What Math Teaches Us About Leading Post-Pandemic (You'll Never Guess)

When I was 6 years old, I recall being asked by a relative what my favorite school subject was. I paused, frozen. I didn’t have one; I had two: math and art. By middle school, I’d added a third subject -- psychology -- but that’s a story for another day.

These two loves have persisted, and in retrospect, I can see how they have influenced my trajectory. I value, above all else: curiosity, truth-telling, ineffable beauty, love, and finding elegant solutions to complex problems. I’m that rare bird with nearly equal “left-brain/right-brain” balance (although this is not an accurate description of brains).

For today, I’ll just talk about my love of math and how it’s helped me evolve from that 6-year-old to an executive coach and advisor.

At the start of the pandemic, while sheltering in place, my husband and I did what many of you might have done -- we decided to use that ‘stay at home’ restriction to go through the giant pile of boxes in our garage. And in one of them, I re-discovered some treasured books from my childhood, including a large red book, called The Giant Golden Book of Mathematics. While I didn’t remember the contents, the second I saw it, I recalled how it felt to hold the book on my lap and to turn those large pages. I loved the pictures long before I knew the genuine thrill of getting the “right answer” to a math problem -- or my fascination with the Fibonacci sequence.

What 6-year-olds do you know who would pore through such a book? I loved it, and I looked at it over and over. I don’t know if I ever read it, but holding it again gave me that same pleasure.

As I think about how this love has shaped me, I realize that in math, there’s always an answer (and a right one at that). Maybe there is one solution, maybe a solution set, and sometimes a null set. Either way, bliss! I still love a complex challenge, and believe there is always an answer -- we just have to find it. And I know the relief of confirming the “null set.” Sometimes we must accept that there’s no solution that will fit all the given conditions. Either constraints will need to be loosened, irreconcilable elements redefined, or perhaps reframing required.

Math Addresses Basic Human Needs

I recently read the transcript of a very emotional keynote about how studying math helps humans flourish (yes, really). According to Professor Francis Su, a mathematician at Harvey Mudd College, there are “five basic human desires that are met through the pursuit of mathematics: play, beauty, truth, justice, and love.” These are pretty close to the values I described above. You can read his keynote here (nerdy, but really moving).

Isn’t this just what is required in the daily life of a business executive (and of those who sherpa alongside them, as I do)? We certainly have learned the importance of human needs in the workplace and at home, especially over the last 18 months. These lessons we can draw from mathematics -- play, truth, justice, beauty, and love -- are needed more than ever, for leaders at all levels, and for the people with whom we work.

What about your love of art, you are asking? As leaders, we must regularly deal with uncertainty, which complicates decision-making and calls upon us to take much broader perspectives and see the world from other perspectives. Let this foreshadow my story about how my love of the arts, especially visual art and dance, has shaped me. We’ll get to that in a future blog post.

Ready to talk?

Let's talk