Why great leadership isn’t a popularity contest

It isn’t easy being a leader in a world undergoing change that is so rapid and vast that the World Economic Forum titled it the fourth industrial revolution. At the same time, leadership tenure is shrinking.  Research from PWC released this year found that CEO turnover was at 16.6% – up from 14.3% in the prior year.

It’s becoming harder than ever for leaders to navigate and thrive in this complex, ambiguous and ever-shifting environment.  Consequently, many leaders fall into the trap of taking the path of least resistance and making decisions that are easy and popular, rather than difficult.

However, complex and adaptive problems are not solved by the ‘quick fix’.

Default thinking is dangerous

There are varying statistics on the number of decisions adults make every day.  However, a large percentage of decision making is automatic and habitual, rather than conscious and deliberate. Academic researchers, Bas Verplanken (University of Bath) and Wendy Wood (Duke University), found that more than 40% of the actions people performed each day weren’t decisions, but habits.

Habits are helpful as they conserve the brain’s precious energy reserves, but they are not helpful if it means the leader fails to alter their approach, ideas and thought processes to factor in changing circumstances and information. For leaders facing unchartered territory relying on what they have always done before and using default thinking patterns is fraught with danger.

Broaden the field

Alfred Sloan, General Motors’ former CEO, who led the company to become one of the world’s largest said: “I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here…Then I propose we postpone further discussion on this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about”.

To minimise the risk of default thinking leaders need to take deliberate steps. This includes adopting practices such as:

  • Setting a clear decision making process that is fit for purpose
  • Testing multiple hypothesis and developing diverse scenarios to challenge prevailing views
  • Not just looking for evidence to support ideas, but looking for data that disproves it
  • Widening the frame of reference to include people not involved in earlier discussions
  • Encouraging constructive debate and welcoming diverse views, including listening to the silent minority and outlier opinions

Great leaders take a stand on what matters and are not afraid to risk their “popularity” to ensure that good decisions with long term outcomes are obtained.


Have you read?

Here Are 9 Simple Ways To Make Your Customers Happy
Advancing Strategic Decision-Making with Expert-Sourcing and Big Knowledge
How Keeping up with the Latest News Could Impact Your Business Performance
Hiring a great CEO: drivers of success and common mistakes to avoid

Written by Michelle Gibbings, a change and leadership expert and founder of Change Meridian. Michelle works with global leaders and teams to help them accelerate progress in complex environments.

Michelle Gibbings

Michelle GibbingsVerified account

Managing Director at Change Meridian
Michelle Gibbings is a change and leadership expert and founder of Change Meridian. Michelle works with global leaders and teams to help them accelerate progress in complex environments. She is the Author of "Step Up: How to Build Your Influence at Work".
Michelle Gibbings
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