Search online for great leadership and you will find hundreds of articles outlining the characteristics, traits and skills great leaders possess. Many of the venerated qualities (e.g., honesty, passion, ability to delegate) repeatedly appear even when interpreted through varying lenses.
There is one leadership quality, however, that many of these lists hint at, but neglect to name outright. I’d argue that it is an essential discipline for leaders in the 21st century.
Great leaders ask for and show an openness to dissenting and alternative views.
This discipline (and it is a discipline requiring practice and behavioral alignment) can make the difference in whether a leader is prepared for shifts in markets, aware of changing perceptions and accountable for his or her own limitations.
Dissenting views never hold the whole truth. Nor does any view for that matter. But, if leaders can openly look for what truths dissenting and alternative views may offer, they will begin to see threats and opportunities that may have eluded them previously.
Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, intentionally looks to hire his weaknesses. That is an important first step to demonstrating an openness to dissenting and alternative views. Deliberately surround yourself with people who bring skills and expertise that aren’t among your strengths.
It’s not enough though. You have to ask your colleagues to weigh in with alternative views. Ask questions like, “What views are not being represented here?” or “Are there obstacles that we have not considered?” Pose questions that allow people to either share their own concerns or those expressed by others. I find it helpful to dedicate time in staff meetings for rumors, concerns and potential problems for this very reason. It helps unearth what may not be easy to say.
When what is shared runs contrary to your own beliefs, explore why. Questioning your own mindset and the reasons behind others’ perceptions is essential to understanding what you may have to address in order to achieve your goals.
Finally, honor and respect those with the courage to speak up. Even if you disagree, valuing people brave enough to reveal contrasting views will keep you from being blind to the unknown.
It’s the unknown that threatens the future of any organization. Fortunately, the unknown may be more knowable than realized. A leader’s best defense against it is an openness to dissenting and alternative views.
Closing note: This post was inspired by a number of conversations I’ve had with colleagues lately as well as an post titled “Why We Ignore the Obvious: The Psychology of Willful Blindness” by the amazing Maria Popova on Brain Pickings.