Cognitive biases and effective leadership

My career started in the 1970s, with a three-day interview to assess whether I had the right qualities to join the armed forces. This involved the usual round of leaderless discussions, practical leadership exercises and written papers, finishing with an interview board, chaired by a senior officer. He began by asking me what I considered to be the most important quality in a leader. I smiled brightly and replied: “A sense of humour, Sir,” guessing that the board was tired of text-book answers involving ‘integrity’ or ‘decisiveness’.

My guess was spectacularly wrong. After an ominous pause, the board attacked ‘en masse’ and I spent the rest of the interview defending my position. I passed, probably in spite of my views, rather than because of them, but I now know that I was wrong. A sense of humour is a vital quality, but not the most important one. Years of leading men and women in dangerous situations have taught me that the most important thing is to know yourself.

That is easily said; the trick is to understand what it means. Knowing yourself includes understanding your strengths and working towards them. It also includes understanding your weaknesses and knowing how to manage them. It involves a life-long journey – knowing yourself today is not the same thing as knowing yourself on this day next year, as countless victims of hubris have demonstrated amply over the millennia.

Cognitive Biases and effective leadership
Managing cognitive biases – a bomb disposal operator puts his plan into action

There is, however, another aspect of knowing yourself which is harder to achieve. This is sometimes referred to as metacognition – or understanding how you think. This is difficult – and made much harder by the existence of cognitive biases… systematic corruptions in our thinking which lead us to believe that we are acting logically, when, in fact, we are not. As a commanding officer, I spent much of my time understanding these biases in my bomb-disposal team leaders’ thinking, then helping them to overcome them. That process used to take me weeks of close observation of their behaviours, when they were under pressure. Now, we can do the same measurements for senior executives in 20 minutes, using the online Cognitive Bias Test – yet the process is similar. Leaders need to know which cognitive biases they have, then understand them, then develop the ability to mitigate their effects.

Today, after decades of high-threat bomb-disposal operations and 10 years as an international business consultant, I know myself better. I understand that the answer I gave to that board, 40 odd years ago, was driven by my love of being an iconoclast and the defence of my position born from tenacity. Both of these are good leadership characteristics. I also know, unless governed by an understanding of one’s cognitive biases and how to overcome them, that these same traits can manifest themselves as bloody-minded stubbornness. A sense of humour in a leader is far more appealing.