Decode it right

November 23, 2018

There is a lot of talk about leadership at the moment and quite rightly so. This is not just because of political or gender issues, it goes wider. Considering it is such an important area, it is full of myths. Here, five have been identified, but there are many more.

01 university education is essential for modern leaders

Firstly, there is a perception that leadership needs an academic education. We live in an age of data. We live by analysis. We live by logic and RoI. We want things to be certain. All of these things are true. We also live in an age of leadership failure. Since the turn of the century, we have learned that our corporate leaders have avoided taxes, lied about emissions in the car industry, rigged interest rates, sheltered customers from taxes, laundered drug money, presided over an offshore banking system that was larger than anyone ever thought, forced good companies into closure and destroyed pension funds as they themselves grew wealthier. Collectively, they oversaw unprecedented destruction of wealth and the collapse of the financial system and watched as life savings placed into investment funds set up by leaders of unimpeachable integrity turned out to be Ponzi schemes. So why has this happened? You could argue that it has always happened and now we just know more about it. That is true. It is also true though that many of these items were hiding in plain view. We just chose not to believe them. So, this gives us an insight into the problem. The answer is not one thing nor another, but frequently both. The answer is no longer binary. The truth can be both true ‘and’ false at the same time. So, it is no longer enough for a leader just to do the math, they have to do the ‘mood’ as well. This means they have to unify and look across and not just drill down and for this, a university education that notices the difference in everything, is profoundly unhelpful. It is not that education is a bad thing. It is not. It is a good ‘and’ a bad thing.

02 analysis is worth more than imagination

So much of education is based on the principle of Western Reductionism. This means we are trained to take a problem and tear it apart. Then we take the remaining parts and tear them apart, too. And again, and again until we are left with component elements. This process is overwhelmingly what we are taught to do. Of course, there are arts courses, but these are being ignored in favor of STEM subjects, which tell us there is a right answer and it is at the back of the book. That is also just not true anymore. Her Majesty, the Queen recently toured a financial trading floor in the city of London. She asked about all the screens and the data available to the trader. Then she asked how, with all the data, the great financial crash happened? The response was revealing: “We didn’t have the imagination to see it coming.” Not data. Not analysis. Not logic. ‘Imagination’. This is the ability to look across or parenthesize. This is the opposite of analytical thinking or ‘drill-down’. It involves similes, metaphors, even parables. It explains why a lot of people graduates call ‘uneducated’ see things differently. To them, what actually, logically, demonstrably, exists, does not matter. These are what we call facts. They are different from what appear to be facts. These are called opinions and they are formed because of the way things ‘appear to be’. And with social media, we can now hear a lot more of these as well.

03 being connected helps you think more clearly

You are busy at present, right? Maybe, more busy than last year? Maybe busier than ever before. Well, at least we ‘feel’ busier because we are constantly interrupted. On average, email interrupts us every twelve minutes. When you add in social media, it is even more frequent. This can actually lower our IQ. Far worse is that it consistently returns us to our ‘left-brain’ or reductive state. This is the analytical mindset. What has happened? Why? When? To whom? The overload of information makes us impatient and frustrated to get on with our objectives despite the interruptions. Attempting to move fast also make us focus on the quantitative rather than the qualitative. This can have a profound effect on creativity. In my first book, Too Fast to Think, I interviewed forty leaders from all walks of life to find out where they were and what they were doing when they had their best ideas. The results were revealing. The vast majority reported three conditions under which the ideas came. They reported that they were most often on their own, not at work and most importantly, ‘not trying’. This tells us that the subconscious has an important role in problem solving, but only if we allow us to access it. Or more accurately, allow it to access us. This is a core competence at the highest levels of leadership. When leaders find their potential, they tend to find it in others.

04 confident, charismatic leaders are always competent

Many of our expectations of leadership are founded on the model of a single, charismatic, infallible person. Whether it be Moses and Elon Musk or Jesus Christ and Steve Jobs. Our leadership focus is on the leader and not the ‘ship’. We expect this person to be right, and their confidence is too often correlated with competence. These two things are not the same. We are cultured to believe that leadership is something that cannot be trained or guided, it is just handed by divine right to a handful of the chosen. Oddly, then we place blind faith in these individuals. Then, as they fail, we finally use our logic to question how we could have been so deceived. There is a distinct gender implication here as men tend to be more confident than women. This is especially the case at the younger end of the age spectrum. The conclusion is that women can be much more competent than they are confident, yet they frequently witness incompetent men making
greater progress.

05 there is such a thing as truth

So, what if we took the opposite intellectual approach and instead of breaking things down, built them up and looked at how they relate to other systems? Let us take the car as an example. You tear it apart into engine, transmission, steering, brakes, etc. The conclusion is clear. The car is a transportation device and a great utility. All true. But then use the opposite process and the car is now ‘black boxed’ and treated holistically. So, we look at the systems it interacts with. It draws in clean air and pushes out pollution. You put healthy human being in one door and get damaged ones out the other side. The car uses precious non-renewable, fossil fuels, which are irreplaceable. The car is a now a major threat to humanity. Both of these are true. Truth can be a function of the logic we use to arrive at it. The point is that things can both be true and not true depending on the intellectual process that you apply. It becomes ambiguous.

When you add all these myths up, it becomes no surprise that leadership is difficult. At best, it is ambiguous. At worst, it is completely paradoxical and that is one of the reasons it needs to change.