Management requires data, leadership calls for something more

tennis player

The brains of our ancestors evolved to notice change because change might mean one of three things: food, sex, or death.

So when so much of our world is changing all at once, it is hardly surprising if our brains sometimes get overwhelmed.

One response could be to ignore some of the information that reaches us. But when everything is changing, changes that didn’t matter yesterday can become important tomorrow, so this approach is risky. As responsible leaders (of ourselves and other people) we need new ways to make sense of more information, more quickly.

One way of doing this seems to be computers — but computers bring problems of their own:

  • First, as this article in the Harvard Business Review points out, the raw data used by computers can often be flawed, leading us into a false sense of security if we don’t check it.
  • Second, even if the input data is perfect, the information computers provide is not reality — it is based on assumptions and interpretations programmed into the computer by other, flawed human beings. In times of change, these assumptions may no longer hold true.
  • And third, using computers to process more information more quickly simply brings us to a new bottleneck: our own ability to process information. We end up with more data to consider about more things.

If we want to lead ourselves and other people better through this time of change, we need to increase our own capacity for processing information.

But the fact is our brains are still 30 times more powerful than the best supercomputers. And neuroscientists estimate that we are only conscious of about five percent of our cognitive activity — 95 percent is unconscious. So we can expand our capacity for processing information if we learn to harness the power of our unconscious minds.

We’ve probably all experienced how to do this: when the answer to a difficult problem suddenly pops into our minds out of nowhere; when we suddenly remember something vital that we thought we had forgotten. It is not our conscious, thinking minds that bring us these answers but our unconscious minds, our intuition.

Often this happens best in the moments of most extreme stress and improvisation: when top sportspeople leap and stretch in an instant to put the ball exactly where they want it to go, it is not their conscious, thinking minds that are telling them what to do but their unconscious intuition.

When we stop thinking we can achieve great things. And like sportspeople, we can train ourselves to get better with practice.

The bottom line is this: management is about implementing the agreed way forward and that requires data. Leadership is about making sense of change and choosing how to respond. In a time of change, that calls upon us to deliver something more.

Have you ever found yourself struggling to think through a situation, overwhelmed by too much information? Have you ever had an intuition that turned out to be correct? Might you benefit by learning to call upon your intuition more easily, more reliably, and more often?

Adapted from Inner Leadership: a framework and tools for building inspiration in times of change.

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