In light of Brexit and Trump, are we really listening to the wisdom of crowds?
So, Donald J Trump just became President-elect of the United States of the America and, as was the case in Britain after Brexit, half of the United States population (and all of the mainstream media) is currently struggling to accept the result.
In the Liddiard household, which thanks to my Californian wife identifies as 50% American (and a quarter Filipino), I watched BBC News over breakfast this morning in quiet disbelief. It wasn’t so much a shock to me that the American people could vote for Trump’s politics over Clinton’s (my intention in this blog isn’t to express a political opinion), but rather I was shocked that my social media and professional connections gave me so little advance warning of the outcome. I am a voracious reader, am active on social media and take an interest in current affairs – apparently none of that gives me an edge when it comes to understanding modern geopolitics.
The question I find myself now asking is this: does occupying a privileged socio-economic group (small business owner, with a professional background and multinational family) disadvantage me when it comes to understanding the world in which I live and work? Of course, I have opinions on the world – informed by the people I meet and the content I consume – but maybe that isn’t the same as understanding the reality beyond my horizons.
It is for this reason that I still believe leaders should always try to take account of the wisdom of the crowd before making unilateral decisions. In a world full of “black swan” risks, you often don’t know what you do not know. We are each a product of our environment and there will be many times when complex decisions require a breadth of perspective that no one person, or small group of decision makers, can hold.
I am not, of course, suggesting that leaders should always go with the consensus. There are many occasions when a leader should make a hard contrary call, such as when Andy Grove, CEO of Intel, famously exited the memory chips business and refocused the company on microprocessors. He took this executive action against the will of most of his colleagues, but in the process he secured a market-leading position in personal computers alongside Microsoft for twenty long, profitable years.
Whether you let the crowd decide or seek to persuade it to follow your contrary instincts, communication is always the key. Leaders need to be able to hear, and be heard by, people operating at the thick base of their organisational pyramid. Messages in both directions too often get “massaged” by other vested interests.
Today feels like a good day to reflect on what more we can all do more to engender trust, understanding and respect between leaders and the people they lead – in society and the workplace.