Why Strong Leaders Over-Estimate the Quality of Data They Receive

Apr 6, 2011

Yesterday I predicated that leaders with strong personalities have one major problem: the stronger their personality, the poorer the quality of the data that they receive. Today let’s look at the first part of that equation – an over-inflated belief in the quality of data that they receive:

The quality of data decreases as the personality indicator increases


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Why would strong leaders over-estimate the quality of the data they’re receiving? Usually for one or more of these reasons (note, some of these reasons are mutually exclusive: not all apply to every strong leader, but every strong leader suffers from one or more):

1. They believe they engender an ‘open environment’.

Well of course they do. What strong leader hasn’t convinced themselves that they operate an ‘open-door’, truth-telling environment where people can speak their mind?

Here’s the thing: When I’ve heard a leader say that, it has never proved true. Like authenticity, once ‘open-ness’ has to be named, it doesn’t exist.

2. They believe they’re approachable.

How many times have you heard a strong leader express frustration when told they’re aloof, or ‘hard to get to’ or intimidating?

All strong leaders have a schizophrenic relationship with their public persona: what they do and how they do it elevates them to a place that others find hard to enter, and yet they (mostly) all profess to be cuddly teddy-bears at heart who crave interaction with all and sundry. As a result, they believe that people are coming to them with what they need to hear.

As we’ll see tomorrow, this is almost always incorrect.

3. They believe they foster ‘great communications’.

Most (though not all) great leaders are also great communicators. Because they do it so well, they believe they can also by osmosis draw great communications (and hence great data) out of other people as well. Usually they’re wrong on both counts.

4. They are over-confident in their own judgment.

Strong leaders succeed early on by being right when others are wrong. Later, when data is more complex and outcomes less binary, this ‘visceral truth-telling’ loses its edge. Unfortunately most strong leaders are slow to see the edge dull.

5. They (consciously or subconsciously) suppress the challenge factor when in discussions with others.

Pull up a chair and watch the strong leader in active communication with one of his or her team: Note the myriad ways – facial tics, eye expressions, pulling on the lip, zoning out, zoning in, interrupting, ignoring, over-emphasizing, under-emphasizing, chastising, rewarding, pleading – that they manipulate the discussion in order to suppress challenge from the other person.

Of course, they don’t see it that way. Of course, they’d be stunned if you suggested that was what they were doing. Of course, it’s exactly what they’re doing.

And of course, the quality of the data they get back in return is seriously impaired.

6. They misinterpret the agreement of others as a confirmation of the accuracy of data.

Very few peers (let alone subordinates) of the strong leader have the strength to finish a conversation on a negative note.

Even if they encourage healthy debate before a decision is made, once they have made their minds up about something, strong leaders highly value compliance with their expressed view. Consequently, continuing to argue or debate when the decision has been made and the discussion is ‘over’ is generally viewed negatively.

As a result, once a decision has been made, most strong leaders are met with non-aggressive silence or mildly passive assent – which of course subliminally confirms to them the rightness of their decision.

Next: Why the actual data strong leaders receive is of such poor quality.