Discernment for Effective Leaders

Being an effective leader requires discernment. Truly effective leaders are able to see beneath the surface of things and to foresee opportunities (and potential threats) even when the indications are not obvious. Furthermore, effective leaders do not mindlessly accept or follow established policies, procedures and practices. They also do not indiscriminately follow the latest business or management fad (aka “best practice”).

Discernment is not just a necessary competency when innovating, which itself can be essential to an organization’s continued viability. Rather, it is important to the success of the day-in and day-out tasks that are a routine part of doing business. For example, when you are implementing some practice that’s been touted as a “best practice,” ask yourself what problem it solves or opportunity it creates for your unique organization and what unintended consequences it might also create. When interviewing and selecting new staff make sure you consider job, work team, and organizational fit. There are many tools available to help employers to look beneath the surface in discerning whether a job candidate’s professed value is more than skin deep: behavior-based (or competency-based) interviewing, thorough background checks, validated assessment tools (if applicable), and more. When you are spending your scarce talent development dollars, make sure you know what it is you are getting in return for your investment and that your organizational culture supports an employee’s application of her/his new knowledge, skills and abilities.

In general, how can you develop the quality of discernment? Make a point of staying informed about what’s going on, not just in your business or in your industry, but in the world in general. Never stop learning and educating yourself. With the internet, there are many different ways to do this. But even more important than any structured educational opportunity, whether it be a Ted Talk, seminar, conference, workshop, or webinar, take time to become a keen observer of people and things around you. Be curious. Look beneath the surface. Inquire into how others think. Make a point of engaging with diverse people and ideas that are not routinely a part of your everyday experience. Subscribe to a periodical or attend a lecture that represents a radically different point of view. Tune into a different radio station every week.  Be conscious of and limit your multi-tasking and tendency to operate on automatic pilot. And:

  • Listen to your intuition, as well as to your intellect. That’s what Conrad Hilton did when he bid for the Stevens Hotel in Chicago and won the world’s then-largest hotel just as the entire hotel business was entering a boom; that’s what Henry Heinz did when he came up with his famous “57” trademark; that’s how the structure of benzene was discovered by Freidrich Stradonitz; and that’s what inspired Sam Walton to ignore major cities and offer cut-rate prices to America’s heartland.
  • Be critical of the so-called “facts” you encounter in a variety of sources every day. Given the proliferation of electronic devices and our easy access to the Internet, there is a great deal of information available at our fingertips, literally, 24/7, some of which is reliable and some not. Always read/view more than one news source.
  • Reverse your point of view or consider doing the opposite of what is typically accepted. Eighteenth century physician Edward Jenner discovered “vaccination” by inoculating healthy people with a dangerous but usually non-lethal virus (cow pox) to prevent their contracting a deadly one (smallpox). Alfred P. Sloan saved GM during the depression by asking what if people could drive a car while they were buying it as opposed to owning it outright first, thus introducing the concept of installment loans. Henry Kravis turned debt into the leveraged buyout, transforming corporate strategy so debt is secured by a targeted company’s assets in an attempt to purchase the targeted company.
  • Consider what would happen if you put something in another context. Alexander Fleming looked at mold and discovered penicillin; George de Mestral looked at the burdock burr and invented the Velcro fastener.
  • Look for analogies. For example, helicopters and hummingbirds (hummingbirds can hover and fly backwards); sonar and bats (bats emit sounds inaudible to the human ear that bounce off objects in their way), and others.
  • Travel to cultures dramatically different from your own if you have the means to do so.

Finally, become more aware of your own thinking and reasoning. Roger von Oech, author of A Whack on the Side of the Head, contends “nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one we have.”