Another week of hot, humid summer weather (sorry Australia) means more freezing offices where I have to bundle up. Might as well learn a lesson from it in the differences between science, engineering, and leadership.

I got my PhD in physics from Columbia. But I teach leadership now. Here's why I moved away from teaching science.

Among other things, in school I learned about thermodynamics and how refrigeration works. The first refrigerator was built by a scientist, William Cullen, a Scottish Professor in 1755. According to Wikipedia:

This created a small amount of ice, but the process found no commercial application.

So scientists understand nature and figure out what's possible.

50 years later, engineers started making the technology practical. 100 years later saw industrial applications in breweries and meat packing. The early 20th century, 150 years later, saw widespread home use.

So engineers make science practical.

Fast forward to today and we have too-cold offices. Energy.gov recommends 78 F. My office is at most 68 F. I have to bring thermal clothes and layers to keep from freezing.

I find it insane. The sea levels are rising and we're burning coal to make buildings uncomfortably cold in 90-degree weather

Even if you don't care about global warming or sea levels, power and unproductive employees cost money.

I teach at NYU. The school posts web pages describing how much energy buildings use. It states goals to reduce energy use. During a recent heat wave, the school responded to the power company's difficulty meeting power needs by reducing the air conditioning.

For once the building I worked in was comfortable.

When I contact facilities, they give me bureaucratic run-around that lowering the air conditioning is impossible.

There's nothing special about NYU in this regard, though they claim more "greenness" than more purely commercial places I've worked.

Why I teach leadership instead of science

Which brings me to why I teach leadership instead of science.

Too-cold offices are only one application where we know the science but don't act on it. That the building didn't fall down when less cooled in the recent heat wave proved it was possible, as if common sense didn't tell us already.

Physical fitness is another. We know the science of how the body stores energy in fat. Yet many people who want to lose fat don't.

Facts don't change behavior

Telling people facts rarely changes behavior. Global warming and obesity are problems of global proportions.

You can talk about carbon levels or glucose levels, but they change based on human behavior. Maybe we can create some technical solutions to, say, sequester carbon. We've created devices to pump undigested food out of people's digestive systems.

Technical solutions help with technical problems. They rarely solve social and behavioral problems. Social and behavioral problems force us to layer thermal clothes in offices during heat waves.

NYU has great scientists and engineers, not that you need one to know how to change a building's temperature. They don't decide the buildings' temperatures.

Leaders change behavior

Leaders do. Or leaders can, if they don't abdicate their responsibility.

Leaders motivate and influence people and their behaviors. I've met a lot of scientists, including several Nobel Prize winners. None were effective at influencing others' behavior, including their students'.

While we need scientific and engineering solutions to some problems, their results are limited, especially the solutions that only solve problems that our behavior keeps producing and we don't change that behavior.

I teach leadership because leaders learn how to change people's behavior. Great leaders get people to change their behavior and become more happy for it. Imagine that--polluting less, becoming more fit, and enjoying it.

Now, if you'll pardon me, I'll put on my sweater and start making some calls to fill this leadership vacuum that's over-cooling this building.

Published on: Aug 15, 2016
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