When and why do we need thought leaders?

14 February 2021 | 3 min read | News
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins

During times of crisis, such as the current pandemic, conflicting priorities will press business leaders into making strategic decisions often within the moment they are happening, in real time. At a Tortoise Media ThinkIn on crisis leadership on 22nd April 2020, former Prime Minister Tony Blair provided an excellent view which certainly resonated with me and will do so for many of you reading this, too.

Mr Blair stated that in a situation like the one we find ourselves embroiled right now leaders need to “operate in a completely different way.” He said: “This is a challenge of extraordinary scale. You are continually dealing with the problem of the moment and decisions that [ordinally] would take two months, are now brought down to two weeks.

“You also need a system in place that allows you to make a decision in two days, sometimes two hours.” Put another way, there are occasions when instantaneous rulings are called for, and times when considered thought is permissible.

There are two thought processes taking place here, and each demands a different approach. In psychology, decision making is often split into two camps – System 1 and System 2. Popularised by Daniel Kahneman in his seminal book, Thinking Fast, and Slow, each ‘system’ represents the dual approaches we each take when processing information.

“System 1,” Kahneman explains, “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.” Examples of System 1 in practice include the ability to quickly calculate the answer to 2+2, react with a look of disgust when shown a grotesque picture, or recognise hostility or sarcasm in someone’s voice.

It’s counterpart, System 2, “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations.” For example, completing a tax return, comparing one supplier with another, or considering the validity of a complex discussion.

In a crisis, there will be times when we need to react quickly and allow our automatic mode of thinking (System 1) to take centre stage. As such, the need for sound thought leadership content is lessened. This point is wonderfully illustrated in the brilliant book, Messengers.

Its authors, Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks argued that: “When someone is motivated to make a decision themselves and has the ability to do so, as well as access to the appropriate and relevant information, the need for an expert messenger [external thought leader] is reduced.”

However, when a more considered approach is required, that’s when System 2 kicks in and the role of thought leadership begins to take centre stage. As Messrs Martin and Marks put it, so-called ‘messengers’ (in this case, thought leaders) are called upon when “many of life’s decisions are tough ones that require us to make significant investments, in terms of our mental and physical resources.” They add: “When faced with such challenges, the easy option is to seek out the advice of competent others and defer to those messengers who appear to possess expertise.”

Thought leadership enables business leaders to make both immediate and considered decisions. They will often find that the insights they’ve consumed over time remain in their subconscious and are readily accessible when decisions need to be taken quickly or clarity is required in specific circumstances. When time is not critical, business leaders will invariably seek out sound thought leadership content that will enable them to increase their understanding of a subject and make better informed decisions.