Start With Another Narrative: Leadership for the Information Age
By Matt Offord
At the end of my presentation, I looked over the rows of young military officers and I realised that I had failed to convince them that I could offer them anything new on the subject of leadership. I had failed to create that moment, an opportunity for them to think about leadership in a different way. It was a blow. I had been studying leadership in one way or another for my whole working life, three decades. I was thinking of moving into the world of leadership development full time. But if this was anything to go by, nobody was going to buy it. I received letters of thanks from the students of the Joint Services Command and Staff College and the lecture had gone OK. Even so, I knew I had not done the subject justice.
This moment, although painful, was a critical time in my life-long exploration of leadership. I realised that I was not at the end of my mission to understand leadership. I was still near the beginning. The journey began in the energy-sapping horizontal rain of Dartmoor in 1989 as a Midshipman at the Britannia Royal Naval College (Dartmouth) It was a grueling leadership assessment. Before this we learned about John Adair’s Action-Centred Leadership. I had not won any plaudits for my leadership and passed after a lot of hard work.
However, I found that NATO Warning Orders and Action Centred Leadership didn’t have much to do with the leadership I needed in the Navy. I found myself operating in the Northern Arabian Gulf alongside US mine-hunters, helicopters and dolphins (yes, they brought dolphins). It was my first taste of network centric warfare. It was baptism of leadership in the Information Age. The coordination happened in cyber space. It was more about collaboration than command and control.
As a Hudson Fellow at Oxford University, I returned to those bleak moors to observe officer cadets from Dartmouth conduct their leadership training using Adair and the Seven Questions. We tend to sneer at the leadership models taught to us in training. This because we have grown beyond them. It doesn’t mean they don’t have a purpose in helping us grow in the first place. But all these models were developed before 2001, before agility and the asymmetric warfare world of today. We need a new tool, that is simple but also works in the Information Age. It is pointless trying to work through the 7 questions when you are data-bound before you can answer the first one.
This is where a new perspective is needed, one I have called SWAN – Start With Another Narrative.
Not all our whys are right
Start With Another Narrative is a tool to help leaders unravel problems in the Information Age.
Simon Sinek tells us to Start with Why. He gets straight to the point with an elegant and extendable meme. It is simple and applicable in most, if not all situations. It is, without doubt, a work of genius.
But I have often worked in situations where the ‘why’ is fully understood. The problem is, those ‘whys’ are not always right. Many organisations are rife with narrative fallacies. “This is why it doesn’t work, it is because of the programme, the heat, the rain, etc.”
I find that the content of my research (leadership theories and models) cannot help because people believe the problems they face are unsolvable, based on the narratives they have written for themselves. This is becoming increasingly the case as the limitations of classical strategy and top-down leadership are becoming better known. The problem is that the complexity of the Information Age becomes an excuse for being unable to solve problems.
Matthew Syed’s fantastic book Black Box Thinking explains the power of narrative fallacies to do harm. Specifically, Black Box Thinking explores the influence that false (but compelling) narratives have in driving us towards the wrong decisions. A good way to escape this trap is to Start With Another Narrative and test it to destruction.
When I work with companies, I find myself drawing not on my research but the methods I used. I found myself naturally, by dint of my experience, using data to contradict firmly held beliefs and develop alternative narratives.
I realised the ability to refute narrative fallacies and unravel complexity is a key skill. It enables leaders to emerge, especially in the Information Age. The way leaders often do this is to test new theories, to allow failures if the team learns from them. In other words, the methods I used in my research were actually ‘leadership in practice’. They were more important than leadership models.
Be a SWAN leader
So, how can you help your organisation sweep away myth and focus on relevant knowledge? It has nothing to do with paddling like mad beneath the water and gliding gracefully on the surface (although that might help too). Start With Another Narrative means the following.
- Ask difficult questions – It is too easy to go with the flow. Chances are that if you don’t understand something, others do not either. Or it is a narrative fallacy that everyone believes without evidence?
- Identify false narratives – This requires critical thinking skills. Military Estimates can be a tool to identify false narratives but be careful you are not affected by confirmation bias. Look for information that does not fit the narrative
- Challenge – Be prepared to challenge, manage upwards, or to challenge your peers.
- Consider new possibilities – Construct a new narrative based on critical thinking from the first stage. Be prepared to test the new narrative as well as the old (i.e. carry out the process again until you have a tried and tested awareness of the situation).
Start With Another Narrative is a simple way to practice this leadership. Be sceptical about the narratives you find in your organisation: test alternatives, fail and learn. It is important to understand that the process is cyclical and continuous. New narratives must be tested because they too may be wrong or become obsolete as the situation changes. This is how leaders will survive in the Information Age. So yes, theories are important but leaders need those theories to be simple and practical. SWAN is a practical leadership tool which is easy to understand and apply.
I wish I had thought of it before I spoke to that group of bright young officers, but failure is the only way to learn.
Matt Offord is Director of Coscoroba Consulting and uses SWAN as a method of identifying and enabling change and better performance in businesses. You can find out more at www.consultcoscoroba.com
If you want to learn the importance of leading with a story, and what on earth ‘Dunbar numbers’ are, then read more about story telling in Spinning a Dit: Leadership and Storytelling