Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Does fact-free leadership have to be a common fact of life?

I am a scientist at heart. Being curious all my life, I have pondered big questions and small. For example, if the universe did not exist, would there be nothing? But, what is nothing? Stephen Hawking and many other physicists have enlightened me somewhat but the nature of the universe still seems highly mysterious to me.

OK. That’s a little deep. Nevertheless, I get pretty riled up if it’s obvious that our leaders, particularly those in the political realm, fail to be like a scientist exploring all relevant facets of a situation.

For example, I watched an interview of Lawrence Martin recently about his book Harperland. He could hardly contain his exasperation at the extent to which under Stephen Harper’s leadership facts in any realm are routinely ignored, unless they align with his view. The foundation of Martin’s training in journalism is to seek the truth as it is currently understood and verify with multiple sources. Although knowledge is always in flux, looking for the best of what we know is a fairly good strategy for anyone, including those in leadership and management positions. Otherwise we risk going down pathways that can come back to haunt us.

Lawrence’s bottom line is that democracy is weakened when our political leaders do not pay attention to evidence when shaping policy and strategy. Since organizations in which we work are of necessity becoming more democratic in order to manage risk, innovate and survive, “fact-free” leadership at the political level let alone in an organization can cause unnecessary problems. Not being democratic in approach as a leader seems odd and out of synch with the prevailing view that leaders and managers benefit from being “adaptive” in light of “swampy” problems.

Much has been written on the role of personal bias in decision-making. It plagues us all and is particularly dangerous in organizations as numerous management researchers have documented. While we have some companies that are hundreds of years old, such as The Bay, Stora and Twinings, most fail in 50 years or less (Aries de Geus, The Living Company). Poor decision making is at the root of most failures.

Our cultural upbringing, education and experiences over time all conspire to blind us. To make good decisions requires hard work and time usually though teamwork. As we perpetually live in time-constrained environments and are faced with a vast universe of conflicting knowledge, it is easier to fall back on conventional wisdom until something disrupts it.

So, how do we test conventional wisdom before it boxes us in? How can we challenge our biases when we are not even sure what they are?

Richard Neustadt and Ernest May in their classic book, The Uses of History for Decision Makers offer a methodology:

1. What do you know?

2. What is unknown?

3. What are you presuming?

4. What is the situation like (from past history)?

5. How does the situation differ from others in the past?

6. What is the action supposed to accomplish?

After studying decisions both good and bad made by American Presidents in the 20th century, Neustadt and May concluded that past conditions can offer clues to future possibilities. Look back to look ahead, so to speak. A little bit of critical thinking can go a long way towards better decision making.

The ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving is one of the seven basic skills most often cited by educators for students to succeed in the knowledge economy according to Tony Wagner, a Harvard-based education expert and author of The Global Achievement Gap. Two others are collaborating across networks and curiosity with imagination. These apply equally well to the desired skills for people in the workplace especially for managers and leaders.

Fact-filled leadership with imagination will certainly help fill the global achievement gap. Einstein was right when he said that “the formulation of a problem is often more essential than the solution”. But this cannot happen without an open mind which counterbalances “fact-free” leadership.

It turns out that such openness can enlighten us, educate us and, as a consequence, change our minds. Such a journey is transformative or in Nelson Mandela’s words, “Education is the most powerful weapon with which you can change the world”. It is also a daily endeavour.

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