In the ongoing record of medieval-bashing, I add Exhibit #753, from the otherwise stellar book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap--And Others Don't, by Jim Collins. In this passage, Collins is trying to explain why he didn't want his research team to concern itself with analyzing the leadership of companies that went from good to great:
To use an analogy, the "Leadership is the answer to everything" perspective is the modern equivalent of the "God is the answer to everything" perspective that held back our scientific understanding of the physical world in the Dark Ages. In the 1500s, people ascribed all events they didn't understand to God. Why did the crops fail? God did it. Why did we have an earthquake? God did it. What holds the planets in place? God. But with the Enlightenment, we began the search for a more scientific understanding -- physics, chemistry, biology, and so forth. Not that we became atheists, but we gained a deeper understanding about how the universe ticks.
Similarly, every time we attribute everything to "Leadership," we're no different from people in the 1500s. We're simply admitting our ignorance. Not that we should become leadership atheists (leadership does matter), but every time we throw our hands up in frustration -- reverting back to "Well, the answer must be Leadership!" -- we prevent ourselves from gaining deeper, more scientific understanding about what makes great companies tick.
How many things are wrong with this passage? Oh, a lot.
(1) The Dark Ages: specifically the time without an emperor of either Roman or Holy Roman character, so 476-800; more generally, it could refer to 500-1000. Collins refers to the 1500s.
(2) So let's take Collins up on the 1500s. Some scientific things done in the 1500s: invention of the watch, Copernicus posits heliocentrism, Paracelsus publishes the first manual of surgery, Olaus Magnus produced a map of the world, Michael Servetus discovers the pulmonary circulation of the blood, etc., etc., etc.
(3) But maybe Collins didn't mean the 1500s (though he mentions it specifically twice). Maybe he meant the genuine Dark Ages. Now just consider this claim: "In the [Dark Ages], people ascribed all events they didn't understand to God." Really? That's just an enormous claim to make. Also, maybe the Dark Ages didn't produce any good "science" because there was no civilization. Why wasn't there civilization? Barbarians. Why were there barbarians? No more Roman empire. Why no Roman empire? A long story, but St. Augustine's answer was, "Don't blame the Christians for your stupid mistakes" (see City of God). So if I have to attribute a main cause to lack of scientific progress in the Dark Ages, I'm going with "Lack of civilization" not a preternatural desire on the part of everyone to say "God did it."
(4) The claim that assuming "God did it" holds back "science." Notice the complete absence of evidence. But that's the point of this whole example: "Isn't it obvious that saying 'God did it' holds back science? I mean, look what happened in the Dark Ages?" And though we don't have to be "atheists," according to Collins, our scientific understanding of the world is hindered by a certain belief in God. Question: Which matters more, scientific understanding or knowledge of God? Of course, you say, a false dichotomy. True! But when push comes to shove, if Collins is right about belief in God (in certain contexts) holding back science, then one will have to choose.
(5) There's a certain tension in the passage. Collins says that the Dark Agers said God did everything they didn't understand. In the Leadership (note the consistent capital letter) analogy, he says that "every time we throw our hands up in frustration -- reverting back to . . . ." But Collins's characterization of the Dark Ages is that people weren't throwing up their hands in frustration; they were gladly throwing up their hands, inviting the God explanation.
(6) I suppose the worst thing about this passage is that it was actually printed. And by that I mean that it had to pass through the hands of a number readers and professional editors; I'd guess at least ten for a publisher the size of HarperCollins. And no one thought to say, "You know, your analogy about God and Leadership depends on a caricature of belief in God."
(7) A large claim of my own. One reason the science of the Enlightenment exploded was because of the background assumption that the universe is orderly, which itself depends on the existence of God. (Not until Darwin (1800s) do we get a real challenge to that assumption.)
Leaving the abuse of the Dark Ages, a comment on another assumption, namely, that there can be and should be scientific understanding of "what makes companies tick." I suppose that assumption depends on what is meant by "scientific." There is no doubt that Collins and his team did an immense amount of research for his book. But here's a claim: Everything Collins says in his book can be derived from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. His points about ego, friendship, hard work, common sense, character, all of it.
Question: Is Collins's understanding of what makes companies tick "deeper" than Aristotle's?