Strive to be a Stupid Leader

Stupid – Adjective – Lacking Knowledge or awareness

In this 4th Industrial Revolution characterized by the massive disruptions and opportunities that Globalisation, Emerging Technologies, and a Generational Diverse Workforce bring, it is understandable that many leaders feel under immense pressure to be the most knowledgeable person in the room. I wonder if this is the leader’s best strategy at this time.

As someone who spends his life developing senior leaders I’m not going to dismiss the power of education however because of the speed of change and the need to build high energy, empowering and transformational intrapreneurial cultures in every sector and every organization, I wish to argue that ignorance can be very valuable in leadership.

The Vail of Ignorance

Let us first look at how ignorance can help a leader create an enduring and successful intrapreneurial culture. The great philosopher John Rawls argued that if someone were to design a truly fair and just social contract they should do so behind an imaginary Vail of Ignorance. Behind that vail they should imagine that they have no idea what position in the new society they will hold. They will act as if they do not know if they will be powerful or powerless. Whether they will be super rich or desperately poor. Whether they will be highly intelligent or have low intellectual capacity. Rawls thoughts were that as you did not know what position you would hold in society you would be forced to ensure that all would experience fairness and justice in any new social design.

My experience has been that too often organizational cultures are created, no doubt through unconscious bias, to benefit the designers of that culture. Where a culture is designed by Senior Leaders they give themselves freedoms of movement, decision making, and use of financial resources that are not offered to others in the organization. They will place restrictions, rules and performance measures on others that they would never countenance if they had to work under such regimes.

If a certain division of an organization has greater influence than others in the creation of a culture I will predict the resulting culture will favor the influential division. In so many organisations I see engrained resentment in large parts of the workforce caused through wired in unfairness in the culture in place.

I would argue that as leaders we must create our culture behind Rawls Vail of ignorance. We should not implement any cultural design until we have imagined living within that culture in every position in the company. Imagined the experience that the specialist will have, the apprentice will have, the experienced worker will have, the old or the young will have. Then only when the rules and behaviours that the culture will inevitably impose are clearly just and fair to all should we move forward.

The Skilled Enquirer

I would argue that ignorance is also invaluable for a leader when decision making or when in innovative creation. George Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory helps us to understand that we all create our own reality of how the world works so that we can make sense of what we observe or experience. We then construct patterns from what we experience to predict what will happen in the future. I would suggest that the danger to leaders is that they think their reality is reality and not simply one version of reality. They are at risk at making poor decisions through partial understanding of the environment.

Leaders mitigate the risks of personal construct through seeing reality through as many eyes as possible. They increase the quality of decision making by building a mosaic of realities. We should widely consult not because it is the “right thing” to do but instead because logically it is the safest thing to do.

Surely the skills a leader needs to develop are of those of a skilled enquirer. Personal Construct can make us act as if we are a doctor who prescribes before we diagnose. We become over confident in our perceived understanding of the truth in a situation. We restrict the number of possibilities available to us.

I believe it is only the skilled enquirer who can sustain a successful intrapreneurial organization. A skilled enquirer looks outwards to understand rather than look inwards to self-refer. The skilled enquirer prizes the ability to construct insightful questions rather than give clever but limited answers. The skilled enquirer values being the learner rather than the teacher, and a skilled enquirer relentlessly tries to understand other motivations, perceived realities, and interpretations of facts. I would argue the skilled enquirer is a gatherer of realities and it is that ability that allows them to lead and react coherently in a complex fast-moving environment.

In conclusion I would strongly suggest that in these times of disruption, these times of incredible technological development, these times of generational diversity it is the leader who creates an intrapreneurial culture that works equally for all employees who will be effective. I would also suggest that a leader who behaves more like the fictional detective Columbo than Sherlock Holmes will thrive. Or put another way it is the passionate skilled enquirer rather than the person skilled in deduction who will be able to truly involve others, generate a full range of options and come to the highest quality of decision who will be valued in any organisation. Ignorance may not be bliss but it can be an immensely powerful attribute for a highly effective Intrapreneurial leader. So maybe strive to be the stupid leader.