Big Ideas in Leadership from 2015 (Part 2)

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Big Ideas in Leadership from 2015 (Part 2)

December 30, 2015 -

We live in the age of global terror. No theme has been more clearly expressed over the past year than this, from the rampant mass shootings that have plagued the United States to the gruesome attacks in Paris. The organization known as ISIS, or ISIL, has become a household name as it has grown from a small terrorist group to a quasi-state with aspirations of a global caliphate. All of these events have put a spotlight on the leadership challenge of decision-making. How do leaders respond in the face of surprises and threats that challenge their organization’s existence? The first part of our leadership year in review series explored automation and how it brings greater clarity to the need for leaders to develop stronger communication skills. This second part will examine how the rise in terror threats reveals the need for leaders to think through their decision-making process.

Daniel Kahneman, professor emeritus of psychology at Princeton and Nobel Laureate in economics, penned a fascinating book several years ago entitled Thinking, Fast and Slow. The premise of the book is that you and I have two different systems for thinking and making decisions. System 1 is the intuitive, automatic, instinctual mode, and it is how we make a broad swath of our decisions. It’s what causes you to prefer one car over another because of how it feels rather than how much gas mileage it gets or how many horses it has under the hood. If you’ve ever shopped for houses, it’s that mode that makes one place feel like a home rather than simply a house. We make a lot of our decisions based on System 1 thinking, because System 2, the methodical, logical, and deliberate style, taxes our brain and takes vast amounts of energy.

When it comes to leadership, we really aren’t much different. It is the old battle between the head and the heart, but in the face of an ever-changing world with mass shootings, terror threats, and global pandemics, it’s not enough to simply trust that in the moment you’ll be able to make the right decision. As John Beshears and Francesca Gino articulate in their Harvard Business Review article “Leaders as Decision Architects”, though, “All too often we allow our intuitions or emotions to go unchecked by analysis and deliberation, resulting in poor decisions… System 1 tends to focus on concrete, immediate payoffs, distracting us from the abstract, long-term consequences of our decisions.”

Whether we like it or not, living in the age of global terror impacts all leaders, regardless of sector. Crisis decision-making is already difficult enough, as we witness yearly with weather-related tragedies, but mass shootings, bomb threats, and even global pandemics such as Ebola bring a volatile mix of factors that challenge every type of leader, whether healthcare, business, education, politics, or ministry. Think about the way that the recent Paris attacks caused the leaders of Belgium to close entire sections of their country, or how a terror threat in Los Angeles caused the local school district there to cancel classes. Terrorism does not just impact political leaders, but challenges all leaders to think through their decision-making and how prepared they are for a crisis situation.

Beshears and Gino describe effective decision making as possessing two characteristics, timeliness and quality. Both are impacted in a crisis scenario, as there is less time to think through all the ramifications of a potential decision. That’s why planning and preparation become such a necessity. There is not enough time in the moment to go through the full process of thought that usually goes into a decision. United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd describes this normal process as the OODA Loop, where you Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. But the threat of chaos and the surprise nature of crises challenge this framework and can cause you to become overwhelmed in the moment as a leader.

There is a growing body of research into crisis decision making, but that is well beyond the scope of this article. David Snowden & Max Boisot’s Cynefin Sense-Making Framework is a good place to start if you’re interested in exploring the topic more in-depth. The important thing to highlight for our discussion, however, is simply the need to have a plan in place for how you will respond to crisis situations.

On an organizational level, do you have a plan for both general and specific threats to your organization? On a more personal level, are you cultivating the life of prayer that will “guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”? (Phil. 4:7) Of course praying in the moment of a crisis is important, but beyond that, our daily cultivation of the habit of taking our burdens to God builds a continuity and steadfastness in our hearts that acts as a strong foundation when all around us is in turmoil.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us: “The very time we give to intercession will turn out to be a daily source of new joy in God…Who can really be faithful in great things if he has not learned to be faithful in the things of daily life?” Similarly, we cannot expect to be equipped to handle crisis decision making as leaders if we are not daily on our knees cultivating the simple habit of prayer.

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