Are you too insular?
Do you have a tendency to think your ideas are better than anyone else’s? Are you convinced your approach will work better than any others? Do you approach brainstorms as an exercise in convincing others of the genius in your ideas? If we don’t recognise ourselves in that description, then I’m sure we’ve all met someone who appears to think in that way. It might appear that such people are supremely confident, but it could very easily highlight a dangerous level of insularity.
In our view, the problem of insularity is a developmental one. Insularity really reveals an underlying lack of sophistication. Insular leaders have failed to develop beyond their teenage years. Think of your average teenager. One of the things that characterises many at this age is an unshakeable belief in the veracity of their own belief. They are archetypally very difficult to advise. They often think they know best and their parents are simply out of touch. Humility is not common at this age. They have not heard of unconscious incompetence and they don’t know what they don’t know.
Grown up leadership
We can excuse teenagers, but why do so many grown up leaders fail to develop beyond their insular teenage mindset? This is because most people achieve things in life without having to develop themselves; so there is little incentive or reason to change. What usually happens to people who are going to become the leaders of tomorrow is that they rapidly ascend the learning curve. At the end of their teenage years, if they are lucky, they may go to university to acquire knowledge or a qualification.
Alternatively, they may work their way up through an apprenticeship and acquire some technical skills. In the early stages of their career they move around and experience different offices or different commercial settings or conditions. They may undertake some international assignments, a few stretch projects and they start to get that, all-important, experience under their belt.
Who become the leaders?
The ones who learn the most ultimately reach the C-suite. They have reached the pinnacle of their professional learning curve. Along the way, they have learnt a great deal, but have they actually developed beyond the age of 14? Many use the words ‘learning’ and ‘development’ synonymously, but they are actually very different. Development is not about the acquisition of skills, knowledge and experience; it’s about being able to operate at a more sophisticated and mature level.
The underdevelopment of a leader is revealed by an inability to take input and a lack of humility – insularity. For some, the very fact that they made it to the top of the organisation reinforces their sense of invincibility, their prowess and they become even less likely to be open to input.
When anyone or any organisation thinks they know it all, then they are very likely to fail. If we become too obsessed with ourselves and too enamoured with our own brand, we fail to be open to feedback and development. We believe we know it all and we are invincible. Invincibility applies to no one, no matter who you are or what you do. And this is true in all fields – sports, business, academia and more. If insularity has become the norm and openness is seen as a sign of weakness then you have effectively optimised your risk of failure.
How do the best stop insularity?
The very best organisations recognise the risks of insularity and put processes in place to ensure they remain open to outside input. For example, the HR directors of these organisation will be exploring cutting edge HR thinking around the world. What are the megatrends, what advances have there been in the understanding of human development?
They consider a rolling programme of outside speakers coming into the departments and may even consider partnering with people they, and others, identify as thought leaders in the field. Such approaches can diffuse the significant risk of insularity. Being open to new ideas and the possibility that you don’t have all the answers are critical features of an open and truly developed leader.
The irony of insularity is that we are all defined by relationships, whether we like it or not. Every company is defined by its relationships with customers, suppliers, shareholders and employees, and each human being is defined by his or her relationship with the people around them. Relationships require us to interact. When we disconnect from the world, from others and their feedback, we begin to know ourselves less. It is only when we meet other people that we realise we might not be the geniuses we think we are.
Insularity represents a resistance to change that we cannot afford. We must be open to input and change if we really want to thrive in our VUCA world and stay ahead of the competition.