Leadership a mission (im)possible?

What do you do when someone shares an idea with you and your first inner reaction is: ‘O, no. Don’t, this is not a good idea?” If you choose to search for pro’s and con’s. What is it that you are searching for? The more common information or do you search beyond your filter? How do you decide and based on what?

This summer I had the honour to deep dive with a group of amazing Agile People on the topic of Leadership. The more we discussed different perspectives of leadership on the level of the organization, team or self the more I started to think that leading is almost a mission impossible.

Confirmation of thoughts

I just found an article that describes 50 different types of leadership styles. That is quite impressive and confirms my thoughts. When using which leadership style? Scrolling the article my eyes stick on the more familiar and expected ones like agile leadership and servant leadership. Is that right that we need that leadership style in today’s situation or in the future. Based on what? How do we know what is necessary to thrive in one of the most transformational times in human history? Facing todays corona pandemic, you see leaders of all nations act and doing the best they can do with all good intentions. Whether the decisions they make are good or bad there are always people who wants a different strategy or interpret messages different then they are meant to be. Why?

Unconscious thinking patterns fill our gaps

One of the reasons is that we are biased and influenced by our mental models. Unconscious thinking patterns in our head that evolved over the years. They make that we all interpret things in different ways and see things from different perspectives. It happens so fast that we are most of the time unaware of them. These thinking patterns are caused for example by information overload, culture and background and the need to act fast. We filter, jump into conclusions, fill in the gaps, think we know better and come up with stories made by our unconscious brain. We all are biased, and it never goes away. Hence, we can better become aware of them.

Let’s elaborate a bit more on four biases

  • affect bias – feelings such as emotion, fear, pleasure, and surprise drive your decisions. Feelings and associations from previous experiences frame and determine your judgement. Do I know the other or not? Your feeling determines whether or not you like working with them, whether or not you give them a promotion, whether or not you like their idea, and whether or not you will hire them.
  • attribution bias – this refers to people’s tendency to attribute people’s behaviours to their personality or character. Factors that are unrelated to the person, such as coincidental circumstances, are not or barely taken into consideration. For example, someone arrives late for a meeting and you think, ‘Oh dear, he’s late again. He’s so lazy.’ You judge him without first finding out why he is late. He may be late because something terrible has happened at home or because his train was cancelled. This is also referred to as a fundamental attribution error, i.e. when you misjudge a situation.
  • availability bias – what you see is everything there is. We like to base our judgement on examples that instantly come to mind when we evaluate a case, concept, or decision, based on the assumption that if a certain memory springs to mind like this, it must be important. People tend to let this outweigh more recent events.
  • confirmation bias – we see the world the way we see it and subconsciously look for confirmation of our ideas and hypotheses.

Do you recognize them in underneath example?

Claire, John, and Sara have a meeting but are waiting for their superior, Nicole. When Nicole walks in, she is in a hurry and mumbles a quick ‘sorry I’m late’. She sits down, the meeting starts, but Nicole is still absent-minded. Everyone in the room sees the same Nicole, but their interpretations of her behaviour are totally different. Claire knows that Nicole’s son is ill and she is worried that may be why Nicole seems so distracted.

John is about to have a performance review with Nicole after the meeting and is worried about what he is in for. Nicole is distracted and does not respond positively to the idea that he has just proposed. Sara had a meeting with Nicole yesterday about the upcoming transition in the organisation. After their talk, Nicole had another meeting about it with the CEO. With Nicole now being so absent-minded in this meeting, Sara thinks the meeting with the CEO brought bad news and that job cuts might be on the cards.

Claire, John, and Sara from the above example all based their ‘judgement’ on their personal situation, and it probably affected their behaviour during the meeting with Nicole. Their responses to Nicole’s behaviour automatically influence Nicole’s thought pattern as well, triggering a response from her in return. Nicole’s response to John’s presentation, for example, leads to him developing worries about the meeting he is scheduled to have next. If you were in Claire’s, John’s, Sara’s, or Nicole’s shoes, what would you do?

Practical experiment – Identifying your biases

Together with your colleagues in your team or department you can practise this exercise.

  • whether you personally, or in your team, recognize any of the above mentioned biases. You could start in small groups (pairs). Come up with examples that are close to home. Ask the other whether he/she has seen this bias in you.
  • Expand the groups from two to four and discuss what you have discovered so far. Find out which biases the other pair has discussed and build on that.
  • Back in the group or the team, all participants share their findings.
  • Agree on how to help each other as soon as you spot a bias in someone. Also share what you need and/or like.

The mission is possible

The thought patterns in our heads are unique and no one person has the same thought patterns as someone else. Each individual person’s map is subjective and at best rather incomplete, because we only see the world from our own point of view. Understanding of how our brains work helps to change our behaviours. As soon as you start talking about biases, you instantly begin to recognise them. When you notice that you are reverting to an old thought pattern or bias, ask further questions. Ask for feedback. Validate your hypotheses. Is it true or might I be wrong?

Is it a mission impossible? I don’t think so anymore. It is not an easy road. It asks vulnerability, courage, reflection and a growth mindset. It is a journey of making failures, experimenting and learning. What do you think? Let’s chat and help each other to grow. Contact

Role Modelling, Leadership & distributed leadership, is one of the elements of the People Journey Circle© which is described in the book Purpose Driven People – Creating business agility & sustainable growth written by Alize Hofmeester

Pre-order available now on Amazon.com –  Purpose Driven People

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