From a recent column in the TJ:
A few months ago Nadine Duguay, Executive Director of 21 Inc., asked me if I would be interested in speaking at the Emerging Leaders Summit. The 50 Emerging Leaders program is an initiative of 21 Inc. set up to cultivate a new generation of leaders across Atlantic Canada. The summit was held last week in Digby, Nova Scotia.
Instead of just speaking to the group, I decided to put them through an exercise I called a ‘role reversal debate’.
I am convinced it is getting harder than ever to make good, thoughtful decisions related to public policy and also strategic direction in the business world.
Leaders are bombarded with information from all sides. At our fingertips we have access to more data than ever before – much of it pure junk. I personally receive over 100 emails and attempt to sift through a Twitter stream of several hundred posts every single day. This is on top of my efforts to monitor key media sources and read important news stories.
There is mounting evidence that faced with this information overload, leaders are reverting to intuition and snap decision making more than ever before. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel prize winner in economics, does an excellent job of describing this kind of fast decision making in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.
My objective with the Emerging Leaders was to help them move beyond intuitive thinking and snap judgements.
I provided them with a list of controversial public policy topics and they were asked to evaluate them and pick the one they felt the most passionate about. I then grouped them in likeminded teams and asked them to develop the arguments against their strongly held point of view.
I wasn’t sure how this exercise would work out. Here was a group of 50 ambitious, smart and savvy young people and I was asking them to put aside their strongly held views on a subject and argue the exact opposite position.
They did an outstanding job of it. The teams threw themselves into the exercise although some were visibly awkward making their case. Most of these leaders are charismatic, comfortable speaking in front of crowds and quick thinkers.
We had urban advocates making a powerful argument in favour of focusing on rural development. There were social advocates making the case for cuts to social assistance benefits. Some of the business leaders among the group had to argue in favour of raising taxes on higher income earners and a team of environmentally-focused leaders had to argue the merits of a large fish farming project off the coast of Nova Scotia.
The point of the exercise was not to get people to change their mind on the issue at hand.
In democratic and non-coercive societies, big decisions tend to get made by consensus. If we are to get to a consensus view, we need to take the time to understand all the different points of view.
I wanted the emerging leaders to realize that nudging or moving people wholesale in your direction is helped by acknowledging they are not stupid and their positions have merit.
Eventually leaders have to make decisions – even tough decisions. One of the consequences of our information rich/insight poor society is that leaders are even more reluctant to make decisions as they fear the instant feedback.
Around a dozen of the emerging leaders told me they really appreciated the role reversal debate. They enjoyed being forced to step outside their comfort zone and methodically derive a set of arguments that made them uncomfortable as it was counterintuitive for them.
It was a mentally exhausting exercise but hopefully it will help them in some small way become better decision makers in the years ahead.
One of the young leaders jokingly said I should take this exercise on the road and put all of our politicians, bureaucrats and advocacy groups through the process.
It’s not a bad idea.