In the bright sunshine of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, a group of ‘leaders’ were about to get their arse handed to them on a plate. Unfortunately for me, I was one of them.
The scenario will be familiar to anyone who has ever been through a corporate induction process. We were playing a low-stakes game, using a few sheets of paper to move about a dozen people from one side of a lawn to the other without touching the grass. My – then supremely confident – band of lawn surfers had chosen a decorated military officer to lead us. He’d truly faced no greater challenge.
But within two minutes, our dreams of victory had been smashed. Badly. Nursing our bruised egos we retreated to debrief. After some (too many) people had decided to voice an opinion, we finally turned back to our appointed leader. How had we differed from the teams he usually led? Attempting not to guffaw and mustering every ounce of politeness 20 years in the military had imbued, he responded “normally when people ask me to lead them, when I suggest they do something, they follow.” He was right.
Surveying the response of many leaders to COVID-19 has reminded me of this story. The extent to which people who think of themselves as leaders undervalue followership, or consider the two mutually incompatible. The US military is one of the few places anywhere in the world with classes in followership – the shrewd observation from that officer may not have been by chance.
“We can’t all be leaders all the time. In the time of coronavirus, many traditional leaders are being usurped by new voices.”
This is despite the patently obvious. We can’t all be leaders all the time. In the time of coronavirus, many traditional leaders are being usurped by new voices. A decline in power is rarely something that sits comfortably. Because leaders are people who like to do things and bring about change, many are now searching for solutions to see how they can help; when the answer is to stay home, not meet people and save lives, it’s both boring and counterintuitive.
The psychologist Philip Tetlock’s work examines how good we are at forecasting with some fairly depressing conclusions. Somewhat famously, he found that in most situations, a dart-throwing chimpanzee would be right more often than a human at making a prediction. This work informed Michael Gove’s infamous claim in the Brexit referendum that people have “had enough of experts” (Tetlock went on to describe this as a “dangerous distortion” of his work). We never stopped trusting scientists and doctors on health issues.
Tetlock reinvigorated Isiah Berlin’s suggestion that there are generally two types of people – foxes and hedgehogs. He links this to their ability to predict and update their preferences, and predict what will happen.
“…in most situations, a dart-throwing chimpanzee would be right more often than a human at making a prediction.”
Hedgehogs give certainty, they are confident of their views and unlikely to update them. They’ll double down on positions when they have them. You can recognise hedgehogs from our TV screens, where they are often pundits who generate a following. We like them because they tell simple stories.
Hedgehogs have some typical ‘tells’ in the phrases they use to reassert a position – ‘Furthermore’. ‘Moreover’. It will all link back to one big sweeping idea. You are unlikely to find traces of uncertainty, and the viewing public like this. It helps us process day-to
–day life. In a world where we are learning quickly, and much is uncertain, these leadership skills become less useful and, at worst, potentially damaging. For people used to being followed, not doing the following, that can be awkward.
Instead, the foxes come to the fore – or at least they should. They are less likely to try and fit events into their existing worldview. They find it easier to update their beliefs to say either ‘I don’t know’, or ‘I got that wrong’ – a marked contrast to the hedgehogs. Yet, as Tetlock identifies, most of our leaders are hedgehogs. He has wryly pointed out that includes many of those with MBAs or who fill leadership roles where I live in Silicon Valley.
In recent weeks, the Bay Area and wider internet has felt awash with people who are certain of their expertise in epidemiology, despite weeks earlier being experts in something only tangentially related. When basic errors are pointed out to them, they double down. Admitting you were wrong or simply don’t know, when you are used to commanding the room, is not something humans are very good at doing or rewarding.
“Admitting you were wrong or simply don’t know, when you are used to commanding the room, is not something humans are very good at doing or rewarding.”
Of course, part of this is a conditioning to try and answer a question when it is put to us. It feels polite even if the situation is absurd. When Guy Goma arrived for an interview to be an accountant at the BBC, he was mistaken for a technology expert also named Guy. Goma realised the error as the live interview began. His initial alarm subsided and rather than correcting the announcer or answering ‘I don’t know’ to questions he was uncertain of, Goma – not wanting to make a scene – attempted to predict future patterns in internet security.
Leah Hager Cohen delves into this phenomenon in her book I Don’t Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn’t). She recalls school, where telling someone you didn’t understand the question or that you weren’t certain of the answer would lead to lower grades. Instead, you’re rewarded for bluffing. I’ll confess to having bluffed occasionally myself.
But there is a second reason Cohen identifies as a blocker for saying ‘I don’t know’. Having an answer, even the wrong answer, can make us feel useful and give purpose. While languishing at home trying to fight an invisible enemy, the temptation to find a purpose and try to help is strong. If you are naturally one of Tetlock’s foxes, it becomes more likely still.
So people search for answers, undertake rudimentary analysis in incredibly complex areas, then try to apply it with certainty to a sphere they know little about. When these can catch fire and be widely shared through WhatsApp groups and social media they become dangerous.
“Having an answer, even the wrong answer, can make us feel useful and give purpose.”
Epidemiology and medicine more broadly have some particularly high barriers to entry. It’s a complex area, even when broken down by professionals and master communicators. Medical testing and research also, rightly, has high bars to involvement. We should all be grateful that trials are well considered, critiqued, and evaluated by experts and regulators before being deployed on humans. Otherwise, suggestions subsequently claimed as jokes could be taken seriously, and we may be injecting disinfectant.
Indications are that stress and anxiety during lockdown are rising dramatically. These are triggered more by uncertainty – we don’t know when we will emerge from lockdown; we don’t know what will happen with a second wave, or if there will be one. We don’t know if there will be a vaccine or when that vaccine will be produced, what will happen with our jobs, or when we will see our family or colleagues again. There are many, many things that we don’t know.
We look for certainty, and we look for people who can give it to us. But good leaders should not offer guaranteed certainty in these times. Because they really don’t know. Nor should we want them to. Once you have staked yourself to a position, updating it is hard, even if the facts change, and especially if you are a hedgehog.
That’s not to say people should go without question. The retooling of machines and people adapting existing knowledge to new scenarios is hugely important and part of a tremendous response. But, this is a time when some of the best leadership is likely to be followership of people we are not used to recognising as leaders.