Category Archives: leadership

Unrecognised brilliance of shy and fearless leaders

Red tulips in a window boxAre you a quiet person? Perhaps shy would be an appropriate description. Do you have a clear vision of where you would like to lead your organisation but perhaps you are hesitant about stepping forward into a leadership position because you think that successful leaders are bold, self-confident, large-than-life and enjoy the limelight. You should think again. Research by Jim Collins and his team, published in the Harvard Business Review, has shown that the most powerfully transformative leaders have a paradoxical mixture of personal humility and professional resolve. They found that companies were transformed from a merely good performance to a sustained great performance in terms of their stock value only when led by a CEO who was both self-effacing and fearless. They called these class of people, level 5 leaders. They are ambitious for their organisation not themselves, assign credit for successes to others while accepting the blame for failures and have an unwavering resolve to do whatever is necessary to achieve the best long-term results despite the obstacles. So, if you worry that you lack the charisma to inspire your team then pause and consider whether you might be a level 5 leader with the rare combination of modesty and willfulness that, Jim Collins has suggested, are required to transform the performance of your organisation. Unfortunately, if you think you possess these characteristics then you almost certainly are not a level 5 leader because your humility would never allow you to entertain the thought!

Reference:

Jim Collins, Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve, Harvard Business Review, January 2001.

Exploiting complexity to help society adapt

photograph of a flower for decorative purposes onlyI am worried that engineering has become a mechanism for financial returns in an economic system that values profit above everything with the result that many engineers are unwittingly, or perhaps in a few cases wittingly, supporting the concentration of wealth into the hands of a few capitalists.  At the start of the industrial revolution, when engineering innovation started to make a difference to the way we live and work, very few engineers foresaw the impact on the planet of the large scale provision to society of products and services.  Nowadays most engineers understand the consequences for the environment of their work; however, many feel powerless to make substantial changes often because they are constrained by the profit-orientated goals of their employer or feel that they play a tiny role in a complex system.  Complex systems are often characterised by self-organisation in which order appears without any centralised control or planning and by adaptation to change and experience.  Such systems are familiar to many engineers and perhaps they do not, but should, think of the engineering profession as complex system capable of adaptation and self-organisation in which the actions and decisions of individual engineers will cause the emergence of a new order. Our individual impact might be tiny but by acting we influence others to act and the cumulative effect will emerge in ways that no one can predict – that’s emergence for you.

Intelligent openness

Photo credit: Tom

As an engineer and an academic, my opinion as an expert is sought often informally but less frequently formally, perhaps because I am reluctant to offer the certainty and precision that is so often expected of experts and instead I tend to highlight the options and uncertainties [see ‘Forecasts and chimpanzees throwing darts’ on September 2nd 2020].  These options and uncertainties will likely change as more information and knowledge becomes available.  An expert, who changes their mind and cannot offer certainty and precision, tends not to be welcomed by society, and in particular the media, who want simple statements and explanations.  One problem with offering certainty and precision as an expert is that it might appear you are part of a technocratic subset seeking to impose their values on the rest of society, as Mary O’Brien has argued.  The philosopher Douglas Walton has suggested that it is improper for experts to proffer their opinion when there is a naked assertion that the expert’s identity warrants acceptance of their opinion or argument.  Both O’Brien and Walton have argued that expert authority is legitimate only when it can be challenged, which is akin to Popper’s approach to the falsification of scientific theories – if it is not refutable then it is not science.  An expert’s authority should be acceptable only when it can be challenged and Onora O’Neill has argued that trustworthiness requires intelligent openness.  Intelligent openness means that the information being used by the expert is accessible and useable; the expert’s decision or argument is understandable (clearly explained in plain language) and assessable by someone with the time, expertise and access to the detail so that they can attempt to refute the expert’s statements.  In other words, experts need to be  transparent and science needs to be an open enterprise.

Sources:

Burgman MA, Trusting judgements: how to get the best out of experts, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Harford T, How to make the world add up: 10 rules for thinking differently about numbers, London: Bridge Street Press, 2020.

O’Brien M, Making better environmental decisions: an alternative to risk assessment, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2000.

Walton D, Appeal to expert opinion: arguments from authority, University Park PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

Royal Society, Science as an open enterprise, 2012: https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/science-public-enterprise/report/

Planning to give up fossil fuels

Decorative image from video mentioned in postAt the start of last month, I wrote about the need for national plans to ween us from our addiction to fossil fuels [see ‘Bringing an end to thermodynamic whoopee‘ on December 8th, 2021].  If we are to reduce carbon emissions to the levels agreed in Paris at COP 21 then the majority of the population as well as organisations in a country will need to engage with and support the national plan which implies that it must transcend party politics.  This level of engagement will likely require us to have a well-informed public debate in which we listen to diverse perspectives and consider multifarious solutions that address all of the issues, including the interests of a fossil fuel industry that employs tens of millions of people worldwide [see EU JRC Science for Policy report on Employment in the Energy Sector] and makes annual profits measured in hundreds of billions of dollars [see article in Guardian newspaper about $174 billion profit of 24 largest oil companies].  Perhaps, learned societies nationally and universities regionally could collate and corroborate evidence, host public debates, and develop plans.  This process is starting to happen organically [for example, see Climate Futures: Developing Net Zero Solutions Using Research and Innovation]; however, the urgency is such that a larger, more focussed and coordinated effort is required if we are to bring about the changes required to avoid the existential threat [see ‘Disruptive change required to avoid existential threats‘ on December 1st, 2021].