We live in a world of abundance – an abundance of ideas, data and information. The challenge is there is so much information that leaders can be overwhelmed. As the noted economist and Nobel laureate Herbert Simon said, we are living in a world with a “wealth of information”, which is creating “a poverty of attention”.
It can be hard for leaders to know where to focus their attention, and too much information often leads to a paucity of knowledge and insights, which are relevant and useful. Discernment, critical assessment and judgement become more important than ever for leaders. Core to those attributes is the need to be sceptical.
Scepticism’s positive side
The dictionary defines a sceptic as someone who is not easily convinced or has doubts or reservations. It’s easy to paint the sceptic in a negative light – as the person who’s cynical and therefore to be dismissed.
In fact, being sceptical means a person is curious. They recognise they don’t have all the answers. They embrace a growth mindset, rather than having a fixed idea or opinion. In doing this, they question, rather than judge. They explore ideas, and critically examine and ponder upon assumptions and expectations, rather than jumping to conclusions.
They also recognise that in a complex, changing world there often isn’t one right answer – but multiple ways an issue can be approached and potentially solved.
Robust debate matters
In today’s interconnected and increasingly ambiguous world, having access to a diverse range of views and engaging in robust debate where ideas are questioned is important for our society, organisations and individuals.
In a democratic society, encouraging and facilitating discussions where everyone has a voice and feels heard is critical for its healthy functioning.
Informed and reasoned discussions where all sides of a position are tabled help organisations make more sustainable and effective decisions.
It’s good to have our thoughts and ideas challenged as it improves our thinking and reminds us of our bias and the need to be open to other people’s opinions.
Being more sceptical
When a leader is sceptical they take the time to ensure they are:
- Considering – what’s happening around them and reflect on what they are seeing and hearing, and therefore what action they should take.
- Challenging – assumptions they and others may have to ensure they are making a good decision and are being open to dissenting views and outlier opinions.
- Checking – their facts and interpretations of those facts because they are acutely aware of the bias that may impact their thought processes and decisions.
As a leader, you play a critical role in helping to create the right environment where people around you can challenge, debate and explore ideas and concepts. It is in this type of culture that the best ideas flourish and better decisions are made.
As the great 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot said: “Scepticism is the first step towards truth.”
As a leader, what will your first step be?