The Most Important Leadership Skill No One Has Heard of…Yet

You can’t survey people on the importance of a leadership skill they’ve never heard of. It would be like asking marketing executives in the 1990s to rate the importance of search engine optimization.

Today, empathy is topping the surveys of in-demand leadership skills. It’s not surprising that in chaotic times people want leaders who care. I for one, hope that the popularity of empathy as a leadership skill gives rise to kinder, more inclusive organizations. I don’t expect empathy to go out of fashion. Still, those of us who help leaders and organizations prepare for the future need to think about skills that might not be on anyone’s radar screen.

I want to nominate a skill that I believe will become indispensable for tomorrow’s leaders. Like empathy, It’s the type of skill that starts with self-awareness. Developing this skill will require us to learn how to notice and interrupt counterproductive habits of perception.

Allow me to introduce, attention agility.

What is attention agility?

Attention agility is the skill of quickly and easily regulating how you take in information. Like mindfulness, attention agility brings awareness to what most often goes unnoticed. Also like mindfulness, attention agility demands that we become aware of how we pay attention, and that we learn to sense when we may be focused on the wrong things.

With the advent of the internet, the ubiquity of smartphones, and the rise of social media, the topic of attention has gotten, well, a lot of attention. A Google Scholar search of articles and books written in the early days of the internet (1990 – 1993) using the search term “attention” came back with 432,000 results. Conducting a search across the same number of years, 2004 – 2007 (roughly, from the introduction of Facebook to the Introduction of the first iPhone) generated 4.5 million results!

Attention Matters

Distracted driving is a serious hazard which caused over 3,000 deaths in the U.S. during 2019. We have been experiencing a global spike in attention-deficit disorder diagnoses. Psychologists and neuroscientists have demonstrated the stunning phenomenon known as inattentional blindness, in which we fail to notice fully visible objects because our attention was engaged elsewhere.

The deluge of information feels inescapable. Many have described our current times as the post-truth era. Somehow objective facts have become less influential than appeals to our emotions and beliefs. It’s not that we value objective reality less, it’s that our personal search engines, our attention apparatus, is optimized for threats and outrage.

When we develop our attention agility, we’ll know when we’re breathing in the stale air of our echo chambers. We’ll sense when it’s time to open a window and let in fresh ideas.  

When we develop our attention agility, we’ll be more discerning consumers of information and influence. When we develop our attention agility, we’ll know when we’re breathing in the stale air of our echo chambers. We’ll sense when it’s time to open a window and let in fresh ideas.  

Modes of attention

In 1890, American psychologist, William James devoted a chapter of his classic, The Principles of Psychology to the topic of attention. James made a distinction between passive attention and voluntary attention.

Passive attention is aimless, it floats like a butterfly. Voluntary attention targets and locks on, it stings like a bee. William James as interpreted by Muhammed Ali.

Imagine a walk in a beautiful, natural landscape. You suddenly become aware of the smell of an unusual flower alongside the trail (passive). You pull out your phone to look up the name of the flower (voluntary). You put the phone away and allow the environment to present itself to you (passive). This back-and-forth between focusing and unfocusing is what it feels like to regulate your attention. When you learn to switch modes easily and intentionally in a variety of situations, you’ve developed attention agility.

Why is attention agility important?

First, we have never had more information competing for our attention. Secondly, our brains have evolved to narrow our attention in times of stress and anxiety. As our information-rich world imposes itself on our overtaxed brains, we lose the ability to assess the validity of what we notice. Furthermore, it’s hard to appreciate the opportunity cost of what we don’t notice.

What William James called voluntary attention has always been prized by our teachers and our managers. We reward the ability to concentrate. We consider distraction a deficiency. We admire decision makers who create mental boundaries so they can include the relevant variables without the burden of extraneous thoughts or emotions. It makes perfect sense to value the ability to stay on task, but only if we’re working on the right task.

When we know what we want to accomplish, voluntary attention helps us focus. When we feel stuck, when our situation is changing quickly, and the future feels completely unpredictable, voluntary attention could point our focus in the wrong direction.

Consider the challenge many organizational leaders are facing today as they try to figure out how and where people will work when the pandemic no longer dictates the rules for convening. What should leaders pay attention to: Real estate costs? Worker productivity? Technology? Morale? Probably, all the above and more. Solving for the future of workspaces calls for a blend of voluntary attention and passive attention. Aimless, butterfly-like attention may surface hidden insights and creative options that suggest a way forward. Once you see a way forward, engaging your voluntary attention will help you implement a plan of action.

The Ascendance of Passive Attention

You know who is great at staying on task? Machines.

We don’t want to reduce the amount of information available to us. We’re already developing artificial intelligence (AI) to help us sort and package information so we can digest it. Machine learning makes AI more intelligent as it processes information and gets feedback about the utility of its outputs. So far, machine learning is a goal-seeking activity. Computer programs apply voluntary attention to data.

Would an artificially intelligent android pause while hiking to smell a flower? We pause because we have a passive attention mode that is not goal oriented. Passive attention gives us pause. The pause may give us something beneficial that we weren’t looking for.

Maybe there will come a day when a machine notices something it wasn’t looking for. For now, serendipity belongs exclusively to humans. We have plenty of strategies, tools, dietary supplements, and smartphone apps to build up our voluntary attention capacity. What we lack is a way to productively distract ourselves when the glare of our voluntary-attention high-beams blinds us to interesting information and insightful ideas alongside the trail.

You’re not required to have an opinion on everything

A new study shows that people who identify as democratic socialists report higher levels of satisfaction with their lives than those who identify as free-market capitalists.

If you have an itchy twitter finger (and depending on your politics) you might feel an urge to post one of the following:

The results are in… socialism is the key to a happier life

No surprises from recent study… capitalists expect more out of life than socialists

If you’re actually tempted to spread the news, I should confess that I made up the study and its conclusion.

Importantly, the fact that the statement is a fabrication probably did not prevent you from having an opinion about it.

Opinions help brains avoid uncertainty

Our brains have a variety of strategies to help us avoid feeling uncertain. We don’t like uncertainty because our brains aren’t designed to thrive in uncertain times. One of the brain’s main jobs is to make sense of what’s happening so that we can anticipate the future. One of the main ways we make sense of what’s happening is by connecting new information to what we take as already settled.

When the brain is uncertain about how to label or categorize a new piece of information, we become anxious. Imagine if butterflies escaped from the place you expected to see fruit when you peeled your morning banana. You might feel scared. You might feel delighted. Either way, your brain would start working hard to reorient itself to a newly uncertain set of conditions.

Opinions are not mindless reactions

If you eat something that disagrees with you, you don’t have much control over how your body reacts. But the brain has more options than the stomach. If you take in a disagreeable idea, you can pause and reflect before responding. Rather than belching up a reaction to an indigestible idea, chew it over in your mind.

The idea is for you to form your opinions. If you mindlessly react to information, you’re allowing your opinions to form you.

Try this

When you notice an internal reaction welling up in you to something you’ve heard or seen, consider replacing your external reaction with one of these statements:

  • I see it differently, what am I missing?
  • We could do that. How would it help us?
  • Help me understand what led you to that conclusion.
  • I can tell you feel strongly about that. What about it is important to you?
  • Before we respond, what’s another way to look at this?
  • What would happen if we adopted a different solution? What if we did nothing?
  • Whose perspective is missing from this discussion? What would they say?

social media platforms are in no hurry to protect us from poisonous information

Sure, it would be great if Facebook’s algorithm optimized for joyful connection over addictive engagement. Maybe market forces and/or regulation will remind Facebook to look after human flourishing. With great power comes great responsibility!

Meanwhile, let’s work on our own programming. Just before the eye-roll, withdrawal, snark, or unsolicited advice, take a moment, embrace uncertainty, and choose curiosity.

Preventing the Spread of Infectious Beliefs

I have some beliefs about drivers in Dallas, Texas.

My wife and I moved to Dallas over 30 years ago from Los Angeles. I learned to drive in LA. People who live in Southern California spend a lot of time in their cars, it’s a significant part of their lives. In Dallas, you might arrive somewhere and mention the weather because quick, extreme changes in weather are not unusual. In LA, when you arrive somewhere the first question is often, “How did you get here?” The appropriate response includes a list of freeway numbers, “I took the 10 to the 405 to the 134, but going back I’m taking the 110.” Your response might prompt a respectful nod or incite an argument.

Drivers in LA do a lot of merging and lane changing, maybe that’s why they’re more disciplined about using their turn signals. Drivers in Dallas switch lanes without signaling and often don’t bother to indicate a turn. I shared this observation with a North Texas native once. He bragged, “signaling a lane change is a sign of weakness.”

From Turn Signals to Tooth Fairies

We’ll come back to my beliefs about Dallas drivers in a moment. First, I want to discuss the Tooth Fairy.

For years, our three daughters accepted as fact that a kindly, winged fairy visited in the night to exchange money for teeth, but only if the tooth was tucked under their pillow. Somewhere, I still have a note to the Tooth Fairy written by one of my daughters. She politely requested that the fairy leave the tooth and the money. I have it on good authority that the Tooth Fairy acceded to her wishes.

Richard Dawkins, the author, evolutionary biologist, and secularist famously compared belief in the Tooth Fairy to religious faith. In his 1991 essay Viruses of the Mind, Dawkins compared delusional beliefs to mental infections. Children, he argued are susceptible to misinformation in the same way that immune-deficient patients cannot protect themselves from viruses.

Mental Immunity

We are living in a time when comparisons to epidemiology and contagion are particularly, you’ll excuse the expression, germane. The philosopher Andy Norman has taken the idea-as-virus metaphor one step further. In his new book, Mental Immunity, Norman levels up the status of the metaphor arguing that ideologies are not like infections, they are infections – infections of the mind. If Norman gets his way, the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-6) will include something like infectious misinformation as a legitimate disease state. He has a point.

I can easily imagine the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention devoting resources to what Norman has dubbed, “Cognitive Immunology.” Even if they don’t, there’s little doubt that bad ideologies harm public health. Consider the societal “morbidities” associated with the following beliefs:

  • I will be rewarded in the afterlife if I blow myself up while murdering civilians in public
  • The 2020 U.S. presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump
  • The government is putting microchips in the Covid-19 vaccines

I’m persuaded by Norman’s argument. Whether he’s torturing a metaphor or opening a line of scientific inquiry may not matter. It feels different, and more useful to think of people harboring destructive beliefs as infected rather than insane.

It feels different, and more useful to think of people harboring destructive beliefs as infected rather than insane.

Not all infections of the body are equally detrimental. Covid-19 might land you in the hospital, but the common cold won’t. Similarly, not all infectious beliefs threaten civil society. You could argue that children enthralled by the idea of a tooth fairy inspire us with their innocence. At worst, I get irritable trying to guess the motives of drivers speeding up or slowing down around me. My belief that my fellow North Texans won’t signal their intentions with their blinkers doesn’t seem particularly virulent.

A Symptom of Being Infected with a Belief

I’m aware of the bodily symptoms associated with the common cold. What symptoms are associated with being infected by a common misconception? I can think of one. Let’s look more closely at my belief that drivers in Dallas don’t use their turn signals.

Thanks to confirmation bias, when I drive around Dallas, I see countless examples of people changing lanes without signaling. Interestingly, when I drive with my wife or daughters, they’re fond of pointing out counterexamples. “Look,” a helpful, back-seat daughter once gleefully announced, “that green car is signaling.”

Here’s how I know that I’ve been infected with a bad belief. When someone points out contrary evidence, my first instinct is not to reconsider my belief. When my daughter points out a driver dutifully using their blinker, without missing a beat I’m likely to counter, “They’re not from Dallas.” I’d rather reinterpret the facts than let go of my questionable belief.

There are innumerable practices and prescriptions for strengthening the physical body’s immune system. Norman’s book offers cognitive fitness advice for boosting our mental immunity. One idea he offers is to treat your favorite beliefs like houseguests.

Once caught, an infectious belief, like a virus makes itself at home. Over time, it’s hard to distinguish your identity from your cherished beliefs. You know you’ve become infected by a belief when you become loyal to it. Instead of you having the belief, the belief has you. Treating beliefs like a houseguest is to recognize them as temporary, always at risk of overstaying their welcome.

Take the Evidence Test

Here’s an exercise to try. Pick a belief you hold that guides your priorities or connects you to a welcoming community. What would you accept as evidence that your belief is misguided or flat out wrong? If you can’t imagine any reasons or facts that would separate you from the belief, your mental immune system has been compromised. It’s no longer something you simply believe. The belief has altered your mind’s structure. The houseguest has taken up residence and redecorated the place.

Finding Scarce Insights in Abundant Information

Data and information are essential to solving problems well. Data and information are abundant these days. So why do we feel less able to figure things out and less confident about knowing what to do?

Too Much of a Good Thing

Part of the problem is that we have too much of a good thing. At all times and in all places, Information and data are effortlessly accessible. We are conditioned to prioritize incoming alerts and breaking news. We are awash in information, most of it unsatisfying. It’s hard to quench your thirst if you’re trying to drink from a firehose.

First, a working definition to help us differentiate data from information. Think of data as the unorganized facts and figures we detect with our various tools and measuring devices. Information is what you get when someone processes, structures, organizes, or otherwise interprets the data. 75248 is a number, it is data. When 75248 is recognized as a Zip Code, the data becomes information.

A Better Solution

One solution to the too-much-of-a-good-thing problem is to collect less data. A better solution is to learn how to transform abundant data into insightful information. Insights help you solve problems, but insights are hidden. Insightful information is better than obvious information in the same way that an x-ray image of a painful shoulder is better than a visual examination of a painful shoulder.

Better, more insightful information helps in four ways

  • It helps you avoid solving the wrong problem
  • It reduces the risk of missing something important
  • It generates unconventional options
  • It ensures that previously excluded perspectives are seen, heard, and valued

Solving problems is about changing situations. If you want to change a dissatisfying situation, you can think of your challenge as a tug-of-war between the forces holding things in place and the forces motivating change. Kurt Lewin first developed this way of thinking about problem-solving in the 1940s; he called it, “Force-field analysis.”

SCAN for Insights

At Unstuck Minds, we think of our SCAN model as a simplified version of Lewin’s force-field analysis. SCAN stands for Structures, Context, Assumptions, and Needs. Structures can be thought of as the ways we currently do things. Context can be thought of as what’s going on in the external environment. Assumptions can be thought of as our unquestioned beliefs. Needs can be thought of as the desires, concerns, and perspectives of people we should include.

To make it easier to identify the Lewin’s force-field elements, SCAN is made up of two dimensions that focus on restraining forces and two dimensions that focus on driving forces. Structures and Assumptions on the left side of the model tend to keep things stable and preserve the status quo. Context and Needs, on the right side of the model tend to introduce destabilizing changes.

How to Uncover Insights

Let’s say you’re an executive who has formed a team to tackle a thorny organizational problem. You fear that after the team has spent a lot of time researching and organizing their findings, you’ll be left with voluminous information, very few insights, and no clear point-of-view or recommended path forward.

Instead of waiting to see what the team comes up with, request that they organize their presentation based on the SCAN framework:

  1. Structures: What are we currently doing that will make it hard for us to implement an improvement?
  2. Context: What is changing in the environment that requires a response or provides an opportunity?
  3. Assumptions: What unquestioned beliefs about our situation are worth challenging?
  4. Needs: Who should we include in our thinking and planning; what matters to them and what do they think?
  5. Now What?: What insights and options emerged from your work and where should we focus our resources and efforts?

It seems counterintuitive to seek more information as a solution to the problem of information overload. But learning to form insights helps us manage the data and control the aperture of our attention. With practice, SCAN helps us see past the uninvited information to the hidden insights and options unavailable to the overwhelmed mind.

SCAN: How to Notice What you’re NOT Looking For

Do you remember the Magic Eye books? The books popularized something called an autostereogram. Autostereograms are two-dimensional illustrations whose pattern obscures a hidden three-dimensional image or scene. You can watch a short video about Magic Eye books and learn how to see the image. Click here to reveal the image hidden in the autostereogram above.

seeing the hidden image requires un-focusing rather than focusing

Focusing is useful if you know what you’re looking for. In a turbulent and uncertain world, it’s what you’re not looking for that might become the source of a breakthrough. Herein lies one of the biggest challenges for today’s organizational leaders. When we focus on one thing, we lose the ability to notice what we’re not focused on. Psychologists refer to this as inattentional blindness. If you haven’t seen the original video from Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris that illustrates the phenomena, check it out here.

Our cognitive equipment is designed to help us focus on what we deem important. When we feel stuck or overwhelmed, it might be because we’re mistaken about what’s important. The world changes, but our priorities stay the same. We employ artificial intelligence and data science to help us isolate the insights in the noise. However, the breakthrough might be less like finding a needle in a haystack and more like allowing opportunities to emerge by changing how we pay attention.

To quote Louis Pasteur, in the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.

Spotlights versus Lanterns

Alison Gopnik studies, teaches, and writes about how children come to know the world around them. Gopnik is a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. In her recent book, The Philosophical Baby, Gopnik employs a helpful analogy to describe the difference between the consciousness of an infant and the consciousness of an adult.

According to Gopnik, babies notice the world around them as if it were illuminated by a lantern. A lantern indiscriminately lights its surroundings. Adults notice the world as though it were illuminated by a spotlight. We learn to avoid distraction and prioritize available information in order to complete tasks efficiently.

If you feel stuck or overwhelmed, shining a spotlight on familiar choices might actually blind you to the insights and options you need.

If you feel stuck or overwhelmed, shining a spotlight on familiar choices might actually blind you to the insights and options you need.

Four hidden aspects of situations we want to change

As I’ve described in a previous post, SCAN is a framework for discovering insights and options when you feel stuck or need a way to set direction. SCAN stands for: Structures, Context, Assumptions, and Needs.

Illuminating Structures helps us notice the norms, habits, systems, and processes that create stability and consistency.

Illuminating Context helps us notice factors and trends in the external environment that signal disruptions and opportunities.

Illuminating Assumptions helps us notice the beliefs, values, and world-views that orient our attention, judgments, and priorities.

Illuminating Needs helps us notice the desires, fears, preferences, and social processes that motivate behaviors.

SCAN elements are consistently overlooked

Structures organize how we operate, but once they become routine, we take them for granted. Context establishes the meaning and purpose of our activities. In our busyness, we focus on the activities and fail to notice changes in what the world considers important. Assumptions form our identity and our worldview. We rarely notice how our deeply held beliefs orient our attention and judgments. Moreover, questioning our deeply held beliefs can feel threatening. Lastly, we pay lip service to the needs of others, but we don’t stay in touch with those we serve, and we overlook the needs and perspectives of people from other communities or backgrounds.

If we want to change our situations, we need to un-focus the way we pay attention to the status quo and light a lantern to help us see what we we’re not looking for.

SCAN questions that will illuminate what you may be overlooking

To notice STRUCTURES, ask yourself: Which processes or routines no longer serve their intended purpose, have diminished impact, or have turned counterproductive?

To notice CONTEXT, ask yourself: What factors outside our control might change how people experience what we offer?

To notice ASSUMPTIONS, ask yourself: What beliefs about our purpose, goals, and approach should no longer govern our priorities?

To notice NEEDS, ask yourself: What has changed about those we serve or could be serving? Whose perspectives are underrepresented or missing?

Uncertainty is Not the Problem

We experience uncertainty in two ways. First, there’s informational uncertainty. We experience informational uncertainty when we lack facts and data to help us predict and control our environment. Secondly, there is emotional uncertainty. Emotional uncertainty is the subjective feeling associated with our information gap. Simply put, uncertainty is both what we don’t know and how we feel about not knowing it.

We’re accustomed to equating uncertainty and uncertain times with negative emotions. Most of the time, an inability to predict and control creates stress. When we experience negative emotions caused by a lack of information, we are motivated to reduce uncertainty.

There is, however, an important difference between reducing informational uncertainty and reducing the negative emotions associated with uncertainty. You can only reduce informational uncertainty by acquiring missing facts and data. You can reduce emotional uncertainty by reaching a conclusion or taking action. You may need to settle for a disappointing outcome, but at least things feel resolved. There’s another way to reduce uncertainty, but it may strike you as counterintuitive. You could learn to get comfortable feeling uncertain.

There’s another way to reduce uncertainty, but it may strike you as counterintuitive. You could learn to get comfortable feeling uncertain.

Sometimes Uncertainty Feels Thrilling

One key to getting comfortable with uncertainty is to recognize that informational uncertainty does not always create negative emotions. We have all experienced the thrill of being surprised. We frequently put ourselves in situations designed to be unpredictable. Mystery novels and cliff-hanger season finales would not be entertaining if uncertainty about what happens next created negative emotions. We lack information. We cannot predict. We cannot control, yet we feel entertained and engaged rather than desperate and paralyzed.

Of course, the difference in how uncertainty makes us feel has everything to do with what’s at risk. I can enjoy the suspense of a naïve character on the screen reaching for a door that they’ll soon regret opening. If only they could hear the pulsating music accompanying the scene the way I hear it, they’d think twice about turning that doorknob. I enjoy the scene because I’m not walking through the door. The doomed character and I have the same informational uncertainty, but very different emotional uncertainty. The problem is not about the information we lack!

High Stakes Plus Lack of Control

Maybe you’re thinking that because I won’t experience the consequences of making an uninformed choice, I’m not feeling stressed out by the uncertainty. It’s not quite that simple. Even when I need to deal with an informationally uncertain situation, I can still find joy in not knowing.

I once went to a fancy chef-run restaurant. One of the options on the menu was to let the chef decide what I would be served. The server checked for any dietary restrictions or strong preferences and then delivered one interesting and enjoyable course after another. I could not predict. I could not control. The anticipation and mystery enhanced the experience.

What’s the difference between situations of informational uncertainty that stress us out and those that don’t?

One difference, as mentioned before, has to do with a combination of what’s at risk and how much influence we have over the situation. We feel anxious when we cannot influence a situation that might negatively affect us. Anybody waiting for the resolution of an impending reorganization or merger understands that not knowing can feel scary.

Taking a Beat Between Thinking and Action

But what if we do have some control or authority to decide how to proceed when things are uncertain? When we are responsible for making a choice or taking action, we tend to think of informational uncertainty as an obstacle and a source of stress. We don’t know enough about the environment. We need to make a move and so we feel anxious.

It turns out that the more captured we become by the negative emotions associated with informational uncertainty, the harder it becomes to reduce the uncertainty. When we feel motivated to alleviate the stress of uncertainty, we are more likely to seize on a premature conclusion. Furthermore, when feeling stressed out by uncertainty, we are more likely to narrow our attention and miss surprising and potentially useful information.

We create a vicious cycle. A lack of information causes anxiety. Anxiety prevents us from seeking information.

We create a vicious cycle. A lack of information causes anxiety. Anxiety prevents us from seeking information.

I have written elsewhere about the SCAN model for finding hidden opportunities when you feel trapped by uncertainty. Before applying a framework to surface insights and options, you may need to check your attitude about uncertainty.

If taking a beat between thinking and action creates stress, you’ll resolve your uncertainty simply to feel settled. Feeling settled is not the same thing as making a good decision. If you can get comfortable pausing to explore the uncertainty, you may discover creative and compassionate solutions hiding in plain sight. We miss the surprises along the side of the road when we make a habit of rushing toward our destination. Times of uncertainty invite us to consider that we may be rushing toward a place we no longer want to be.

Scientist or Philosopher, The Dubious Distinction

Adam Grant published a new book. I published a new book too. Grant is a best-selling author, a top TED talker, and a highly regarded professor of organizational psychology at The Wharton School. I’m fairly popular with dozens of clients and colleagues.

Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, Daniel Kahneman, and Brené Brown enthusiastically endorse Grant’s new book. I can report that my sister Ann purchased a copy of my new book for each of her adult kids.

Grant’s book, Think Again, is about the power of knowing what you don’t know. My book, The Surprising Power of Not Knowing What to Do, is about discovering creativity and compassion in a time of chaos. We both believe that the future belongs to people who have the mental flexibility to think about how they think and the emotional maturity to question their conclusions and beliefs.

There’s an interesting and subtle difference between how each of us describe our recommended model of better thinking. Grant suggests we think more like scientists. Here’s what Grant wrote about thinking in what he calls scientist mode:

When we’re in scientist mode, we refuse to let our ideas become ideologies. We don’t start with answers or solutions; we lead with questions and puzzles… [Thinking like a scientist] requires searching for reasons why we might be wrong – not reasons why we must be right – and revising our views based on what we learn.

Adam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know (New York: Viking, 2021), 25.

I recommend that we think more like philosophers. Here’s what I wrote about thinking like a philosopher:

Training in philosophy prepares you to question assumptions, including your own… It’s reassuring to hold on to beliefs even if they no longer serve us, especially core beliefs that shape our identity. The faster things change, the more tempting it becomes to blame the change rather than our capacity to adapt. Without the ability to pause for philosophically detached reflection, we not only end up with rising levels of anxiety and divisiveness, we get stuck in our thinking.

Jay G. Cone, The Surprising Power of Not Knowing What to Do: Discovering Creativity and Compassion in a Time of Chaos (Dallas: Unstuck Minds Media, 2021), 57-58.

As I read Grant’s book, I thought about the difference between the scientist and the philosopher. Allow me to experiment with a distinction (adopting a scientist’s mindset) that I’ve been considering. I welcome your reactions. It seems to me that to the scientist, doubt is an adversary. To the philosopher, doubt is an ally.

To the scientist, doubt is an adversary. To the philosopher, doubt is an ally

I’m not saying that scientists want to eliminate doubt, it’s not an enemy to be vanquished. The scientist views doubt as a worthy adversary. An adversary that deserves respect. Scientific doubt spurs better answers. The philosopher hangs out with doubt. Philosophical doubt spurs better questions.

When it comes to finding a vaccine against Covid-19, I’m on team scientist. When it comes to finding a way to help people think through the ethics of vaccine distribution, I suggest inviting some philosophers to the conversation.

Practically speaking, it’s probably a distinction without a difference. Whether we think more like a scientists or more like philosophers, we can all benefit from thinking better and connecting better so the world becomes more creative and compassionate.

Introducing SCAN; How to Spot the Hidden Complexities that Keep Us Stuck

When you’re stuck, you need insights and options. Insights help you see your situation in new ways. Options help you restore confidence and momentum.

The Metal Detector versus the Vacuum Cleaner

We never get complete data about the world around us. Even though our senses constantly interact with information about the world, we can only pay attention to a fraction of the available data. At this moment, clothing, a chair, the floor, perhaps a device you’re holding all create sensations. Until this sentence redirected your attention, it’s unlikely you noticed the sensory data available to your skin.

We imagine that we move through the world like a vacuum cleaner picking up all the information in our path. In reality, we operate more like a metal detector. We are programmed to notice some things, and we sweep past a lot of other things that just don’t register. Some of the things we don’t notice might become the source of the insights and options we need.

SCAN

Remember that moment in the original Matrix movie when Keanu Reeves sees the Matrix? Reeve’s character Neo learns to perceive his world as cascading ribbons of glowing binary code. The true complexities of the matrix are revealed. Neo gets transcendently kissed, pummels Agent Smith with one hand behind his back, and rocks a pair of iconic sunglasses. Using the SCAN tool is less dramatic. On the plus side, you don’t have to be ‘The One’ to take advantage of disregarded or overlooked information.

SCAN stands for: Structures, Context, Assumptions, and Needs

  • Structures are the systems, processes, norms, and routines that define the environment in which we operate. Meeting norms and incentive systems are examples of structures.
  • Context describes the environmental factors outside the boundaries of our daily activities and responsibilities. New technologies and governmental regulations are examples of context.
  • Assumptions are the underlying beliefs of the individuals who want to make a change. Unspoken beliefs that our solution must be cost-neutral or that we can’t alter the manufacturing process are examples of assumptions.
  • Needs represent the underlying desires and motivations of people who might play an influential role in changing things for the better. A desire on the part of new-hires to have more autonomy at work or a growing preference among customers to do business with socially responsible organizations are examples of needs.

In the image below you see the four elements of SCAN represented as quadrants along two dimensions. Structures and Context provide information about the environment in which we operate. Assumptions and Needs provide information about the mindsets and motivations of people connected to our situation.

The horizontal dimension differentiates between elements that we can influence and elements that we can’t influence but may potentially influence us. We have the ability to change our structures and our assumptions. On the other hand, changes in our context and the needs of others happen without our intervention.

For example, our context now includes greater political and media attention on issues of racial justice. Heightened needs for fairness and equity have become a priority. The external influence of context and needs are bumping up against longstanding organizational assumptions about who deserves power and authority. Many organizations are beginning to reimagine their hiring, performance management, and promotions structures.

SCAN can help you avoid being blindsided by external forces that disrupt the status quo. When leaders and their teams routinely SCAN for insights and options, they notice opportunities sooner and become more adaptable to change.

SCAN can help you avoid being blindsided by external forces that disrupt the status quo. When leaders and their teams routinely SCAN for insights and options, they notice opportunities sooner and become more adaptable to change.

The other important thing to notice about the horizontal axis is that the things we can influence (Structures and Assumptions) are precisely the things that maintain stability. It’s more comfortable to preserve the status quo and operate according to our habits and routines. Stability makes it easier to scale up. Stability makes it easier to orient and train new-hires. When we maintain assumptions and structures, we can make improvements through efficiency and productivity. But, as the world continues to become more complex, uncertain, and turbulent, stability creates dysfunction by keeping things the same when what’s needed is change.

The things we can’t influence (Context and Needs) are precisely the things that create opportunity. Options and possibilities emerge from changes in society, technology, regulations, scientific discoveries, and generational priorities. We can look to what’s changing in society and the marketplace for a new way forward. At the same time, the pursuit of opportunities creates instability that can feel risky or threatening.

Let’s have a look at how the SCAN tool might help us think differently about a common challenge facing today’s organizational leaders.

Using SCAN to Improve Online Team Meetings

Keep in mind that conducting a SCAN does not give you an answer. Revealing hidden complexities is about widening the search area to increase the odds of discovering insights and options.

Suppose like a lot of leaders these days, you’re struggling to keep your distributed team engaged during virtual team meetings. You’ve made a few attempts at switching up the meeting processes, but things haven’t improved. You can tell that people are bored or distracted. You suspect that they are multi-tasking, or perhaps sending private, unhelpful chat comments to one another.

Insights and options will continue to be elusive unless you’re willing to think through the hidden complexities. It’s likely that some unexamined habits carried over from the weekly face-to-face update meetings need to change (Structure). There are probably new software applications and ways of working being introduced that you haven’t explored (Context). Perhaps some deeply held beliefs about meetings need to be challenged (Assumptions). Finally, investigating with empathy what really matters to people might help you figure out whether or not team meetings serve those who attend (Needs). The image below captures questions worth discussing with the team related to each dimension of SCAN.

The Unstuck Mind

You have two choices if making decisions in times of uncertainty feels overwhelming. You can reduce the uncertainty, or you can get comfortable feeling uncertain.

Our evolutionary impulse is to reduce uncertainty, even when it’s bad for us. A 2016 study conducted by researchers at University College London found that students who had a 50% chance of being shocked showed greater signs of stress than students who had a 100% chance of being shocked.

Speaking of stress, other researchers have demonstrated that when conditions become stressful, we’re quicker to reach conclusions. Under stress, we are also more likely to maintain allegiance to our premature conclusions. We don’t like uncertainty. And, unless conditions are ideal, thinking feels like a chore to be completed quickly. We shouldn’t be surprised that absolutism is on the rise and nuance on the decline.

There’s a vicious cycle at work here. Given our preference for reducing uncertainty, we take comfort in easy answers. The more we accept easy answers, the lower our tolerance for uncertainty. If you don’t use your muscles, they get weak. If you don’t use your mind, it becomes susceptible to nonsense.

If you don’t use your muscles, they get weak. If you don’t use your mind, it becomes susceptible to nonsense.

You know who is very happy to reduce uncertainty for you? Advertisers, politicians, fundamentalists, and your know-it-all relative or neighbor. Plenty of people and companies are happy to slip you easy-to-digest answers.

Moreover, we can now reduce complex ideas and share them with the world as social media headlines. Last I checked, the most common length of a Tweet is 33 characters. How much of your understanding of the world is based on your Twitter feed?

When I write a blog post, an algorithm will judge its readability. I will see a green happy face, or a red frowny face displayed at the bottom of my draft. Instead of feeling insulted, I’m meant to feel grateful. I’m being warned, let’s not burden people with complete sentences! I’m a fan of simplification in service of learning. Simplifying complex ideas should be a strategy for engagement, not a way to feel like you’re done understanding something.

The Surprising Power of Not Knowing What to Do

In my new book, I take the position that feeling uncertain about what to do is an opportunity, not a problem. Moments of uncertainty allow for creativity and compassion. Sitting with moments of uncertainty develops your stamina for dealing with chaos and turbulence. Instead of knowing what to do, our work is to find strategies for accepting what uncertainty has to offer.

Borrowing a tradition from my friend and colleague, Michael Reidy, I’ll end with a poem. Michael also deserves credit for bringing the poem to my attention.

Our Real Work

by Wendell Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Copyright ©1983 by Wendell Berry, from Standing by Words

Did 2020 alter your perspective on what it takes to be a good leader? So…what does that say about your competency model?

Let’s start with a quiz. Review the two descriptions below. One is from a global executive competency model1. The other is from the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) breed standard for an Australian Shepherd Dog.

Click on the description if you need to know which is which.

Speaking of the AKC, our family has always loved watching the National Dog Show on Thanksgiving. Even though our grown daughters did not travel home for Thanksgiving this year, we all still watched the dog show. When our daughters were growing up, we had a Welsh Corgi named Milo. We still get very excited during the part of the show when it’s time to judge the herding group. To this day we all root for the Pembroke Corgi.

Sometimes I think those of us who work in leadership development are jealous of the dog show judges. We wish we had a set of agreed upon standards for judging leaders. If only we could clarify and align on an ideal, we would know whom to promote and we would know where to focus our training efforts.

Of course, describing effective leadership is nothing like describing the ideal Australian Shepherd. Leadership is a relationship not a set of characteristics. Like parenting, what counts as good leadership varies with the situation and the nature of the people you care for.

Good leaders are neither bred nor manufactured. Still, we just can’t seem to shake the production mindset when we think about the performance of leaders. We can’t help thinking that the behaviors and output of a leader should be held up against some standard.

From Models to Modes

The pandemic has brought suffering and devastation, it has also shaken loose a lot of foundational assumptions. We can get work done even when we can’t convene in an office. Classrooms aren’t the only place public education can happen. And maybe we’re starting to realize that the leadership our organizations need doesn’t conform to a static model.

Many of our clients are focused on accelerating the readiness of high-potential managers for senior leadership roles. I understand the dilemma. Given the vast number of baby boomers getting ready for retirement, organizations need to prepare promotable replacements for many of their most experienced leaders. Consequently, a select group of middle managers will soon be moving into executive roles having had much less experience than their predecessors.

While I appreciate the challenge of filling key vacancies, I believe it’s time for us to put away our measuring sticks when thinking about developing organizational leadership. If you want to accelerate someone’s readiness for a key leadership role, maybe you should be less concerned about how to speed up development and more concerned about what you mean by readiness.

If you want to accelerate someone’s readiness for a key leadership role, maybe you should be less concerned about how to speed up development and more concerned about what you mean by readiness.

We rely too much on our leadership competency models. Let’s start to think more systemically about the modes of leadership appropriate to our times, our needs, and our missions. When technology disrupts our markets, we might benefit from a shift to an innovation leadership mode. When unexpected change forces us to work in unfamiliar ways, we might need a shift to an empathetic leadership mode.

We can’t expect leaders to live up to an impossible set of standards. We can, however, redesign our organizations so we can access the leadership mode we need given our circumstances and our goals. What if our leadership modes, rather than our organizational charts determined who becomes more influential and who becomes less influential? Sometimes we need General George Patton, and sometimes we need Rosa Parks.

Our Corgi Milo suffered from serious skin allergies. He was on a variety of medications including monthly allergy shots, which he begrudgingly accepted because he knew it meant a stick of string cheese afterword. Milo was gentle and lethargic. He had a few frisky years when we first rescued him, but for most of his life with us he was never really up for herding anything.

The AKC standard for Pembroke Welsh Corgis ends with a description of the ideal breed temperament, “Outlook bold, but kindly. Never shy or vicious. The judge shall dismiss from the ring any Pembroke Welsh Corgi that is excessively shy2.” Milo never stood a chance at the National Dog Show, but he was the ideal companion when we lived in a raucous, cluttered house full of energetic kids.

  1. McCall, M., & Hollenbeck, G. (2002). Developing global executives: The lessons of international experience. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing
  2. American Kennel Club (1993). Official Standard of the Pembroke Welsh Corgi. Page 3. Retrieved from: https://images.akc.org/pdf/breeds/standards/PembrokeWelshCorgi.pdf