The contamination of inspiring leadership

Inspiring leaders; ones that articulate a vision, share their views honestly, praise where it is due, challenge when needed, lead authentically.

These sorts of things are what is often aspired to in organisations, businesses, books. I worry about how aware we really are about the risks that this opens up. In particular, it is the risk of the impact on our ability to think clearly and make great decisions because of how we will be biased by that ‘inspirational leaders’ views and opinions.

As a watcher of people and their interactions I witnessed a great example of this recently. The leader in question is truly inspirational and yet this was having a dramatic impact on the people in the meeting. When agenda items were being discussed or debates had, nearly everyone was watching this guy to see what his views and opinions were, so that their input was never going to be too far from his.

The technical term for this is the ‘anchoring heuristic’. The official definition would be:

“In many situations, people make estimates by starting from an initial value that is adjusted to yield the final answer.” Tversky & Kahneman 1974

So in this context the initial value is the view and opinion of the inspirational leader and then everyone adjusts their opinion/view/standpoint/response to that value. It’s like having all the colours in the rainbow open to you and then once someone says the colour needed is green, the discussion is all about what shade of green rather than what looking at the beautiful rainbow.


The trouble is this is full of inherent danger. All the thinking and focus will be on a point that is created by one person in a group or team. What of they are wrong? How does that pan out if their judgement is subject in the first place? What if consciously and deliberately they want to achieve a goal or outcome?

The perceived consensual and discussion based decision making process has been completely skewed by one persons opinion. This:

– Limits creativity
– Removes challenge
– Disempowers others
– Reinforces the status quo
– Creates an autocratic, dictatorial leadership style (maybe I’m taking it too far there)

The point is that the very things the inspiring leader is wanting to create are undone by his inspirational influence.

The concern for the impact on the team and the business in this example was so great I sat down with this leader and we spent over an hour discussing this, it’s impact and what we needed to do about it.

We discussed that the team had, in the past, agreed that there needed to be challenge to each other and robust discussion. The trouble was it wasn’t happening. In a team of eleven I saw one person actively fighting this natural human psychological phenomenon. That is simply too small a number.

Heuristics are thinking based shortcuts that we as humans have developed to make our lives easier. The challenge is how aware of them are we and what are we actively doing to make sure they aren’t actually making our lives more difficult.

What thinking shortcuts are you taking?
How are you going to manage the risks of heuristics?

The brilliant blogger Doug Shaw (@dougshaw1 on Twitter) also wrote a blog on this topic, from a slightly different standpoint and you can find it here.


2 responses to “The contamination of inspiring leadership

  1. Excellent blog and i can really agree with it.
    This is why some leaders stay quiet and observe and listen, before making their views known. Another approach is to play devils advocate and argue the alternatives and another is to ask “10 whys” to see where you get to.

    • Thanks for your comment Alison and I agree that there are different strategies that leaders can use. At the heart of it is self awareness. To what extent am I, as a leader, aware of the impact I am having on this team or groups ability to think, debate and make decisions. Then, choosing the most appropriate strategy for that situation.

      Thanks again


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