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The key to 21st century leadership is not taught in business or public policy schools. It is rarely written about. It is not instinctual for most of us. And it is underdeveloped in most leaders. Yet it is more important than it has ever been at executive and board tables.
What is this mysterious missing ingredient? Before I identify it, let me first make the argument for why it is so crucial.
Many of the challenges we face today are hard to solve – the cues that we need to decipher them are buried and ambiguous because the cause and effect are neither closely connected nor obvious. These are complex problems such as mapping out corporate strategies, implementing effective public policies, and just plain separating good information from bad in the Age of Big Data. Complex problems are defined by multiple, interacting causes that are not immediately accessible to us. Their patterns vary since no two situations are identical. And when we interact with them, the feedback we receive is delayed, indirect, and “dirty,” since it is cloaked in a lot of irrelevant information. Learning is difficult, predictions are unreliable, and expertise is hard, if not impossible, to develop.
Our best strategy for tackling complexity is revealed by the research of decision scientists, such as Scott Page, who have demonstrated that a group of diverse minds with diverse perspectives will outperform a single, high IQ individual as well as groups of high IQ individuals who are like-minded. It is not just that diverse groups expand the solution space beyond what individuals come up with on their own; equally important is the benefit of correction and balance that diverse groups bring to the thinking of each individual. We each have our own idiosyncratically skewed ways of looking at things, but are hard-pressed to single-handedly be aware of, let alone overcome, our personal biases and limitations. These two benefits – increased creativity and reduced interpretive error – are crucial for managing complex problems.
Which brings us to the key ingredient for 21st century leadership.
The missing ingredient
It is no secret that cognitively diverse teams can be powerful: diversity has been a popular topic for over two decades and is one of the hottest topics in board governance at the moment. But what is still a secret is that the benefits of cognitive diversity do not accrue automatically – they need to be cultivated. Diverse minds interacting are still vulnerable to the biases and mental failings that individuals are, plus some additional weaknesses like groupthink (reluctance to challenge one another) and group polarization (adoption of more extreme positions by the group than would be endorsed by any one person).
The power of cognitive diversity depends on a proactive and rigorous facilitation of the discussion; otherwise, our conversations tend to be sloppy and far less productive than they could be. Which is why the missing leadership ingredient is the ability to masterfully facilitate a conversation.
When done right, a well-facilitated discussion maximizes the benefits of cognitive diversity. How? By generating and managing constructive dissent.
Productively managed disagreement is the source of deeper analysis and insight. Leaders who are adept at facilitation foster the constructive dissent that corrects individual error and deepens discussion by synthesizing diverse perspectives. This form of disagreement is managed to be respectful of all participants, but challenging to each as well – a tricky balance. Effective leaders shepherd competing arguments in order to ferret out contradictions, surface unspoken assumptions, probe latent concerns, and reconcile different perspectives. These are the leaders who are on the lookout for the traps that groups are vulnerable to, and determined to explore and integrate all available information. They manage agendas proactively by differentiating complex problems that require extra time and energy, from the straightforward problems that are often allocated too much time.
The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel described the unfolding of events as a dialectical process that consists of a starting point, a reaction that challenges this starting point, and a resolution of the tension between these two forces. This process is also the structure of high quality conversations – participants correcting and building on each other’s thinking in a dialectical process that is fuelled by constructive dissent. Effective leaders “get more Hegel” into their team discussions by managing with this dynamic in mind.
Complexity has made the need for high quality conversations more pressing, which is why today’s leaders need to be Chief Conversation Facilitators.
Ted Cadsby is a consultant, best-selling author, researcher and speaker on complexity and decision making. Formerly he was an executive vice president at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. His latest book is Closing the Mind Gap: Making Smarter Decisions in a Hypercomplex World.