Ascent to Sunlight

Ariane David’s work on human and organizational development seeks to understand and correct errors of cognition within organizations, and optimize the way in which individuals operate in relation to others. It may be that optimization requires more feminine leadership, regardless of the sex of the leader.

BY: Cuyler Gibbons
Photos: Mowry


Ariane David

“We may acquire concepts by our perceptual experience of physical objects. But we would be mistaken if we thought that the concepts that we grasp were on the same level as the things we perceive.”

Ariane David is a consultant, a writer and an academic. “Pretty much 1/3, 1/3, 1/3,” as she says. Whatever the platform however, David is concerned with understanding how and why we perceive things the way we do. She is in the business of using that understanding to teach people to recognize the fallibility of personal perception and the vital importance of rigorous critical thought.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave has been interpreted in different ways—both as a political statement and a metaphor about our faulty perception of reality. Plato asks us to imagine prisoners chained since childhood and forced to stare ahead at a rock wall. Behind the prisoners is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a walkway. Individuals traverse the walkway carrying various objects that project their shadows against the wall that holds the prisoner’s gaze.

The shadows playing along the wall are the sum of the prisoners’ reality. When they see a shadow of an urn or a tree upon the wall and identify it, they are seeing and describing not the reality of the thing itself, though they think it so, but a shadow representation. And so it is with us. When I ask David about the theoretical origin of her work, she cites Plato’s allegory, then expounds at length:

Changing Perceptions
“Up until the beginning of the 20th century, we thought that memory was just an imprint of what happened; perception was an imprint of experience, that the brain was sort of a passive organ. But starting with the 20th century we began realizing that when we take in sensory phenomenon the brain actually changes that. This is also the base of my work, to understand how the brain works and that the brain is absolutely fallible, that the brain changes everything. Every bit of sensory input that comes into our brains is immediately changed and classified and so we really don’t know what actually happened. We know what we perceived happened and it’s only when we can have this understanding can we begin to be critical thinkers. We can never become critical thinkers if we think we remember correctly, or if we think we are certain of what happened. So that’s the very underpinning of the work in critical thinking, it’s in realizing that perception and memory are highly fallible. It was great for survival on the savannah, it’s not great for the kind of fine thinking that we engage in now.”

Isn’t it curious I wonder, that you study the search for perceptual truth, or at least for the truth of perception, only to find uncertainty to be central to certain understanding? It requires some mental flexibility to wrap your brain around that. It definitely puts a fork in dogmatism of any kind I suggest. David chuckles, then turns professorial:

Total Recall
“The moment that you are certain, the moment that you know absolutely what happened, that should be a red flag because that can never happen given the way the brain works. Just take the issue of recalling. We call it “recalling” but that’s really a misnomer because we don’t recall a memory, we re-fabricate it and recent research has shown that every time we recall a memory that the brain lays down new neural pathways, new synapses actually grow that memorialize that new memory and it overwrites the old memory. So, every time you pull up a memory, that is a new memory and that then becomes the base memory and the original memory is overwritten.”

As a founding partner of the Veritas Group, Ariane David’s practice focuses on human dynamics within organizations. Especially during times of change and great organizational stress, functionally effective human relationships are the basis of successful transformation. I wonder how her academic work meshes with her consulting. David explains:

Practical Science
“I’m not a neuroscientist. I track the literature. So, I read what’s been done. My job is with people, my job is to teach people how to think so that they can think effectively. So I look at the science and I say what does the science mean in terms of dynamics among people, and so I interpret that science and I say what effect does this have on people and how people make decisions, how people solve problems, how people engage in relationships, etc. I think I’ve been quite successful in doing that because it’s the kind of thing where once you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see it. Once you’ve seen the salability of your thinking it’s hard to un-see it.”

I relate my personal experience with “Corporate Reengineering,” an attempted rejiggering of the large corporation where I worked at a time when “reengineering” was all the rage. What resulted was essentially chaos. A blizzard of buzzword inspired change was released to little or no positive effect, but great interpersonal turmoil. I ask David how her work in organizational dynamics might differ. Considerably, as it turns out.

“At the turn of the 20th century there was a fellow named Fredrick Taylor, he was kind of an obsessive/compulsive engineer and he looked at organizations and saw a machine and so he was really the one who created this notion of organizations as machines. His notion was that people are just literally cogs in the machine or parts, and that they can be run the same way. When they’re no longer running you pull them out and put in a new one. That notion of organization as a machine really was the prevailing corporate view for a long time, and I can tell you that it’s still there. That’s where we get Dilbert. In the ‘80s, a man named Michael Hammer wrote a book called The Re-engineering of America or something like that, people embraced the idea of re-engineering in a business context, and the use of this mechanical language, emphasizing that business is a machine and we can make this machine run better. Years later Michael Hammer actually, after all the carnage and blood letting because of what he had written, acknowledged that it didn’t work because he never took into consideration the fact that people aren’t parts of a machine. But even now this fallacious thinking continues. So now they try to handle all of the stuff that gets damaged by these huge changes with some kind of personal intervention, but the personal interventions are themselves mechanical. So those huge re-engineering projects are disasters, they’re just simply disasters.”

As far back as the 1960s, there were early devotees of organizational development who said ‘wait a minute people are not parts, and they don’t respond like parts. My work comes out of this. Veritas Group specializes in critical thinking, critical problem solving in human development. It’s really the practice arm of my academic work.

The idea that we are all individuals, rather than identical, easily replaceable cogs doesn’t seem all that radical. It does, however, require a different perspective from leadership. After all, whether you see a corporation as a machine or a collection of individuals is a difference in kind, not just degree. The only way to get from one perspective to the other is more knowledge. An ascent into light. How exactly does this happen, I ask.

New Leadership
I teach leadership. We can see how the earliest theories of leadership were based on traits. These are the traits, you’re either born with them or you’re not and if you’re not born with them you can never be a leader, and of course the traits were all masculine traits. Then, as we progressed to the 20th century, we started saying, ‘Well, maybe you’re not born with them, maybe you can learn to do these things so that leadership is based on skills.’ Then as we progressed, well, leadership is based on traits and skills but really its based on relationships, so now you’ve gotta look at who your followers are. In the ‘80s we started talking about things such as authentic leadership and servant leadership. This is a whole new and greatly feminized version of leadership where we see leadership as being a system based on the relationship of all the parts of the system. We need to work on the relationship rather than working on the individual parts. So in the newer theories of leadership we see that the leader has to focus on empowering the followers, making them more knowledgeable, appreciating them, taking the barriers out of the way. So it’s a whole different view of leadership from the kind of command and control leadership that we saw in the early part of the 20th century.

I wonder where all this leads. To our first female president perhaps? Perhaps, but David is clear it’s not strictly about “more women” in leadership roles, though that is certainly important, it’s about “more feminine” leadership practices. In addition to her work in academia and with the Veritas Group, David is also an author. It turns out the book she is currently working on deals with these questions of female leadership. Perhaps the answers are in those in those pages. As David says:

Read The Book
“This book is specifically about the gender differential in leadership, the logical underpinnings, the myths involved and most importantly what needs to be done.”
Ariane David will be the featured speaker at the Pasadena Magazine Women in Business Luncheon on May 4. An experienced professional speaker, be sure and attend to hear David discuss the fascinating and important subject of Feminine Leadership with her trademark wit, and insightful, down to earth style.

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