With Brexit and Donald Trump’s election we have witnessed what numerous political and economic leaders labeled as impossible and catastrophic, nevertheless have become a new reality. Through analyzing these game-changing events we suggest four cognitive strategies for those in charge of leading a company in a fast-changing world.
It is striking that neither European leaders, nor, as it seems, the British leaders who launched the initiative for the referendum, nor financial markets had got ready for a vote in favor of Brexit. In 2008 as well, few or no banking group had envisaged as possible the failure of Lehmann Brothers without the American Federal Reserve coming to its aid. The phenomenon occurred again during the campaign of Donald Trump. Numerous officials, journalists and commentators mocked him for a long time, as they considered his accession to the presidency of the United States as an impossible scenario.
In all these cases, decision-makers used a one-track thinking system for their analyses, their strategic directions and their decisions. Divergent opinions were considered as emanating from under-educated people, soft dreamers, or common revolutionaries. The absence of alternative plan, even succinct, confirmed that options exogenous to the dominant thinking were perceived as impossible, thus not even deserving the time and effort of risk analysis or multi-scenario prospective study.
Our intent here is not to take a political stand. Rather, we want to underline that beyond the unpredictability of major changes in history there is a major difference between considering an event as improbable or simply impossible. Indeed, if we consider a scenario as really impossible, by definition it is of no use to get ready for it. While if we consider a scenario as improbable, but not impossible, we allow it to enter our scope of reflection.
Any system of thought, with its cognitive, historic, cultural or political filters brings at the same time power and limits. Through its filters it makes it possible to distinguish the right and the wrong, the fair and the unfair, the possible and the impossible. But we, at times, forget that our perception, itself, is not neutral; it also is shaped through filters.
Therefore, if you are a leader or a manager, ask yourself the question of what you consider as impossible for yourself, for your team, for your company, or for the ecosystem in which you intervene. And imagine what could take place and what might be your reaction, if indeed the impossible came true.
Besides its virtue regarding risk analysis, this approach will open for you creative and innovative perspectives. The exploration of fields previously considered impossible will bring you the benefits of accessing new elements of understanding, or even new possible realities. It will allow you not only to identify intellectual mechanisms (scenarios) but also to come up with dynamic leverages (sensory representations of these scenarios), which will be useful for you in understanding current reality in a different way.
The model of vertical leadership development presented by David Rooke and William Torbert in their article “Seven Transformations of Leadership” published in 2005 in Harvard Business Review includes different levels of development for the leader. Whereas the performer obtains results by focusing on an objective, without disputing the frame of it, the leader in complexity knows how to listen, understand and integrate contradictory points of view.
Giving real consideration to various points of view is a rewarding approach for teams and stakeholders. They feel listened to and they are more inclined to join the leader in their vision. It also offers the leader the opportunity to open up to other systems of thought, hence better sizing up the complexity of reality. Such an approach also allows them to better understand the social dynamics at work in the company or in a market, while giving them the possibility of detecting and exploring the micro-signals which will turn into the major trends of tomorrow. Whatever the real or supposed relevance of the leader’s point of view, confronting the reality as perceived by the stakeholders will allow for adjustment making for their vision and their project.
Obviously, quite a few institutional decision-makers didn’t have this listening skill that is present only when there is respect for opponents. Not only did they fail to detect and understand what were the feelings of the voters who were going to approve Brexit or Donald Trump, but also they stayed in a system of thought made with certainties, when undoubtedly it would have been beneficial to question these.
In fact, the paradox is classic. In companies with strong power distance, the decision-maker who is supposed to be the best informed person in order to make relevant decisions often has no access to a whole class of information, those considered as disturbing or those conflicting with the official line. Yet it is exactly these information or analyses that go against the dominant tide that are the most important, because some of them will be the beginnings of future mainstreams.
Therefore if you are leader or manager, spot those who have the ideas, the viewpoints and the analyses that are the most disturbing for you. And raise the following questions: why do my opponents think as they think? What do they feel? What are their experiences? Why is it important for them to think what they think? And also, why are their points of view so disturbing for me? What do these viewpoints question in my own system of thought? In so doing, you will reach a multitude of points of view and you will enrich yours.
Frustration is frequent in the business world when a leader listens to their teams at the time of a difficult choice or of a transformation of the organization. Listening for real may get the decision-maker to reconsider and to refine their evaluation of the situation. The frustration occurs when the act of listening is faked, as all doors are in fact closed. It indeed happens that company directors listen to their opponents only out of appearance, knowing perfectly well that they will not take into account these points of view. Their attitude is then purely superficial, not authentic and sometimes even completely hypocritical.
Another cause of frustration that is also frequent occurs from opponents’ confusion when they take their leaders’ listening being indicative of a joint decision. When the leader’s decision is not in tune with their opponents’ viewpoint, their opponents may have the impression that they have not really been listened to.
To avoid these two pitfalls, it is necessary to adopt an authentic approach, that of real interest, of friendly curiosity for the divergent points of view, while respecting the authority of the decision-maker.
Aristotle said that « It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it ». So, it will be crucial to define clearly the frame of the initiative with all the stakeholders. In particular, it will be about fully agreeing on the decision process and the scope of responsibility attached to the decision.
To draw a parallel with the political arena, it seems that beyond appearances, both for Brexit as for the election of Donald Trump, there is no complete agreement from all of the actors of the system on the process of the decision. Since, after the vote in favor of Brexit some called for a new vote or for the non-compliance with the vote, and as for the election of the American President some do not grant him the legitimacy of the ballot box.
In the micro society constituted by a company, confusion or disagreement on the mechanisms of listening, reflection, investigation, sharing or decision-making also raise major problems in terms of teams’ motivation and implementation of the decisions taken by the leader individually or collectively.
Many companies live under the dictatorship of short-term results or are focused (almost) exclusively on their quarterly figures. The problem is not using financial indicators of performance, but that these indicators sometimes prevail over the economic, industrial or social vision. Thus there is often confusion between vision and ambition. Increasing a market share or profitability rate constitute ambitions but not visions. What motivates teams, just like for voters, is the vision developed and carried out by their leaders.
At times of major change, the vision is embedded in a reality that has not arrived yet. Paradoxically, the most promising visions will also sometimes be precisely the ones that appear as impossible. But it is the case that they are impossible only according to old thinking systems, at “constant scope”. The two sided mirror offered to us by the events of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump shows on one side the belief that some scenarios are impossible, while at the same moment the other side presents the belief that everything is possible. The contradiction is only apparent. Besides the fact that these two beliefs are carried by different actors, those who do not go past the impossible base their point of view on an analytical and static perception, whereas those who believe in the impossible join a dynamic which transforms the very elements of the equation.
If you are leaders or managers, maybe it is time to overcome the stage of convictions to transform them into useful and rewarding visions for your company and the ecosystem it belongs to. You will still need to promote your project while integrating diverse sensibilities. This expression of leadership requires certainly some courage: to express, to give a direction, and to embark teams (or voters) on a project for which it is not possible to measure with certainty all the possible futures. In doing so, maybe will you succeed in creating a dynamic that will allow you to transform the dream and the impossible into a concrete, strategic and beneficial reality.