know my way about.”** What can we do in such situations? – What happened in the task set in the course can be told quickly: At the beginning one student took the lead and advised all of us to form small groups, compare brief descriptions of pictures and rearrange the groups such that those with fitting items find each other. We quickly formed about three groups. Most of the remaining time was now devoted to figuring out how the loose ends of each group could connect. At the end, we did form one sequence. But it was clear that the sequence only made sense as a chain of overlaps or family resemblances. There was no overarching structure or idea of the goal state. Remembering my participation in the task, there are two things that stand out in particular: Firstly, I realised (yet again) that we never see the whole picture. Secondly, it became glaringly clear that attempts at creating an overview will lead nowhere. What does that mean for interaction in groups?

  • Every perspective matters: You have a task but you have no idea of the eventual goal state. I think this is a situation you encounter fairly often in life. But how do you deal with that in a group? Since you don’t know what kind of information is relevant for achieving the goal, everyone’s perspective matters equally. You must listen carefully, and to everyone. It’s fine to jump to conclusions and move on, but only if you’re ready to revise your conclusions in the light of new descriptions. The situation reminded me of being a mode in a Spinozist world: no one has a picture of the whole and those who pretend otherwise will fail. So we constantly depend on each other’s perspectives in order to form a larger and more apt understanding of the whole. No one’s knowledge can be replaced or overruled by anyone else’s. Most interestingly, the group accepted no ideas or instructions that went against these insights. People who tried to collect an overview and instruct others from a seemingly general idea were simply ignored, no matter how much they raised their voice.
  • Overviews are hardly ever helpful: Of course, over time the group accumulates a joint understanding of the situation. Everyone knows more about how their pictures could relate to others. The groups become more stable in their sequence and thus patterns emerge, now knowable by others. In this situation, some people tried to take the lead and collect a list of features on the blackboard. As noted, they were ignored relentlessly. But it also became clear that those overviews would not have been helpful. Partly because they would not be as informative as the direct interactions between participants; partly because it was never clear whether any individual or we already knew the features that mattered for the whole sequence. Accordingly, the very attempt of leading the group was not helpful. The only sensible kind of leadership consisted in facilitating the interaction of the group members.

That said, this task does of course have a dimension of clarity that is absent from most situations in our lives. There is a hidden leader, i.e. the person setting the task. And there is a beginning and a correct result at the end. In any case, given that most situations are unclear, it felt important to be reminded of these insights: every perspective matters, because we never know what will matter eventually; and the most important aspect of leadership, if any, is the facilitation of exchanges in the group and between sub-groups. Anything else is too much.


* I’d like to express my gratitude again to my co-instructor Maren Drewes of beispielsweise. She introduced the task in which I took part as a participant. Here is a course description.

** See Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, § 123. The German original reads: “Ich kenne mich nicht aus.”


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