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Certainty is no longer enough

by Guest Writter
Chris Lewis, Co-author, The Leadership Lab:  Understanding Leadership In The 21st Century

There are some things every CEO is certain about. That’s what we get paid for. For instance, we’re certain that customers are more demanding now than they’ve ever been before. We’re certain that there are more things that can affect our business than ever before. We know that technology is changing faster than at any time in history. We also know that we have more data about everything than we ever had before. We also know that we’re busier than ever before in our lives.

Some of these certainties are inter-related. In a world of more data about everything, of course we have more information about well, just about everything. When we’re analyzing information, the research shows that we are using our ‘left-brain’ process. This is the one that tears a problem apart. Then it takes these smaller components and tears those apart and so on. Philosophers call this ‘The Western Reductionist Model’. It’s been with us for centuries and with more information, it dominates leadership thinking.

You’ll hear no argument from any of the great business schools or universities about the need for analysis. It’s shot through the very system that educates us. We take the process of education. We tear it apart into science and arts. Then we tear these apart into math or science or history or English literature. Our Western Reductionist model has served us well until now.

No amount of data analysis successfully forecasted either 9/11, the 2009 financial crisis, the coming to power of Donald Trump, Brexit, or the rapprochement with North Korea. Neither did it explain how our leaders managed to illegally avoid taxes, lie about emissions in the car industry, rig interest rates, shelter customers from taxes, launder Mexican drug money, preside over life savings placed into an investment fund that was in actuality a Ponzi scheme.

No, the data doesn’t inform you about Bernie Madoff because what he did was unimaginable. The same is true of the sex abuse in the Church. Or that our charity leaders would sexually abuse the vulnerable. Or that our leaders of public utilities would conspire to poison customers. All of these things are unimaginable. But why? Could it be that new requirement for the CEO is not just to be the smartest analyst in the room? Maybe we’re moving into a new age where our leaders need to have the best imagination in the room. Maybe they need to get out and talk to other people and find out what they are worried about. Imagination is after all, the parent of anxiety.

If we as leaders really care about our profession, we must start to recognize that all of the above leadership failures could not have been spotted with analysis alone. These cataclysmic events sound unlikely, unbelievable, even impossible, but they all happened in the last two decades. And they are not happening behind a curtain.

We must remember that we have more data about the world, but that it also has more about us. These events are more visible than at any other time in history. As a consequence, it is difficult to remember a time when leadership has appeared more thoroughly and completely discredited. If you have the imagination to understand what this means, then you’re beginning to understand why everything has changed.

And perhaps that’s the only thing we should all agree to be certain about.


About the Author

Chris Lewis is co-author, with Pippa Malmgrem, of The Leadership Lab:  Understanding Leadership In The 21st Century. Lewis, a former journalist, is founder of one of the largest creative agencies in the world, LEWIS. Founded in 1995, his practice now encompasses more than 25 offices and 500 staff. He is British but splits his time between Britain and America.       

For more information, please visit: www.koganpage.com/theleadershiplab   

[Image via: Tumisu/ Pixabay]

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