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.

The Marshmallow Recovery?

Dorset Echo

Looking at the crumbling wall of resolve as we dismantle lockdown reminds me of Walter Mischel’s famous experiment testing children’s ability to delay eating a marshmallow when promised a second one after a short period as a reward for the delay. By tracking later lives, the conclusion was the restraint was linked closely to later success.

We’ve spent the last fifty years building an economy based on marginal dissatisfaction, and more lately that whatever we want can be delivered now. Right now. Marshmallow on demand. Restraint as a bad thing.

So when we coop people up for three months (with good reason) in order to “flatten the curve”, and then open the door to that coop we can hardly be surprised at the response. We seem to have a binary response – we’ve been good at accepting being cooped up, but then when we’re not, we’re very not.

The “guided by science” line has been quickly replaced to something along the lines of “guided by the economy”, and in particular those with loud voices in sectors like travel.

We do not know what will happen next.

When you declare yourself an unwilling victim of a known risk, you have postured yourself as a poor loser in a game you chose to play.

Ben Zander, Art of Possibility.

We have learned so many valuable lessons during the last three months.

  • That just because we can’t forecast exactly when something is going to happen doesn’t mean we shouldn’t plan for it seriously.
  • That extended supply chains run on just in time principles are great for efficiency, but not for dealing with the unexpected.
  • That we should pick those we have to rely on rather more carefully.
  • That many things we got into the habit of thinking vital for our day to day lives, from disposable fashion to long commutes, just aren’t.
  • That when it comes to survival, publicly owned businesses will obey their fiduciary duty to protect shareholders.
  • When it comes to shock absorbers, it’s not the balance sheet that takes the hit when the pressure’s on. It’s us.
  • What real disruption feels like.
  • That there are further, bigger issues on the horizon and that going back to a system that was precipitating them is not a good idea.

We also know just how resourceful we are under pressure, and the lengths that people will go to to look after each other that has nothing to do with money and far more to do with a sense of shared humanity. We all have a story of this.

We can build a better recovery, by creating businesses that have learned the lessons. Busineses that are less fragile, more genuinely agile and more committed to the people in them. Businesses that support communities. Beautiful Busineses

It leaves us with a quandary. I’m not sure we can make ugly businesses beautiful. Consultancy Botox and Surgery only ever deals with the surface.

Beauty is a function of soul and a deep seated sense of service, contribution and possibility and that’s a very challenging retrofit.

We can however create them.

That requires some powerful conversations between those who want to do it, as well as a new type of leadership.

If we don’t start now, when will we?

I never liked marshmallows anyway.

A New Age of Self Reliance?



Out of my office at home I am lucky to be able to look down the hill to the River Derwent. Four miles downstream is the first powered factory in the World, open in 1719 based on technology “borrowed” from an Italian. Fifteen miles upstream is Arkwright’s Mill, one of the main driving forces as the first Industrial Revolution got underway in 1769, fifty years later and peaked fifty years after that in 1820.

It’s been said that we don’t really know there’s been a revolution until after it’s happened, and I’m sure that if we’d been part of one of the six generations born during the one hundred and fifty years it took for the industrial revolution to go from first embers to full realisation, that may have been the case, as we only experienced a part of the whole, and our part of represented our “normal.

During that 150 year transition, we experienced the “cottage industry” as the potential for large scale manufacture met agrarian infrastructure. Bits of manufacture were outsourced, creating real wealth, for weavers in particular, until Arkwright’s Mill started the next stage that made them for many years irrelevant. Skilled weavers were, for a time at least – several decades – replaced by children. It appears that the location of Arkwright’s mill was at partially based on the ready supply of children.

All around me are the houses and villages that supported those cottage industries. I live in one of them. 

Now, it feels like a reversal of the process as the previously “permanent” mills and factories were hit, in my lifetime, first by globalisation, then technology, then coronavirus. Concentrations of many people in small areas seems unlikely to return at scale as we discover those houses that supported cottage industry during the industrial revolution’s advance are also supporting the changes during it’s retreat. Covid-19 has catalysed the realisation that offices based on an industrial paradigm are no longer necessary, or for many, desirable.

Cottage Industry 2.0

For those that have them, valuable skills are migrating away from offices and back into the home. Office politics has been dealt a blow as the occupant of the corner office can only be seen for what she actually does, rather than for the presence she creates in doing it. Zoom is something of a leveller.

Also fading are those areas, that like the froth on a cappuccino add little to the substance of the creative caffeine. Just as the tea trolley morphed expensively into Starbucks and Subway for a while, so the pleasure, freedom and saving of being your own Barista returns with Cottage Industry 2.0

Along with the changes comes a slow, but quickening realisation. The need for self reliance. Not of the macho, survivalist variety but more of the quiet, confident sort. A knowledge that what we do is valuable, needed and adaptable as our society goes through the decades that will define our working lives.

The weavers who were first fleetingly wealthy, then destitute as the first industrial revolution progressed later came back into a form of prosperity as the scale of the weaving machines grew, and needed people supervising them who understood the craft of weaving.

We are perhaps in a similar process as AI replaces what were previously skilled jobs based on process from routine accounting, to aspects of legal practice, to machine operators. The prospects of nearly half of skilled jobs being replaced by AI are probably wide of the mark, but if they are only half right, the impact will still be huge in an economy dominated by services.

Self Reliance

For the last fifty years, the growth of the economy around me has been fuelled by the decline of manufacturing and the growth of service jobs that are hosted by a declining but pivotal core of skilled jobs in innovative sectors that generate sustainable value. 

Engineering in many forms from Aero to Software, which attractaround them far more transient services that provide to their needs, but do not themselves generate lasting value. A coffee, is a coffee, is a coffee. Half Life? Around five minutes. Residual value? The negative value of cup recycling cost. The transferable skills of a Barista? Limited. 

That, of course is no reflection on the Barista. There are in my view three things that shape us:

  • We are all full of different talents that we are given, but shaped by an education system that often doesn’t value them. 
  • The skills we acquire, that may or mat not leverage our talents, but which are none the less valuable.
  • Who we work with or for, who may value only part of the skills we have acquired, or the talents we were born with. Great employers allow these hidden things to flourish, poor ones don’t  – they just want the job done.

This is where self reliance comes in. 

After all, as the line in Invictus exhorts us, we are the captains of our fate, and the masters of or souls, and as Ta’Mara Leigh reminds us, “nobody is coming to rescue us

That being the case, in the current (and likely to be chronic) period of uncertainty, there are three things we can do:

  1. Listen to our talents. They exist, and you were born with them. You know when they are present because of how you feel, and the fleeting pleasure you get. Pay attention to them 
  2. Acquire skills that matter. If you’re a Barista, become a great one. Learn every aspect of coffee. Develop mastery. There are hundreds of thousands of High St shop Baristas, but very few great ones. The skills that seem likely to be in greatest demand during uncertainty are those around communication, empathy and leadership – the real sort, not the label. Merchants of hope who can inspire and support. 
  3. Be aware of your surroundings. Remember Jim Rohn’s line that we become the average of the five people we most associate with. That includes the organisation that employs you. Aspire and move to working with those that bring out the best in you, and tolerate any other sort only as long as you really, really must.

In the midst of the current uncertainty, there are huge opportunities to reshape what we do, to let our talents out to play, and to acquire and practice new skills. 

The people around you need you to do it. So do the rest of us. 

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