Theorists, authors, and speakers offer leadership advice to anyone who will pay attention. Some of it makes sense and helps leaders improve their performance and that of their teams. However, it perpetuates stereotypes just as much and does more harm than good.
One body of work criticizes leaders whom they characterize as rigid, dogmatic Vulcans. They find themselves mired in the details and cursed by analysis paralysis. Malcolm Gladwell wrote Blink to convince these people that great decision-makers don’t process the most information or spend the most time deliberating. Instead, they have perfected the art of “thin-slicing” – filtering the few factors that matter from an overwhelming number of variables. Gladwell got that partially right. Smart leaders can zero in on the critical few while putting aside the trivial many, but they also understand how to take prudent risks, not rash ones—and they have the smarts to pull them off.Great decision-makers don’t process the most information or spend the most time deliberating. Click To Tweet
On the other end of the continuum, we find stereotypes that depict successful leaders as the Road Runners. Placing them in the corporate world, blinking or beep-beeping their way to rapid success. We hear about the “I just knew” type of decisions that these leaders make, but we seldom read about the ill-advised or inaccurate conclusions they came to based on invalid assumptions, recklessness, or an inability to anticipate consequences.
Leaders in Risky Business
Neither foot-dragging nor knee-jerking – the successful leaders I have worked with for more than four decades resembles Goldilocks more than Dr. Spock or a high-octane cartoon bird who terrorizes the competition. We all remember the children’s story of Goldilocks: the little girl who went into a forest of unknown factors to evaluate opportunities. After assessing three bowls of porridge, three chairs, and three beds of three bears, she found the one that was “just right” in all three categories.
When researching his bestselling book, Factfulness, Dr. Hans Rosling asked simple questions about global trends. He systematically received wrong answers—so wrong that a chimpanzee choosing answers randomly would have consistently outguessed teachers, journalists, Nobel laureates, and investment bankers. Why? Our instincts and risk-aversion make us perceive the world as a scary place where we probably shouldn’t even do business. The problem? We don’t know what we don’t know, and unconscious, predictable biases and fear inform both our guesses and our behavior—and stand in the way of us engaging in risky business.
Our fears, perceptions, and biases tell one story, but the facts tell another. As it turns out, the world, for all its imperfections, is in better shape than we might think. Even in our COVID-confused climate, we have real problems. When we spend our energy worrying about the future or feeling guilty about the past, we lose our focus. We exhaust our abilities to solve problems, make high-caliber decisions, and take the necessary risks to grow and change.
The emerging economy will depend on smart risk-takers, but let’s put aside the idea that impulsivity will win the game. It won’t. Leaders who want to help through the pandemic will need to seize opportunities and gamble in the years that follow. They will carefully evaluate risk, not attempt to eliminate it. Most of all, they will surround themselves with great minds and then listen.