Leadership 2.0

Eyes wide shut

As Lloyd Davis, Janet Parkinson, Maria Sipka and any number of my friends might tell you, I’ve a bit of a problem with my eyesight.

Now this isn’t down to rubbish opticians and/or glasses that should have been changed ten years ago, nor is it down to the fact I’ve downed too many double vodkas before lunch-time, it’s simply a legacy of no-one actually realising I was shortsighted until I was seven (well, why would I have said anything? I thought the world was meant to be hazy and full of sudden collisions), plus another four years or so of my being too vain to actually put the glasses on.

As a result, not only was I inevitably left until last in any kind of sports team selection at school (possibly this happened once a week but in my pained childhood memory, the process seemed to come round more frequently – life became easier once I discovered bunking off to shop in High Street Ken), I also developed a way of ignoring or not fully believing what I actually did see.

Now in adult life I frequently fail to register blindingly obvious physical entities (like balls coming at me – ask any of my previous team captains).

Anyway, this all comes to mind while I’m sitting in the Royal Thames Yacht Club Knightsbridge with Arie de Geus. We’re eating Dover Sole, polished off with some nice Viognier, and looking out over a sunny Hyde Park, where people are riding horses, sedately, along Rotten Row, and frost still sparkles on the grass.

Arie is telling me about Francisco Varela’s research into ‘cognitive objects’. Varela (1946-2001) was a Chilean biologist and neuroscientist who argued that we need to ‘recognise’ something neurologically before we can process it properly; if we have no previous experience of an object (or idea), then we don’t tend to pick it up.

Leading on from this, Arie argues that the main problems in business stem from the fact that we either (i) fail to see something because we don’t understand it or (ii) reject something we do see because the object triggers a recollection of something painful or unpleasant which we would rather forget.

These ideas tie in nicely with Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan Theory (thanks again to Benjamin Ellis for mentioning that) – we’re so busy analysing stuff that’s familiar, we fail to prepare ourselves for perceived (and unperceived) impossibilities.

Arie is keen for neurologists and management experts to work more closely together to explore the links between neuroscience and the way people behave at work. From what I understand, the Tavistock Institute and MIT have already done some research into this area, but it’s still relatively unexplored.

I hope we see this research happen. Neuroscience could go a long way to explaining why, despite years of expounding the case for enabling, enlightened leadership, we humans still tend to revert to primitive, command and control-type methods when it suits us.

3 replies on “Eyes wide shut”

Very interesting thesis, though my initial reaction would be more inclined to bet on “group cognitive objects” than individual ones.

There is a lot of research about how group failure in business – peer pressure, entrenched past learning, unwillingness to dissent with authority – contributes to inability to see what needs to be done – or sadly more common, to see but be unable to do anything. One way out of this is mandating far higher diversity in companies (corporate hierarchies typically “weed out” divergents from the norm)

Re Black Swans, its also a fascinating read, but as someone who has designed many scenarios and simulations over the years I’d note that the number of potential Very Big x Very Improbable events is usually very large in any complex environment and considering only a fraction of them would lead to complete analysis paralysis for any real world use.

It is, for example, remotely possible that a major and fatal terrorist atrocity will re-occur in London. Shall I then, therefore, not set up my office there?

You thus wind up taking a pragmatic view, and that view by necessity leaves out the Black Swans. The key is to find where the main “tipping points” are and test for those. (I also love “reversible decisions ;-) )

Every so often one gets it wrong, but what the Black Swan thesis ignores is the 99.9% confidence limit of millions of white swans that work out just fine

Thank you for the mention. Sounds like you are talking about the attentional spotlight – something for my talk this weekend, and a post… far too long for a comment :) – I’d not thought about it in the context of leadership, but it would explain a lot.

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