Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Bias that cried Wolf

It was a couple of months ago, when I first came across this image, showing a big group of wolves traveling in the snow.

Source: this youtube video (although it appears to be a still from BBC´s "Frozen Planet" from 2011)

The picture comes with a description about the structure of the group: The weakest individuals in the front, followed by the strongest ones to protect the group from an attack from the side. In the very back we are supposed to see the leader of the group, who makes sure no wolf is left behind and the whole group travels in the right direction.
Since then I came across countless versions of this picture&story, packaged as a lesson in leadership. The take away usually comes as some variation of: "Great leaders are servant leaders."

When I first saw this picture, my initial reaction was:

Wow, this is so powerful! I am totally going to share this with all my followers!

Luckily, I did not do this immediately, but looked at the comments first. And (what a surprise!) it turns out the description is complete nonsense. Whatever we see on this picture, it is not what the author wants us to believe. So my second reaction to this picture was:

Oh crap, this is fake! I am glad I checked before I distributed this even further.

A couple of days ago, I saw this picture again, and this time I had a different thought, which now makes much more sense to me:

Why on earth should human leaders be able to learn something from a group of wolves?

I mean, seriously, am I the only one who thinks this is ridiculous? Even if the description was correct: so what? It might be an interesting fact for everyone, who is interested in wildlife. But what makes us think we could transfer insights from this to our daily work? Last time I checked, we all were humans working in corporations, not wolves roaming Alaska. These two scenarios can hardly be more different. I guess nobody would use wolves as role models, when it comes to diet ("Rotten carcasses are good for you!") or other behaviors ("Wolves teach us that we should always sleep naked in the snow!")
But there is something about this specific leadership narrative that makes it so appealing to (some of) us: We want to believe that it is true! Or, to be more specific: Those of us, who believe in a certain school of leadership, want this story to be true - because it reaffirms our belief. This certainly applies to me. Now that I reflected on this, I realized that I wanted this story to be true so badly, that all my rational safe-guards were bypassed within the blink of an eye.

Source: Wikimedia

The reason I am posting this is because I believe this is a great example of how powerful biases (in this case: confirmation bias) can be - and how sneaky. In this example I was not only biased to (almost) share a fake story on the internet, but also to neglect the obvious differences between wolves and humans. And then there is of course the echo chamber problem: Even if the story would be true, and I had shared it, then only people within my filter bubble had seen it. These people mostly share my believes, so chances are that they would have liked the story very much and shared it once more. But would that really help our course of advocating servant leadership? I doubt it. At least I have a very hard time imagining someone with a very different view on leadership seeing this picture and thinking: "Wow, this is how wolves are leading. I will totally change the way I lead people in my organization!"

P.S. If you are interested in cognitive biases, you should check out my posts on confirmation bias,  groupthink and survivor bias.