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July 2013: Questioning Assumptions

“People would rather believe than know.”

E.O. Wilson

Professor Emeritus, Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University

Two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient

The quote above popped into my head when reflecting on my exchanges with Kate Hurley, director of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the University of California at Davis. We met last month at the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators Annual Management Conference in San Diego, where both us were invited to speak.

Kate might be called the “Cat Woman” of modern times. A veterinarian who is the world’s first resident in Shelter Medicine, she studies and researches feline-related questions such as:

  • Under what conditions do cats thrive?

  • Is there a cat over-population problem?

  • Do cats living in the wild do better than those brought to animal shelters?

At first blush, cat questions might seem unrelated to human leadership, but Kate’s ideas can enrich leaders, on two levels.

The first level is about cats. Americans share space with about 180 million cats, half of them living wild on streets and in fields. That means there’s a cat for every two humans in the United States. If you accept that leaders of families and businesses ought to be aware of what is going on around them, that’s a pretty big number to ignore. How does the presence of cats affect humans, and how do we affect them?

The second (in my view, more important) level of value from Kate relates to her myth-busting role. Her views – supported by good research – tend to disturb the assumptions of the mainstream public, including many animal lovers, veterinarians and animal shelter workers. She’s a good example of someone who has done her homework on a specific issue, and uncovered facts that shed light on and question misguided beliefs. Here are three examples of her fact-based ideas:

  • Like bosses who feed dependence by providing “unhelpful help” to employees, the common human instinct to help wild cats by “giving them a home” is mostly ill-conceived. Wild cats able to find shelter and eat in the wild don’t need human intervention.

  • Just as humans can be killed when doctors and nurses don’t carefully wash their hands in hospitals, well-meaning animal shelter workers can inadvertently spread fatal cat diseases by moving from animal to animal without managing sanitation.

  • Like humans, not all cats are the same. For example, being removed from a cage, cuddled by a stranger and carried to an unfamiliar room to play may provide welcome relief from boredom for some cats, but may be highly stressful for others.

The courage to question unfounded beliefs based on reality is an important dimension of leadership.

One implication of Kate’s work for thoughtful business leaders would be to question the automatic use of words and phrases. Speech without thought has always plagued human societies, but contemporary leaders have taken superficial communication to new heights.

Consider these confusing, commonly used words:

  • “Passion,” as in “I’m passionate about our mission.” Does this word refer to unbridled enthusiasm, a “sell job,” or deeply reflected-upon commitment to a noble idea or cause? It doesn’t take much maturity to simply get lost in passion. As Hitler proved, passion without accountable integrity risks the delusional pursuit of a questionable goal.

  • “Results,” as in “We need to be results-oriented.” Does this mean hyper-focusing on short-term gains or striving for long-term shifts in deeply-embedded patterns? What’s the bigger problem in your organization, being so anxious and busy that you miss opportunities to reflect on long-term outcomes; or spending too much time pondering and not enough time acting?

  • “Know,” as in “I know what’s right.” Does this mean “I believe” or “I have facts to support my opinion?” I have noticed that many who invoke “I know” don’t really know at all – they just have a belief. Often, their belief is unsupported by hard evidence. Why don’t they simply say “I believe” instead of the more certain-sounding, “I know?”

  • “Team,” as in “I’m a team person.” Does that mean you prefer to collaborate rather than going it alone (two heads are better than one)? Does it imply that you seek the protection of others to hide your own weaknesses? Is a team first committed to the welfare of its members, or to the accomplishment of a task? Before we do any “team-building” it might be useful to clarify what we mean by “team” and its purpose.

Here’s a sincere invitation: Consider curtailing the use of trite mainstream words and phrases, and jumping on the simplistic literary bandwagon of “numbered solutions” to complex problems (7 habits, 5 dysfunctions, etc.). Instead, consider relentless curiosity, solid research and the courage to question the impulsive beliefs of the crowd your primary weapons against delusion, fanaticism and prejudice.

It may not increase your popularity, but, as Kate Hurley has found, it might win the respect of the most respectable.

5 Responses to “July 2013: Questioning Assumptions”

  1. July 01, 2013 at 9:41 am, Carl Montante said:

John, interesting thoughts. In attending a conference on animal welfare it’s clear that your study of leadership takes you to seemingly unrelated fields of study.

Hope you’re doing well John. Best regards. – Carl

  1. July 01, 2013 at 1:32 pm, Bill Engels said:

Hi John,

As always, interesting and thought provoking! Have a great summer.

Bill Engels

  1. July 01, 2013 at 6:28 pm, Matt Venuti said:

Good observations John. Love it when cats can be anecdotal for deepening our understanding of human behavior. As Eckhart Tolle said in the Power of Now, “I have had many Zen Masters, most of them cats”. Also seems like you are promoting a more non-linear approach to problem solving in your challenge. Break out of the box, question beliefs, eliminate cliches…I’m in!

  1. July 29, 2013 at 4:15 pm, john c said:

………….i am told that Cats only vocalize to communicate with Humans. in other words, they have to lower their aptitude.

  1. September 03, 2013 at 2:06 am, clay osborne said:


A student of yours introduced me to your blog. If it is appropriate I would love to added to your distribuition list. Interesting stuff Clay

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