November 23, 2020

The Greek philosopher Aristotle may have lived in a different era, but the timeless nature of his work still holds relevance today. One, in particular, is the Nicomachean Ethics, which establishes three distinct types of knowledge required to solve problems: Techné, Episteme and Phronesis. And they all require different thinking styles. 

Techné is skill or craft knowledge—using tools or techniques to create something. Episteme (scientific knowledge), on the other hand, focuses on understanding things which already exist in the world. This form of knowledge attempts to unearth the laws of nature to make sense of the world. For example, Newton’s law of gravity did not involve the creation of gravity but the understanding of its mechanics. Finally, phronesis, which also means practical wisdom, involves ethical judgment like having the intellectual acuity to make sound decisions even when the data is unclear or the situation is ambiguous. Aristotle’s main argument was that all these realms have to be clearly defined because if you have a phronetic problem to solve, you should not be tackling it from an epistemic thinker’s standpoint. 

As a leader, why are all these important to you? Because you need to know the right kind of thinking to employ whenever a problem is presented to you. Often, wrong decisions are made when people fail to understand that different types of challenges are resolved by different modes of thinking. Techne problems can be how to create the right tools and mechanisms to make work more efficient, while epistemic issues range from marketing to profit maximisation. And phronesis challenges involve strategic matters like cost-cutting measures as well as mergers and acquisitions. If a situation requires you to make a moral judgement call, like employee safety and care, analysing facts and figures is simply pointless. On the same note, when the situation demands some form of data analysis, choosing to follow your intuition isn’t savvy. 

In the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, many missteps were made due to speculation and misinformation. Although science was an essential component towards understanding the virus and its transmission, it wasn’t inadequate because the pandemic was a social crisis too. Considerations like emotional and mental support and unemployment benefits were put aside including the public’s frustrations of social distancing.

Almost a year later, the crisis has not abated yet, with many countries around the world facing a second wave of infections. This is a clear sign that the right kind of thinking is necessary to lead a country to recovery. Global leaders should have established that the pandemic would involve both political and ethical judgment, and not just clinical data. Trump’s lateness to mandate masks caused Covid-19 to spread faster than most Americans realise. A delay in banning large gatherings and not enforcing lockdowns resulted in the number of cases in Sweden to spike dramatically. Thankfully, some countries were more successful in containing the virus, like Taiwan, where they enforced strict border control immediately after the pandemic broke out. Similarly, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern appealed to the emotions of her people and articulated a strong strategy, which has helped to keep Covid-19 numbers low. Even during the 2019 Christchurch shootings, Ardern’s first reaction was an ethical one—showing compassion for the victims (rather than resort to finger pointing). Subsequently, gun laws were changed. It was a situation that did not require epistemic expertise.

Another great example of appropriate crisis management was Kevin Johnson’s (CEO of Starbucks) ability to exercise good judgment. In 2018, the coffee chain was accused of racism after two black men were wrongly arrested in a Starbucks in Philadelphia. Since this was clearly a phronetic issue, his first reaction was a personal apology, which soothed the public’s rage. The next involved analysing all available information (as opposed to waiting) and acting quickly—sending 175,000 employees for racial bias training. This decision managed to save the reputation of the company. Similarly, when a suicidal Germanwings pilot crashed a plane, killing all onboard, the CEO of the Lufthansa, saw it as a phronetic issue, and expressed great empathy for the victims. Lufthansa’s compassionate approach helped to lessen the emotional impact of the crisis on all who were affected by the incident.

Ultimately, the mark of a good leader lies in knowing how to think and what to think. Before that can happen, acknowledge that different types of knowledge do exist and determine which ones are applicable.