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Q&A on the Book Leading with Uncommon Sense

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Key Takeaways

  • Using "uncommon sense" requires leaders to look inward and examine themselves first and foremost.
  • Leading with uncommon sense requires resisting the impulse to act quickly.
  • Pausing doesn’t come easy or naturally, so it can be helpful to build in time for pausing.
  • Rich data can be mined from our emotions and our social identities.
  • Uncommon sense can be a useful approach for all of us to take regardless of our role in an organization.

The book Leading with Uncommon Sense by Wiley Davi and Duncan Spelman questions typical- and for many leaders familiar- approaches to leadership. It challenges "common sense” mainstream thinking about leadership and provides alternatives that require slowing down, engaging with our emotions, paying close attention to social identities, and embracing complexity.

InfoQ readers can download an extract of Leading with Uncommon Sense.

InfoQ interviewed Wiley Davi and Duncan Spelman about leading with uncommon sense.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Wiley Davi and Duncan Spelman: A number of things inspired us to write this book. For several years, we taught a leadership course at the MBA level. We have also offered Executive Education courses on this material both in the U.S. and abroad. Finally, we both have functioned in leadership positions, which motivated us to seek more effective approaches to leadership challenges we faced. In all of these experiences, we recognized a gap in many traditional approaches to leadership development.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Davi and Spelman: Primarily, the book is intended for individuals in leadership roles in organizations, whether they are highly experienced or just getting started. It is for those who hunger for ways to deal with the challenges of guiding, inspiring, and supporting their colleagues and moving their organizations forward. We believe the ideas presented here are relevant to leaders in all kinds of organizations – private sector, non-profit, and government; large, medium, and small; old and new; formal and informal. In addition, we became aware as we wrote it that it could be helpful in a variety of settings beyond work, for example in our personal lives, social lives, and other organizations.

InfoQ: How would you define "uncommon sense"?

Davi and Spelman: Typical common-sense leadership involves doing it now, being strong and decisive, not getting emotional, keeping social identities out of the picture, and projecting certainty. Uncommon-sense leadership is a mindset that questions these typical, familiar approaches to leadership. It requires the ability to recognize the ways of thinking that often are out of our awareness and then reframing them. It requires slowing down, engaging with our emotions, paying close attention to social identities, and embracing complexity. In particular, uncommon sense emphasizes leaders looking inward and examining the self, which is often neglected in common-sense leadership.

InfoQ: How does the practice of leading with uncommon sense look?

Davi and Spelman: It is a three-step practice that includes pausing, introspecting, and acting. It requires leaders to continually cycle through the three steps: pause, introspect and act. At the core of the practice is the need to slow down. Leaders can pause both in the moment when reacting to a difficult situation or in a planned, proactive way to prepare for challenges and to harvest learnings. When introspecting, leaders look inward and examine their own thoughts or feelings, carefully investigating what is happening with their thinking. Introspecting allows leaders to pay attention to four areas: recognizing what is outside of our awareness, learning from our emotions, tracking the impact of social identities, and embracing uncertainty. After investigating these four areas and gathering useful information, leaders are in a better position to take action. Finally, by pausing and introspecting, we argue that leaders are in a better position to take action. In addition, we know that leaders cannot allow themselves to be paralyzed by the complexities of any given moment and that they must have the courage to make decisions and take action in the very face of that complexity.

InfoQ: How can leaders build in pausing to become aware of what they are thinking and feeling?

Davi and Spelman: There is a range of activities leaders can take to build in pauses—from small to large, as well as from planned to unplanned. For example, leaders can consciously take a breath during a challenging conversation. They can set aside time to debrief at the end of meetings. They can also proactively put pauses into their calendar. They can schedule debriefing sessions after major projects. And if possible, they can take a sabbatical to give themselves significant time away.

InfoQ: How do emotions impact our perception and the decisions that we make?

Davi and Spelman: Our emotions affect and are affected by every aspect of our cognitive function, including our perceptions and decisions. Emotions can be thought of as the first screening of all information we receive. Emotions can contain wisdom developed over time about what we like or don’t like and what is rewarding or punishing for us. Without emotions, we cannot choose. As humans, we have a constant stream of emotions running through our lives. Depending on how much we pay attention to our emotions, they can make our perceptions and decisions more productive or cause significant distortions.

InfoQ: What can leaders do to become better at recognizing their emotions and managing their emotional energy?

Davi and Spelman: It’s important that leaders accept that emotions are, that they are always present rather than following the common-sense notion to suppress emotions and keep them out of leadership situations. Beyond that, it can be effective to engage in pausing techniques such as meditation to attend to our emotions and explore what they might be telling them. We recommend that leaders take advantage of periods of calm to pay attention to feelings. We advocate creating moments of solitude and silence in order to consciously retreat from outside stimuli. We explore other techniques such as charting emotions and identifying emotions in the body.

InfoQ: Why should we reject the common-sense notion that it is impolite to talk about things like race, religion, or sexual orientation?

Davi and Spelman: Social identities profoundly influence how we fit in society, how we see others, and how we see ourselves. It’s impossible to not notice these differences. They carry powerful stereotypes with them that we have been taught and that can profoundly affect how we behave, how we perceive others, and how we are perceived. In the book, we discuss the need to pay attention to how our identities are activated, especially when we are experiencing stereotype threat. We explore how our brains rely on chunking to process information, which can contribute to unexamined stereotypes. And leaders would be remiss to fail to recognize how social identities are associated with societal power or a lack thereof.

InfoQ: What can we do to increase our capacities for understanding and actively engaging with different social identities?

Davi and Spelman: The important thing is to engage in activities that focus inward and to explore your own social identities and the impact of them. For example, you can create a social identity profile that inventories your various social identities and how they affect your functioning as a leader. We advocate taking the Implicit Association Test to better understand how unconscious bias may be influencing our thinking. On a very basic level, we recommend broadening one’s awareness by reading. For example, at the moment, almost all of the books on the New York Times bestseller list are about racism in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. 

InfoQ: People usually prefer certainty over being uncertain. The book mentions being uncertain as an uncommon leadership idea. How can leaders benefit from being uncertain?

Davi and Spelman: Our unconscious brains claim more certainty than they can justify. Research demonstrates that we are routinely overconfident; in fact, economist Daniel Kahneman would eliminate the certainty bias first. It is our selective perception that contributes to this certainty. We jump to conclusions, resist new evidence, and are often unwilling to change our minds. Leaders would be wise to avoid the dangers of oversimplifying and coming to conclusions prematurely. Our brains push us toward certainty as they seek patterns in the environment that guide our behaviour. Such patterns are often artificial and suggest that the world is more stable than is actually true.

InfoQ: How do publicly reporting results from self-questioning help us to act?

Davi and Spelman: Action requires moving from intrapersonal to interpersonal. Reporting nudges you from introspection to action. By sharing the results of our introspecting, leaders give themselves a chance to get feedback and thereby improve their notions of how to proceed. Self-reporting helps leaders reveal details about their own perceptions, memories and decision shortcuts that they discovered by introspecting. Another by-product of this is that teams led by leaders who are willing to report what they learn from their introspections function more effectively. 

InfoQ: How can checklists help us to make better decisions?

Davi and Spelman: Checklists allow leaders to bring into awareness the influence of unconscious functioning, particularly when leaders have routine ways of doing things or have fallen into particular habits. All of our memories are faulty, and checklists provide a counterbalance to that. Checklists signal that we acknowledge that our brains are often overloaded, that our memory is frequently faulty, and that our decision-making can be unreliable.

InfoQ: Why is it so important to get enough sleep?

Davi and Spelman: When we sleep, we give our brain time to cleanse itself. It also flushes out toxins that develop during our waking hours. Sleep also helps us put our experiences in context. In addition, sleeping gives us a chance to reset our emotions and diminish painful emotions attached to certain memories.

About the Book Authors

Duncan Spelman is professor emeritus in the Management Department at Bentley University. His research and teaching center on diversity, intercultural competence, leadership, and organizational change. Spelman has written a book, numerous articles, cases, book chapters and book reviews, and has presented at many national and international conferences.  He served as chair of the Management Department, Bentley’s director of diversity for many years, and was founding director of Bentley’s Center for Excellence in Teaching.  Spelman is also an organizational consultant specializing in diversity and organizational renewal. He has consulted a wide variety of organizations including businesses, schools and universities, non-profits, and governmental agencies. He holds an A.B. in Sociology (Urban Affairs) from Princeton, an Ed.M. from Harvard, and a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from Case Western Reserve.

Wiley Davi is professor of English and Media Studies at Bentley University. Wiley serves as a diversity, equity, and inclusion facilitator for Bentley’s Center for Women and Business and for the Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations. Their teaching and research interests span the fields of writing, diversity, gender studies, leadership, and service-learning. They have published articles and delivered international conference presentations on the intersections of race, gender, leadership and teaching. Wiley’s interest in metacognition and leadership led them to co-design with Dr. Spelman an intensive leadership course in Bentley’s innovative MBA program. Wiley holds a Ph.D. from Tufts University in Massachusetts.

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