Great leadership isn’t a popularity contest

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keynote-speaker-michelle-gibbingsMichelle Gibbings, Change Meridian

It isn’t easy being a leader in a world undergoing change that is so rapid and vast that the World Economic Forum titled it the fourth industrial revolution.

At the same time, leadership tenure is shrinking. In fact, PWC research released last year found that CEO turnover was at 16.6% – up from 14.3% in the prior year.

It’s becoming harder than ever for leaders to navigate and thrive in this complex, ambiguous and ever-shifting environment. Consequently many leaders fall into the trap of taking the path of least resistance and making decisions that are easy and popular, rather than difficult.

However, complex and adaptive problems are not solved by the ‘quick fix’.

Default thinking is dangerous

There are varying statistics on the number of decisions adults make every day. However a large percentage of decision making is automatic and habitual, rather than conscious and deliberate.

Academic researchers, Bas Verplanken (University of Bath) and Wendy Wood (Duke University), found that more than 40% of the actions people performed each day weren’t decisions, but habits.

Habits are helpful as they conserve the brain’s precious energy reserves, but they are not helpful if it means the leader fails to alter their approach, ideas and thought processes to factor in changing circumstances and information.

For leaders facing unchartered territory relying on what they have always done before and using default thinking patterns is fraught with danger.

Broaden the field

To minimise the risk of default thinking leaders need to broaden their field of view and take deliberate steps when they make critical decisions.

This includes adopting practices such as:

  • Setting a clear decision making process that is fit for purpose
  • Testing multiple hypothesis and developing diverse scenarios to challenge prevailing views
  • Not just looking for evidence to support ideas, but actively looking for opinions and data that disprove it
  • Widening the frame of reference and including people not involved in earlier discussions
  • Encouraging constructive debate and welcoming diverse views, including listening to the silent minority and outlier opinions

Great leaders make decisions on tough issues. They take a stand on what matters and are not afraid to risk their “popularity” to ensure that good decisions with long term, sustainable outcomes are obtained.

Michelle Gibbings is a change leadership and career expert and founder of Change Meridian. Michelle works with global leaders and teams to help them accelerate progress in complex environments. She is the Author of ‘Step Up: How to Build Your Influence at Work’. For more information: or contact

Michelle Gibbings is one of the key note speakers at the FEW 2017 Leadership Conference. Register now to secure your seat.

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