Stupid can never stand up to courage

The Daily Courier - - CANADA - NE IL GODBOUT

When re­tired Fort McMur­ray fire chief Darby Allen spoke last Satur­day night at the an­nual Bob Ew­ert Me­mo­rial Din­ner and Lec­ture, he told two sto­ries about func­tional stu­pid­ity.

His first anec­dote was about the manda­tory evac­u­a­tion of the en­tire city of nearly 90,000 peo­ple. Send­ing ev­ery­one south was ob­vi­ously the best plan.

South led to sanc­tu­ary com­mu­ni­ties that could help and was the op­po­site di­rec­tion the fire was mov­ing. The only thing north were the oil camps and the un­con­trolled blaze was mov­ing in that di­rec­tion.

A mem­ber of his staff stopped Allen and told him he was wrong.

Send­ing ev­ery­one south would take too far too long, the em­ployee ar­gued, pre­sent­ing Allen with the num­ber of peo­ple in­volved, the num­ber of ve­hi­cles and how long it would take them to all leave the city on one road. Peo­ple would ei­ther die trapped in the traf­fic jam on High­way 63 South or in­side the burn­ing city.

The staff mem­ber sug­gested send­ing 30,000 peo­ple — the res­i­dents who lived north and west of the Athabasca River — in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. There was noth­ing there ex­cept for lakes and forests, some lodges, the tiny com­mu­nity of Fort McKay and the mas­sive oil sands camps.

It seemed crazy and dan­ger­ous but the sug­ges­tion forced Allen to slow down and reeval­u­ate the evac­u­a­tion plan. De­spite the risks, the plan made sense if the pri­mary goal was to save lives by emp­ty­ing the city as fast as pos­si­ble.

Ten min­utes later, they re­vised the plan, as the em­ployee had rec­om­mended.

Allen had been on the path to mak­ing a stupid and po­ten­tially tragic mis­take. His staff mem­ber stopped him.

Allen later is­sued a di­rect or­der — the only one he gave dur­ing the cri­sis, he told the Ew­ert au­di­ence — for his men to aban­don sev­eral neigh­bour­hoods and re­treat to safer ground, where they could rest, re­group and fo­cus their ef­forts on ar­eas more likely to be spared the fire’s wrath.

Fire­fight­ers fight fires un­til the fire is out; they do not pack up their equip­ment and drive away while homes are burn­ing, he told the hushed crowd, many of them doc­tors and nurses who would cer­tainly un­der­stand the agony of stop­ping treat­ment of a pa­tient in need.

They would have died out there, fight­ing the fire, if he had let them stay, he said.

Put an­other way, he alerted those fire­fight­ers to their func­tional stu­pid­ity, telling them those homes were not worth dy­ing for.

Func­tional stu­pid­ity can be of great value but can also cause dev­as­tat­ing harm in work­places, a con­cept Andr Spicer and Mats Alves­son ex­plore in their book The Stu­pid­ity Para­dox: The Power and Pit­falls of Func­tional Stu­pid­ity at Work.

In their in­flu­en­tial 2012 ar­ti­cle in the Jour­nal of Man­age­ment Stud­ies, A Stu­pid­i­tyBased The­ory of Or­ga­ni­za­tions, that led to the book, Spicer and Alves­son ex­plained how stu­pid­ity(bad) can be func­tional (good). “By cul­ti­vat­ing func­tional stu­pid­ity, or­ga­ni­za­tions are able to avoid the costs as­so­ci­ated with broader crit­i­cal think­ing,” they wrote.

“By re­frain­ing from ask­ing dif­fi­cult and prob­ing ques­tions, they are able to cre­ate a sense of pur­pose­ful­ness and cer­tainty around the or­ga­ni­za­tions’ ac­tiv­i­ties, de­spite the ques­tion­able ba­sic of many of them.”

The au­thors called that last part “stu­pid­ity self-man­age­ment,” where work­ers put aside their doubts - in their abil­i­ties, the wis­dom of their man­agers and any con­cerns about the le­git­i­macy or ne­ces­sity of the task - to get the job done and then later con­vince them­selves their stu­pid­ity was ac­tu­ally smart and the right thing to do.

That can of­ten be com­mend­able but, like func­tional stu­pid­ity, stu­pid­ity self-man­age­ment also has its down­side.

If em­ploy­ees are go­ing to work, do­ing their job and go­ing home be­cause the boss won’t lis­ten, no­body cares or they take a “I’m not paid to think about this,” the work­place suf­fers.

Stu­pid­ity self-man­age­ment is es­sen­tial to mil­i­tary and para­mil­i­tary or­ga­ni­za­tions, such as po­lice forces and fire depart­ments, and their uni­formed per­son­nel, where the chain of com­mand es­tab­lishes a strong de­gree of clar­ity and fo­cus but opens the work­place to wide­spread stu­pid­ity, both at the in­di­vid­ual de­ci­sion level but also as part of the work­place cul­ture (“that’s just the way we do things here”).

Al­though he didn’t use the phrase func­tional stu­pid­ity in his speech, Allen’s riv­et­ing sto­ries made it clear that the an­ti­dote to stu­pid­ity — func­tional or not, in the work­place or in our per­sonal lives — is courage.

Speak­ing up, even with ideas that seem stupid on the sur­face, takes courage. Step­ping for­ward to re­solve a sit­u­a­tion, with­out wait­ing for di­rec­tion, also re­quires courage. Stop­ping to lis­ten to an op­pos­ing view and re­con­sider what seems like an obivous choice takes courage. So does lead­ing peo­ple in a di­rec­tion they might not want to go and then tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for that de­ci­sion, re­gard­less of its out­come.

Stupid is as stupid does, said For­rest Gump, a clas­sic ex­am­ple of some­one who knows that there are times when it’s smart to be stupid and it’s al­ways the right time to do the right thing.

Be­ing smart is great, but when sup­pos­edly-in­tel­li­gent peo­ple won’t lis­ten to con­trary views, refuse to ac­cept they aren’t the bright­est per­son in the room and see chang­ing their mind in light of new in­for­ma­tion as a sign of weak­ness, that will al­ways be stupid.

Neil Godbout is manag­ing edi­tor of The Prince Ge­orge Cit­i­zen.

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