Modern-day leadership demands dynamic judgment

Written by
Professor Martin Binks

28 Sep 2016

28 Sep 2016 • by Professor Martin Binks

In tandem, the qualities it should entail have been the subject of near-permanent controversy. Many notions and contentions have fallen by the wayside; many others, a good number of them not especially deserving of longevity, have endured.

Business schools have frequently and rightly positioned themselves at the heart of the debate. Yet an attribute whose benefits we have consistently overlooked – and the wider world has undoubtedly joined us in our ignorance in this regard – is dynamic judgment.

Such a capacity is vital if today’s leaders are to accommodate the astonishing change that surrounds them. For their own good and the good of those they lead, they need to learn how to make decisions based on all the available options rather than simply defaulting, as has long been customary, to specific responses dictated by obsolete rules of engagement.

How might we summarise the necessary mentality? One quote that does the job beautifully comes from Carl Sagan, the brilliant American polymath central to NASA’s Voyager missions, who in 1987 wrote in The Burden of Scepticism: “If you are only sceptical then no new ideas make it through to you. If you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of sceptical sense in you then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones.”

Imagination, ingenuity... and sieves

What Sagan was referring to is the ability to think loosely. This trait is especially desirable in a business environment characterised by uncertainty, not least given that the alternative – a philosophy of knee-jerk conclusions and quick fixes – is unlikely to be effective in the face of almost relentless unpredictability.

The key is to be broad-minded without being vacuous. Leaders have to be willing to accept that what might have worked well in the past might not work so well, if at all, today. In many ways it is a matter if imagination. In short, leaders must be ingenious.

Science – and, by extension, knowledge – has invariably proceeded in this manner. The history of every field of endeavour underlines how people who are prepared to think more openly, to think differently, even to think radically, have shaped and reshaped humanity’s trajectory.

In The Meaning of It All, his essay on the relationship between science and society, Nobel-Prize-winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman provided a typically availing illustration of the need to offer a permanent challenge to conventional wisdom. Feynman, who not only revolutionised but somehow popularised quantum electrodynamics, likened progress to a cascade of sieves with ever-shrinking holes: a theory might safely negotiate sieve after sieve before finally getting stuck – at which point, notwithstanding all that has gone before, it is time to think again.

Curiosity, opportunities and innovation

Leadership too routinely rejects the fundamental curiosity that Feynman’s analogy celebrates. Rather than acknowledging, as Feynman does, that we can never have too many sieves, some leaders are content simply to jam their fingers in the holes. Blinkeredness reigns.

Such unshakable faith in the sort of one-dimensional decision-making methods that sufficed in the past but are likely to prove woefully inadequate now is both shortsighted and dangerous. What is required is a much more systematic and all-compassing strategy – one built on the realisation that the answers to the myriad questions the modern-day business environment poses might just lie beyond existing experience.

To return to Sagan’s comment: it all boils down to ideas. The mind is arguably the greatest resource that any leader possesses – readily available, inexhaustible and free at the point of use – and ideas are its currency. It is ideas that enable us to exploit opportunities, solve problems and innovate.

Leaders must recognise this uncomfortable truth. They will increasingly lose pace with the transformation taking place all around them if they persist in rooting their reactions to it almost entirely in lazy heuristics and narrowness of thought. It is amazing that such a myopic approach has prevailed for so long; and it is frightening to contemplate that it could survive yet longer. In my next post I will attempt to explain the damaging durability of the status quo and why the value and process of generating ideas, the fuel of dynamic judgment, are so misunderstood.