The Leadership Trap of Flat Earth Thinking

earthIt was 16 February 1600 and a crowd had gathered to watch Italian friar, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer Giordano Bruno being burnt at the stake having been condemned as a heretic. To go against the ‘truth’ as the church defined it was to run the risk of being labelled a heretic. Copernicus was also condemned as a heretic and met a similar fate as that of Bruno – also in 1600. It seemed to be a busy year for the church!

Their crime? They proposed ‘new truths’ about the universe and how it worked at a time when the church believed the earth was both flat and the centre of the universe. Of course we now know that both Bruno and Copernicus were on the right path in believing what they did, but that counted for little when stacked against the prevailing status quo – the  ‘truth’ of the day.

Recently I was having breakfast with a mentor who has been a constant source of encouragement, challenge, resource and example when an interesting conversation unfolded.  It started with me asking him what he thought represented today’s ‘flat earth thinking’. When the future looks at our current era and context, what will they consider to be our ignorance in the light of what they already know? It is the kind of question (and discussion) that immediately tends to suspend the present and allows one to look from the outside in as it were. It creates a different perspective and can lead to some interesting debate and discussion. It certainly did in this instance.

Flat earth thinking flourishes in every era. One of the more important leadership responsibilities is for leaders to identify such thinking and be able to lead their organization away from the precipice that inherently comes with a flat earth belief. This is easier said than done. The forces invariably opposing any new thinking have marshalled in their corner the majority, the status quo and conventional wisdom.  It is a formidable array of weaponry to have at one’s disposal!

There is no silver bullet when it comes to changing a business. Change processes are a dime a dozen and certainly there is no shortage of resources when it comes to embarking on any change initiative. Today, change is big business. Certainly this is justified when considering the context in which businesses operate – it is one of ubiquitous, non-linear and constant change. Turbulence is the new norm and leaders had best learn to fly in such conditions if they are to succeed going forward.

Flat earth thinking flourishes when the current dogma goes unchallenged. Dogma can be described as ‘perceived truth’. Calling out ‘perceived truth’ is risky business. Certainly it is likely to have career inhibiting consequences and as a result, there seem to be few willing to run the risks involved in challenging current ‘wisdom’ and the prevailing worldviews, whatever they may be. But if we are to move forward this is precisely what we have to do. As Abraham Lincoln said to the American Congress in the December of 1862, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As the situation is new so we must think anew and we must act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves if we are to save our country”. 

Decoupling or ‘disenthralling’ oneself from favourite methodology, pet theories or simply well worn traditions that have outlived their usefulness and purpose, is never easy. Yet this is what the work of challenging flat earth thinking entails. In furthering this discussion with a client from a major law firm, he added a valuable insight into why it is that dogma is so difficult to let go of or to challenge. “It becomes dogma because you live it. You don’t choose it at the outset, it becomes such over time as you come to defend it and so start to live it” he said. He is right.

There are three things that leaders can utilize to counter flat earth thinking. 

  1. Curiosity. I believe the enemy of dogma – of flat earth thinking, is curiosity. The presence of curiosity will always mean that things that are taken for granted will be challenged. Children are born curious but then as then enter formal education that natural gift that is curiosity is educated out of them. Educator Ken Robinson has a wonderful TED Talk on the subject and it is hard to argue with his point that we in fact steer our children away for their inborn curiosity in the pursuit of educational objectives. Smart leaders look to nurture and foster curiosity within the DNA of their organisations. Smart leaders understand that well directed curiosity can lead to wonderful things and so they actively encourage such, believing there is always a better way to do things. Here might be an interesting exercise for you to conduct: at your next team meeting, count the number of questions asked without telling the participants what it is you are doing. It might be worth recording the actual questions asked and then categorising and evaluating them. Questions for the sake of questions aren’t always helpful. Learning how to pose the ‘right’ question is the art that needs developing. This might take time but one has to start somewhere in the quest for quality questions as a natural ingredient in your meeting mix.
  2. Courage. If you are going to be curious, courage will be required. Courage means that you are willing to live with the consequences of where your questions and subsequent actions might lead you. Courage means you are not prepared to play the political games that characterise many work environments; courage means that you are willing to be wrong; courage means that you value authenticity; courage demands values – values that serve to anchor your curiosity and that provide reassurance to others who choose to follow you into the unknown, into the unchartered territory.
  3. Commitment. Leaders need to be committed to the process that challenging flat earth thinking will require. We live in work environments dominated by programmes and quick fixes. There is often little appreciation or patience for things that require process. Commitment means an appreciation for processes and the willingness to see things through – even though it may take time and no small amount of effort. To challenge prevailing wisdom and turning that into a new way of seeing / doing / being is seldom instantaneous or done easily. Disruptive processes are the lifeblood of innovation and newness and what such processes look like requires wisdom, perspective and…commitment.

Curiosity, courage and commitment may not seem the ideal ‘how to’ tools to add to your leadership toolkit. However if you are willing to start with curiosity you will quickly discover the need and importance of courage and commitment! You might well have further suggestions to assist you in your quest to identify and challenge the flat earth thinking that marks your environment. I hope that next time you are in a meeting that you will start to filter the conversation and ask yourself whether or not what is being said is representative of flat earth thinking. Identifying the presence of flat earth thinking within your team and the willingness to challenge it might just be your GPS to navigating the future!

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3 Responses to “The Leadership Trap of Flat Earth Thinking”

  1. Dr Billy Coop January 28, 2013 at 1:29 pm #

    Hi Keith, Great article – I would add to it a word that I believe is also sadly lacking namely, “discipline” – the discipline of applying curiosity, courage and commitment. There is so much “what” and far too little “how”.

    • Keith Coats January 28, 2013 at 4:07 pm #

      Thanks Billy. I really like that addition and think you are spot on with the perspective of curiosity being a discipline. For some it (curiosity) is a far more ‘natural state of being’ (thinking here of Enneagram types) but for those who aren’t this way inclined, discipline is a great way to see it. Appreciate your comment.

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