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Every Leader Needs a Challenger in Chief

| June 10, 2014

by Jim Bruce

This week’s Tuesday Reading is Every Leader Needs a Challenger in Chief, an essay, which appeared last fall at bloomberg dot com, by Noreena Hertz.  Hertz is professor of globalization at Rotterdam School om Management, Erasmus University and University College London, and is author of Eyes Wide Open:  How to Make Smart Decisions in a Confusing World.

Professor Hertz makes the observation that we like those individuals who echo what it is we already believe.  We get a dopamine rush when we receive confirming data similar to what we get when we eat chocolate.  Yet, research points to the importance of contemplating diverse, dissenting views.  Indeed, doing this makes us smarter decision-makers.

When group members are encouraged to openly express divergent opinions, they share more information and consider it more systematically and in a more balanced and less biased way.  When they engage with people who hold different opinions and views from their own they become much more capable of properly interrogating critical assumptions and identifying creative alternatives.  

In spite of this, few leaders seek out and encourage dissenting views.  Some, discourage dissent, others view it as a career limiting move, still others ostracize those who dissent.  Others, such as Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, President Abraham Lincoln, Stuart Roden, fund manageer at Lansdowne Partners, have demonstrated the value of challenging staff to consider how they could be wrong.

In your organization, do you have a challenger-in-chief?  Someone who challenges the decisions you make?  Pushing you to consider that which you have not contemplated, that which you have not imagined, that which refutes your position?  No matter how good we are, we are prone to all manner of thinking errors and traps.

Hertz notes several traps we can readily fall into:

1.  When we are given information that is better than we expected, we revise our expectations accordingly.  When the information is worse, we tend to ignore the new information.

2.  Stress leads to excessive tunnel vision and we revert to stereotypical biases.

3.  That when we get only four or five hours of sleep a night, our thinking may be as compromised as if we were drunk.

4.  We make worse decisions when our blood sugar has dipped and also when we are angry.

5.  We can become easily overly attached to the past.  Think Nokia and its phone business.

So, do you have a Challenger-on-chief?  Do you listen to him or her?

During the time you have for reflection this week, do ask yourself who you have given permission to challenge you on your decisions?  If you don’t have such a person, consider identifying one.  Such a person can become a valued thinking partner for you.  Also, do you take the opportunity to challenge those who work with you with regard to their proposals and solutions.  If you don’t, you are missing an opportunity to further their development.

.  .  .  .     jim