Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Kant's Logic & Government Infrastructure

I type this from the Louisiana Department of Education Recreational Campground in beautiful metropolitan Bunkie, Louisiana, the site of each year's Louisiana FFA Leadership Camp. It's my first time here in years, and this time I'm here not as a professional speaker, but rather as a let's-sell-some-stuff-for-a-great-cause volunteer. It feels good to sit back and relax and let someone else do the talking.

The unyielding physical stability and consistency of government infrastructure never ceases to amaze me. This is my first time at the campground in about 15 years, and yet nothing has changed. The building, walls, and floors are exactly the same. The color scheme is identical. The Coke machines are in the same places... and they're still broken. The chairs and tables not only look exactly the same, but they seem to be in the precise same places. I'd bet you I could find one with my initials scratched into it alongside the number 1992 in the northeastern corner of the building. Why does it never change here? Like I said... this is government infrastructure.

As this is a campground, the food is, by definition, intimidating. I just had the very retro experience of having scooped ground meat plopped into a green plastic compartmentalized tray. That brings back memories. Oh, look, there goes a roach. No joke. But despite all that, the food wasn't bad, and I love this place.

Which segues nicely into something I've been wanting to think through... recently I was reading a book on "The Logic of Alice" (a book with a disappointingly large number of logical inconsistencies written by a political partisan... you'd think I wouldn't be able to so readily discern an author's party leanings by their thoughts on Lewis Carroll), and I came across a quote by the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant. According to Kant, the things of the world are real, but the human mind forms and shapes those realities into another reality. Our minds create the relationships between the things of the world, according to Kant, and alter them as much as possible for human benefit. This was part of a discussion on whether free will exists.

In other words, we can't change what's real, but our minds create opinions and relationships that create a new intangible reality. For instance, this campground I'm at right now may be very old and lacking any kind of modern updates or high-quality food, but I love it anyway because I was very happy here for several summers while I was in high school. My positive perception of it doesn't change the reality that it's a really old, beat up camp, and the reality that this place is pretty run down doesn't stop me from seeing it in a positive light. It also doesn't change the reality that I'm going to try to make my way out of here to the local McDonald's rather than brave the local dinner.

When I read the quote by Kant, my mind went back to the topic of self-monitoring, which I have gone far too long on this blog without mentioning. For those just joining us, self-monitoring is an organizational behavior concept that refers to how much we try to control the perceptions of those around us. A high self monitor engages in impression management, actively managing their public image. A low self monitor doesn't care what other people think about him or her, trusting that their public image will reflect their internal values. Most great business leaders, politicians, and salespeople are high self monitors, because they do a better job of making the people around them feel comfortable. You'll find more low self monitors in jobs like mathematics and engineering... although there are always exceptions. The question I've been researching is which, the high or low self monitor, makes the better leader.

Kant says we cannot change reality, but through our minds and communication, we change the way people view reality and thus create a new reality. This seems to me to be the way a high self monitor would look at themselves. This person is constantly creating a new reality of him or herself: the best possible reality of him or herself for the given situation. A high self monitor would say there is no black or white; just shades of grey. He would say that we are what we appear to be, and if he applied that theory to the world at large, he would say that things are what we make of them. He would say that if life gives you lemons, don't look at them as lemons: they're potential lemonade. If Kenny Chesney songs were the only music available, he'd make the best of it and say that if so many people listened to it, it can't be that bad. If you were dying of hunger in the desert and were surrounded by sand, he'd say that maybe the sand wouldn't be so bad to eat, as a last resort.

The low self monitor, on the other hand, probably wouldn't agree with Kant, either in their self-outlook or (probably) the way they look at the world. The low self-monitor is simply who she is, plain and simple, and that won't change for any person, time, place, or event. The low self monitor would say that how we look at or view something doesn't change the fundamental reality of what it is. If she applied her personal view to her world-view, the low self monitor would say that there certainly is black and white in the world, with right and wrong not being difficult to discern. She would go on to say that things aren't what we make of them: they're what they are. She'd say that if life gives you lemons, you still have lemons; Kenny Chesney is not enjoyable music even if it's the only music available; and you can't eat sand no matter how much you might wish otherwise.

We're talking extreme cases here to fully differentiate them, but the core difference does exist, assuming that self-monitors treat the world around them the same way they do themselves. The low self-monitor stubbornly sticks to what she personally believes is true and right. The high self monitor tries to frame impressions and reality for the maximum possible gain. Who's right? And who would make the better leader? I know what Kant would say... but I'm not sure how big a fan I am of Kant.

A leader who is a high self-monitor could make people feel more comfortable around him, and respond better to their opinions and needs. He could also be disingenuous and opportunistic. Meanwhile, a leader who is a low self-monitor might rightfully ignore fads and do a better job of sharing credit with her team. She could also be closed-minded and aloof. So if you have to pick between these extremes, which is better? Or do you really need to pick between extremes? Is it even possible?

In the case of reality, a middle road seems ideal - let's make the lemonade out of the lemons, but acknowledge that sand is not food. And let's not listen to Kenny. I just got a new Delean CD for my birthday, after all. It's much better.


  1. How could you look for a McDonalds? No Chick-fil-As around??? Just asking.

    Interesting post -- do low self monitors always apply the "rules/conditions" that make them low SELF monitors to the world at large? Or is it possible to be a low SELF monitor and apply the "rules/conditions" of high self monitors to the world around them? Not sure my question is all that clear . . .

  2. Believe it or not, Kerry, there is absolutely no Chick-Fil-A in Bunkie, Louisiana.

    And I think the answer to your question is no... or if it is yes, I don't know about it. Just idle speculation on my part.