About a decade ago, I was fortunate to attend a development course at INSEAD, along with other leaders within the business I was part of. The programme was structured as modules, and considering all the time together, it was a varied few weeks, with lots of discussion, debate and learning across a wide range of topics. For example, it was there that I first heard of Blue Ocean Strategy*, a strategic disruption must-read.
A few of the exercises I recall included design of performance reward systems (especially in a sales context), the impact of group make-up on decision-making, managing stakeholders, and the wisdom of crowds. And yet, another exercise has particularly stuck with me, partly because it highlighted such divergent views on leadership…
In this specific activity, we formed a group of 9, I think, representing the different functions of a successful business considering the location of its new Head Office. The CEO was away (and had left the decision to us) – of course. Part of the exercise was to recognise that we all had different pieces of information, and to discuss them so we could collectively understand the challenge we needed to solve. I think this went well, with a high degree of trust in the room. We discussed the topic as a group, and were told we’d break for coffee, and upon our return, vote for the new location.
One possible strategy would have been for everyone to make their minds up individually, and then vote accordingly. However, the coffee break was there for a reason, so we began to discuss in smaller groups, replaying some of the earlier bigger group discussion. I knew which location I felt was best (weighing up all of the information shared), and began approaching others who I thought would share that view – there were some I knew wouldn’t. And, one by one, we agreed to form a united front, recognising that 5 votes including mine would be sufficient. Some needed assurance as to what others were voting.
Sometime during our one-on-one discussions, I chatted with the only member of the group who I actually worked with as part of my dayjob – we were in the same department, and sat a few desks apart from one another, so you could say I knew him best. I explained what we were trying to achieve, set out the reasons why he should join our vote, and as he stirred his just-poured cup, he agreed. As others were relying on his vote too, I asked for his word, and he confirmed.
A few more discussions later, and we were called back into the “boardroom”. I was confident in the result, having updated the others as we went along. The votes were tallied, and the result 5 votes to 4, but for the other location… And, the scale had been tipped by my colleague. Even though it was only a game, I felt shocked and betrayed, with my colleague to some extent proud of his decision. When I called him out on it later, he justified his change of heart as: “I knew it was going to be a close decision, so I ultimately voted for the location the CEO preferred”.
I spent a significant amount of time growing up in boarding schools, so I’d learnt to view senior leaders (teachers, prefects, and bosses) as people to be revered and respected. But, to me, that didn’t mean you have to do or agree with everything they say. And, I believe you have a duty to challenge (respectfully) especially if something is outside their area of expertise. I’d naively assumed that was why the CEO had delegated the decision to us: because he wanted to hear a broader range of views...
Our working relationship was impacted by that vote, mostly because my colleague hadn’t come back to discuss his change of heart, even knowing the commitment he had made. I recognise that Survivor and other games are similar, but I felt like I had (unwittingly) broken promises to others by relying on his word. To him, I imagine his choice was to please his boss, even though it meant upsetting his ‘board peer’. He’s entitled to change his mind, but then I would have liked him to tell me, and explain his reasoning, rather than leave it for a dramatic reveal. In the years we worked together thereafter, a part of me always wondered why he was championing a specific idea so hard...
I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on how we should view our leaders, and to what extent we should agree with them?
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