On either end of the leadership spectrum, we have Vulcans and Roadrunners – the former often cursed by analysis paralysis and the latter known for making knee-jerk reactions. The chronically risk averse versus the risk seeking. As Linda Henman explains, the best leaders tend to fall squarely in the middle.
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. But just as much of it perpetuates stereotypes that do more harm than good.
One body of work criticizes leaders whom they characterize as rigid, dogmatic Vulcans who 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” and filtering the very 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.
On the other end of the continuum, we find stereotypes that depict successful leaders as the Roadrunners of the corporate world who can blink or beep-beep their way to rapid success. We hear about the “I just knew” sorts 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.
Neither foot-dragging nor knee-jerking, the successful leaders I have worked with for more than four decades resemble 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 the three bowls of porridge, three chairs and three beds of the three bears, she found the one that was “just right” in all three categories.
When conducting research for his bestselling book “Factfulness,” Dr. Hans Rosling asked simple questions about global trends and systematically received wrong answers — so wrong that a chimpanzee choosing answers at random would have consistently outguessed teachers, journalists, Nobel laureates and investment bankers. Why? Because our instincts and risk aversion conspire to make us perceive the world as a scary place — a 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, but when we spend our energies worrying about the future or feeling guilty about the past, we lose our focus and 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 forever the idea that impulsivity will win the game. It won’t. Leaders who want to help everyone through the pandemic and the years that follow will need to seize opportunities and gamble. They will carefully evaluate risk, not attempt to eliminate it. Most of all, they will surround themselves with great minds and then listen.