Article: A great mind is a simple mind


A great mind is a simple mind

How do leaders think? Are their cognitive capacities superior to others, or do they have different ways of thinking?
A great mind is a simple mind

Leaders are driven both by cognitive shortcuts and a censoring mechanism that keeps rules of thumb updated and relevant


The real trick is to have a mental makeup that, firstly, attempts to reduce the wrong decisions, and, secondly, avoids feeling guilty on a decision gone bad


Have you ever wondered how the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies make decisions? Just to offer a perspective, their decisions impact the fortune of their companies in often irreversible manner, careers of scores of people and wellbeing of their families. And while doing so, they also manage their own health and families. For someone like Carlos Ghosn, the CEO of France-based Renault and Japan-based Nissan, one who singlehandedly brought about the turnaround of these two massive firms located in two continents, how do you think his day looks like? Well, not only his days and months would be packed, but he would also have almost no time to make decisions, yet his decisions would be some of the most seminal in the automobile industry. What would be his thinking style?

Now compare this with us, ordinary mortals. Right from deciding about what TV channel to watch, to picking a dress or the food to cook, our day is filled with incessant resolutions, which are often puzzling and time consuming. Yet we can’t escape the guilt of not having made the right decisions and of taking calls in a hurry. Remember, we are at best talking of a meagre financial loss, or of that of displeasure of a few loved ones. A far cry from the state of Carlos Ghosn, or, better still, Barack Obama. 

The question that begs an explanation, and an urgent one is how do leaders think? Are their cognitive capacities infinitely superior to others, or do they have different ways of thinking? Over the next few paragraphs I would offer some insights, emerging from the science of thinking and the field of management, on how thinking can be improved, especially under high levels of cognitive load. I have three practices to offer. First is that the leaders adopt simple rules, also known as heuristics, to make decisions; secondly, leaders avoid falling for the trap of guilt; and thirdly, leaders have unique ways of diffusing risks. Let me explain each in slight detail.

Heuristics that drive behaviour

We all adopt heuristics, or rules of thumb, to make decisions on a day to day basis. However, most of these unconscious rules lead to systematic biases, which should be avoided according to Nobel Laureate, Daniel Kahneman. However, there is another school of thought that suggests that under extreme cognitive load, heuristics deliver quicker and, surprisingly, better results. Leaders, over the years, manage to develop some impeccable rules of thumb that only refine with time. Since they have to make several decisions, and that too where failure could be catastrophic, leaders rely on such cognitive shortcuts. These are ‘if-then-that’ kind of shortcuts that seem to produce the right results more often than not. That’s why experience counts. 

However, the challenge with such heuristics is that they are context-specific. A great rule in one situation might produce an erroneous outcome in another. That’s why leaders have to be open to getting their rules validated from time to time, and from context to context, and that itself calls for adopting heuristics. Think of it as dynamic heuristics, which change with time, and which keeps the manager cognizant of when a certain rule is becoming counterproductive. So, leaders are driven both by cognitive shortcuts and a censoring mechanism that keeps such rules of thumb updated and relevant. 

Avoiding the guilt trap

Even with an extensive adoption of heuristic that helps in reducing the cognitive load, especially while faced with inordinate resource constraints (especially time), leaders are not immune to making mistakes. The very structure of the arrangement puts leaders into the risk of making mistakes with massive impacts. None of the mental shortcuts are always reliable, irrespective of the constant adaptation on the part of the leader. So how does the leader move on?

The real trick is to have a mental makeup that, firstly, attempts to reduce the wrong decisions, and, secondly, and more importantly, avoids feeling guilty on a decision gone bad. Guilt is a very powerful negative emotion. Leaders understand the importance of chancebetter than most, and that at the very time of decision making, the leader did best of what the leader could with the available information, and hence, with time, if more information comes by, there is no point in feeling bad about the decision made. In fact, with enough time and information any decision can be proven wrong by at least one set of stakeholders. The leaders are mentally strong to tide over the momentary feeling of ‘being wrong’, and then they move on to revising their heuristics and taking another decision. They understand the trap of sunk cost, or what behavioral scientists call ‘gamblers fallacy’ all too well.

Still the most powerful ability of a true leaders is the ability to diffuse risk.

Diffusing risk

There is a difference between outsourcing and collaborating, though the IT services industry continues to get carried away. Outsourcing is about passing on the risk, whereas collaborating is to do with jointly owning the risk. While successful leaders extensively adopt and continue to refine heuristics, and have developed a mental discipline to overcome the ‘guilt trap’, they also have a different perception of risk. Little doubt that some of the most successful leaders are good listeners and highly collaborative operators. Not only that, they listen to others intently but also consciously surround themselves with dissimilar people who mostly bring unique perspectives and, in totality, leave fewer stones unturned. 

The way leaders perceive and manage risk is remarkably different from ordinary people. By being surrounded with a wide variety of people, keeping an open eye and ear, being appreciative of others’ point of view, and backing your own decision with time honed heuristics, and a thick skin makes the leadership material.

That’s why I say that a great mind is a simple mind. It’s the simplicity that cuts through the clutter and offers some very insightful solutions to rather perplexing problems.

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Topics: Leadership, Leadership Development

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