Leaders - resistant to change? Avoid tunnel vision

Written by
Changeboard Team

Published
14 Jun 2010

14 Jun 2010 • by Changeboard Team

What are the dangers facing senior leaders?

Senior leaders in all walks of life can quickly become very single minded in the pursuit of organisational goals. Driven variously by shareholder demands, market sensitivity and personal ambition - a case of tunnel vision develops.

They work towards the next shareholder report, the next election, the winning tape. At CHPD we call this the tyranny of the tunnel. Three leadership behaviours are chronically affected by this condition, while the rest can be impacted periodically. The chronic behaviours are: concept formation; conceptual flexibility and influence.

How can leadership behaviours be affected?

Concept formation

This is essentially about creating ideas. The tyranny of the tunnel can mean that a leader sticks rigidly to pre-existing concepts that are not anchored in relevant data. If new ideas are suggested they will reject them instinctively, claiming they could not work in practice. The analogy that springs to mind is the precocious chef, who rejects the concept of a new or altered menu. 

Conceptual flexibility

The first cousin to concept formation. Having rejected even the notion of creating new ideas, this leader adopts a permanent strategy of rejecting alternatives despite them being relevant and valued by others. Its like a football manager sticking week in, week out, to the same tactical approach, regardless of past success or failure. They refuse to change their game plan regardless of new opposition. Only momentarily concerned with the loss of yet another match, they turn up at training on Monday with their one last push speech. 

Influence

With leaders moving into the tunnel of tyranny, influencing by attacking others interests is inevitable. Leaders in this frame of mind are always trying to force other people to follow their preferred route through coercion and threats.   

Being open to new ideas: key for leaders

Its very easy for any leader to enter the tyranny of the tunnel. The line between supreme self-confidence and dogmatism is very thin. The contrast between Margaret Thatchers early and late years in office are the most clear, recent examples of this behavioural thin line. Her political life ended because she rejected the formation of new ideas, refused to countenance alternative policy perspectives in any meaningful way and used stridency of argument in place of sophisticated negotiation. 

Following the 2010 British general election, many of us who follow current affairs have been astounded by the audacity of the Tory/Lib-Dem coalition. What both party leaders have shown is how former enemies can come together to be a viable political, and business, strategy. 

How did the party leaders tackle their Challenges?

So what did the party leaders do? Firstly, they were willing to think differently about what was possible. Cameron saw that the result of the election, far from being a trap for the party who assumed office, was an opportunity to reshape the political landscape.

Behaviourally, his concept formation (creating ideas) was at a very high level. He saw that it was possible to reframe post war political assumptions away from a centre left coalition to a centre right one. How many of us said as the Results came in: Yes, but the Lib Dems will never do a deal with the Tories? To which Cameron said: Says who?

This daring, which showed an immense level of self confidence and political courage, brings us to another of the CHPD leadership behaviours: conceptual flexibility. The creation of the coalition exemplifies this behaviour at a very high level.

As CHPDs definition explains, the leader:

Compares the merits of two or more realistic alternatives, by stating the pros and cons of each. [Creates] an over-arching plan or strategy as a result of this analysis, which maximises the Benefits and minimises the downsides of the original options.

The power of persuasion and influence

Once the strategy was set, the most difficult task for Cameron and Clegg was to persuade three key constituencies; each other, their own parties and the public. The use of influence at a high level was now paramount. Convincing each other was the easiest part: when offered power most politicians will take it. How they influence their own parties was, and remains, the most formidable Challenge, but, concentrating on the common ground has been effective.

Three examples: the abolition of the third runway at Heathrow appeals to the Lib Dems' environmental instincts, as well as Tory parsimony; the rejection of ID cards meets Lib Dem civil rights concerns and again Tory parsimony; and the use of PR to elect the House of Lords appeals to Lib Dem electoral instincts, and to Tory - well they have lots of other policies that will rebalance this.

What can business leaders learn from the gvt?

Avoiding the tyranny of the tunnel requires leaders to use the three behaviours identified above at a high strategic level. So how can leaders do this?

Concept formation

Ask yourself if you are welcoming of new ideas. Do you actively seek out others opinions and keep an open mind when it comes to weighing up pros and cons? Allow others to suggest ideas and dont be too quick to dismiss or judge them.

Conceptual flexibility

One of the most difficult leadership behaviours to undertake at a strategic level, leaders with a high level of conceptual flexibility are able to evaluate numerous ideas at the same time and analyse the advantages and disadvantages of each course of action without making a decision on a solution too early. If you find this behaviour difficult then discipline yourself with some processes which force you to consider all the options before deciding on the right way to go.

Influence

Once youve decided on your course of action, the way you influence others to want to go along with you can be crucial to your success. Instead of forcing others to go along with you, take the trouble to identify win win alliances and seek out ways to drive engagement.

The tyranny of the tunnel is a genuine risk for both our new political leaders and our business leaders. The steps above could offer both audiences a route away from the tunnel.