Evidence Based Leadership – an Oxymoron??

When things are changing around us and uncertainty has the stage by the time we have evidence, it’s already happened.

When does a reliance on data and evidence become a cop out?

Very few of us would deny the value and power of data in advancing science, or the power of science to increase our knowledge. However, when we become addicted to it we lose flexibility and no longer trust intuition.

It’s largely intuition we rely on for survival. We might be wrong, but that same evidence suggests that more often, we’re right – or right enough – to avoid what otherise might be terminal. Heuristics and biases are real, but they have a purpose.

Judgement is hard.

The trouble with judgement is that we don’t have enough evidence, we have to make a call, and we might be wrong. As Annie Duke points out in “Thinking in Bets” you never make a wrong bet, you make a bet.

It’s only wrong once you have the results, and the opportunity is behind you.

I think judgement makes some harsh demands on us.

  • What is the judgement we are making in service of? Is it something trivial, like a bet on a horse for money, or is it something more substantial, like brain surgery and a life in the balance?
  • How prepared are we to make this judgement? We may not have complete evidence, but we should have experience and an understanding of the domain – whether it’s runners and riders, or case histories.
  • Are we willing to live with the result? Doing anything worthwhile involves risk, and that means we might fail. If we are, we have to take responsibility. We are putting ourselves on the line.

Managers rely on evidence, Leaders harness it?

I think we often conflate leadership and management. Both are required to run any effective enterprise, and one is not “better” than the other. They are just different.

We rely on managers to make good, evidence based decisions. To use tools and processes to make those decisions, and we hold them accountable for what they do. If management fails we look for evidence of failure. We train and trust them to use all their skills to make the best decisions they can based on evidence past and present.

Leaders are different, and follow a different compass. They are making decisions on the very edge of what we currently know, and are guided by purpose. They are running the fine balance of retaining the trust of those that follow, and inspiring them to push boundaries with no guarantee of success.

When Leaders fail, we learn different lessons – or often, those that follow them do. Leaders have no one else to blame, nor would they want to.

Leadership is not a job

Which brings me to now. I wrote a little while ago that I feel uneasy how readily we fall into criticizing those who lead us. We aren’t making the decisions, nor do we have access to the evidence that they have, and after all we elected them. If we want to blame anyone, blame ourselves.

I do think though that whether in politics or business, or any other field we can expect those who purport to lead to do just that, unashamedly, with vigour and conviction.

Review the evidence, make judgements in the context of a purpose greater than the next election, bonus or share option grant.

Let the managers deal with today. We need our Leaders to prepare us for what might be next, whatever that might be, whilst not knowing themselves.

We’ll forgive you for not knowing – none of us do – but not for obfuscating, procrastinating, or blaming others.

Published by Richard H Merrick

Complexity and volatility create enormous opportunities for those willing to go beyond the boundaries of "business as usual" to explore the edges of their business. I am an entrepreneur, a coach, a creative thinker, and above all, an explorer of possibility.

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