They say that wisdom is something that comes with age. While this is probably true, every one of us can be “wise” by taking a moment to think before presenting an opinion – especially in this world of instant social media where it is easy to react rather than reflect before responding. In business this is an important skill especially for leaders and decision makers – in fact, it is why we called our book on leadership “Reflective Leaders and High-Performance Organisations.”
I think I came to realise the importance of this notion a few years after I started my consulting business; by that time I had over 25 years of business management and leadership experience and as a result I felt I had a “pretty good handle” on what worked and what did not work. However, it did not turn out to be as simple as I thought. I captured the results of my thinking on what I call “Nick’s Window” (after all Johari had a window named after him so why not me?)
I – like many of us who have experience, believe I know quite a lot of the answers so on the bottom scale I show what I think is the right thing to do that works and also what I believe to be wrong – that doesn’t work. My challenge was that when I started going into organisations to either carry out assessments of implement change initiatives I started to get confused. Things that people were doing in many cases supported my beliefs and thoughts but strangely, sometimes they were having great success doing things I thought were wrong. How did that make sense? So on the left scale, we can see the “real world” of what works and what doesn’t work.
Putting this together I began to realise that and reflect that maybe I wasn’t always right, and there indeed were still things I could learn. While this realisation set me back a bit, it helped me realise the value of other people’s opinions and also that all of my experience had been “contextual” – while certain things worked they worked with a certain and often unique environment (what could be called business culture). It also helped me realise that as the world changes we often need to discard old ideas and look for new one’s because some of what may have worked in the past no longer apply. As we become older and more experienced this is an increasing danger (and it’s also a great risk if you are considered an expert in your field and don’t develop this reflective skill!); if we don’t have the ability to step back and think about situations may end up forcing our “wrong thinking” onto others purely on the basis of our own experience – often ignoring their experience and opinions. To me, this is where the issue of both reflectivenesses, as well as humility, become important to a leader. If as individuals we are unable to do this we can be seen as becoming “out of touch” and worse still – if in positions of leadership, can make the decision that takes our organisations or those we are trying to help, in the wrong direction.
I heard the expression once that I believe is true. “the mind is like a parachute – it only works when it open” and I believe it’s a truism. To be successful in an
“The mind is like a parachute – it only works when it open”
To be successful in an ever-evolving world, there is a place for reflection. In fact, when our instant opinions are instantly communicated often globally, we might be well advised to step back a minute and ask whether we know the facts behind the opinion we are expressing to be true? Finally, I believe that this realisation is important when addressing the uniqueness of organisational culture – certain things may or may not work depending upon the culture and based on that we can often spend a lot of time and effort trying to implement something that we believe in without realising that in certain situations it will not work. I think it’s great to have strongly held opinions and be an expert in your field but its equally important to have enough modesty to realise you may not always be right.