Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

You Know Nothing, Jon Snow. Especially If You’re Just Reading a Book!

Written by: on October 19, 2022

Sometimes minuscule resources have the most significant impact. The Enchiridion of Epictetus is only 34 pages long but continues to shape our understanding of Stoic philosophy. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense is only a 47-page pamphlet but shaped the concept of American liberty. Luther’s world-altering 95 Thesis can be read in less than 30 minutes.


Add to this list Michael Polanyi’s The Tacit Dimension, a philosophical look into the concept of tacit learning, tradition, inherited practices, implied values, and bias as it relates to scientific knowledge. In a sense, the Hungarian-British philosopher explored the idea that not all knowledge is a matter of discovering it through a logical or mechanical process. “I shall reconsider human knowledge by starting from the fact that we can know more than we can tell. This fact seems obvious enough; but it is not as easy to say exactly what it means,” argued Polanyi.[1]


Can knowledge be separated from personal judgments, experience, emotion, expertise, and functional application? It is nearly impossible to attain knowledge without the prerequisite personal experiences and wisdom we bring to the learning process.


In a sense, Polayni was arguing for recognizing the implicit and explicit cognitions that shape our learning experience, understanding, and application. An unconscious or implicit bias is an unconscious association about a person, thing, or group caused by our brain’s mental shortcuts. Conscious or explicit bias is an awareness of one’s belief about a person, thing, or group. In other words, I clearly understand my feelings, attitudes, and ideas on certain things.


Think about it this way. You are most likely familiar with your home and could go through it blindfolded. But, on the other hand, you are probably less or utterly unaware of how the house was made, what’s going on behind the drywall, and where the plumbing runs.


Psychology and cognitive science help us understand that we all have certain assumptions, prejudices, stereotypes, judgments, and predispositions that unconsciously shape how we see others, the world, and ourselves.


This takes us back to Agarwal, who calls this “System 1,” the primarily involuntary and independent of working memory, “which means we do not have time to experience our cognitive rational thinking. It is rapid, more subjective, value, context, and domain-specific.”[i] Our unconscious bias is continuously shaped by experience, background, culture, and specified religious orientation. Without realizing it, these things shape our beliefs, opinions, values, and thinking. On the other hand, “System 2 is more rational and logical. It is mostly voluntary processing of information, detached from emotions and more controlled.”[2]


Polanyi also argued that it is challenging to pass along tacit knowledge as it is better attained through experience. The personal exchanges you have with others, the touch and feel of work, and the motion of going through experience and conflict, all shape the tacit knowledge we have attained. In a sense, learning is a communal experience.


As we contemplate leadership, especially going back to Bolsinger’s Tempered Resilience, can leaders truly become influential leaders by reading all the right books and writing on their gained explicit knowledge? No.


Can leaders fully understand the dynamics of challenge and change without actually experiencing it tacitly? No.


Leadership must be experienced and processed through many contexts, relationships, and capacities. Or, as Polanyi wrote, “We have seen that tacit knowledge dwells in our awareness of particulars while bearing on an entity which the particulars jointly constitute. In order to share this indwelling, the pupil must presume that a teaching which appears meaningless to start with has in fact a meaning which can be discovered by hitting on the same kind of indwelling as the teacher is practicing. Such an effort is based on accepting the teaching’s authority.”[3]


[1] Michael Polanyi, and Amartya Sen. The Tacit Dimension. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 4. 


[2] Pragya Agarwal, Sway (London: Bloomsbury Sigma, 2020), 29. 


[3] Ibid, Polanyi, 61.  

About the Author


Andy Hale

Associate Executive Coordinator of CBF North Carolina, CBF Podcast Creator and Host, & Professional Coach

6 responses to “You Know Nothing, Jon Snow. Especially If You’re Just Reading a Book!”

  1. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Andy: Nice connection with Agarwal and his terminology of “System 1 and 2.” There are connections here to themes of leadership that we have been reading about for over a year now. This book was so different than Bolsinger’s though. It’s good to have such a wide variety of literature to read, don’t you think?

  2. Elmarie Parker says:

    Thank you, Andy, for your thoughtful post. I found the connections you drew between Polanyi’s work and Agarwal’s work a very helpful framing of both authors’ points. You ask and answer: “…can leaders truly become influential leaders by reading all the right books and writing on their gained explicit knowledge? No.” And then unpack this by writing: “Leadership must be experienced and processed through many contexts, relationships, and capacities.” In the leadership formation book you are writing, how are you inviting readers into this multi-faceted journey? Are you using ‘questions for reflection’ or providing practical exercises or something else?

  3. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Andy, so many good thoughts in this post. I admire your grasp of Polany’s material. Based on what you wrote about learning, what would a learning plan for a new pastor look like if they want to chart a course of ongoing learning throughout their ministry? Does Polanyi add anything that is not typically found in that effort?

  4. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Andy: In your work of leading other pastors, how do you encourage those that feel like they can fully develop their leadership through reading all of the books or those that may be in the midst of challenges without experiencing tacitly? Or perhaps how do you go about walking with a leader when they don’t want to reflect or process through something that is impacting their ministry?

  5. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Nicely written post. You often challenge my thinking or at the very least my vocabulary. I’m curious how you think a leader may use this information to internalize transformational learning?

  6. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Andy, what place in the tacit knowledge process does a threshold concept come into play?

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