The Wise Advocate: A book review by Bob Morris

The Wise Advocate: The Inner Voice of Strategic Leadership
Art Kleiner, Jeffrey Schwartz, and Josie Thomson
Columbia Business School Publishing (January 2018)

Here are the neural dynamics of decision-making for those in leadership positions

As I began to read this book, I was again reminded of these observations by Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis in Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls. When making difficult decisions, what really matters “is not how many calls a leader gets right, or even what percentage of calls a leader gets right. Rather it is important how many of the important ones he or she gets right.” They go on to suggest that effective leaders “not only make better calls, but they are able to discern the really important ones and get a higher percentage of them right. They are better at a whole process that runs from seeing the need for a call, to framing issues, to figuring out what is critical, to mobilizing and energizing the troops.”

Art Kleiner, Jeffrey Schwartz, and Josie Thomson pose three separate but related questions: How do you figure out the right right decision to make? How do you position yourself so that decision achieves the given objective? Most importantly, how do you develop the habit of making better choices, time and time again, even in situations that are volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous?

At the moment of making the choice, certain developments occur in the human mind and brain that can, if you pay attention appropriately, help you to make better decisions in the future. “Moreover, if you manage this type of decision in the right way, time and time again, you can become one of those rare people known as strategic leaders — people who can help a group, an enterprise, or a country transcend its limits and move closer to fulfilling its most significant aspirations.”

Kleiner, Schwartz, and Thomson acknowledge that strategic leadership has a wide and deep lineage that extends back to Homer and then Plato. There are several different dimensions of the concept but two common themes: “First, the pattern of mental activity — or, more loosely, the way you think and behave matters.” That is, how you prioritize: what, when, and where you focus your attention and then how you resolve the given issues. “Second, there seems to be two broad patterns of successful leadership.” That is, transactional and transformative.

More specifically, when making an important decision, leaders have two mental processes to consider:

On the LOW GROUND (tactical and transactional), the objective is to solve the problem or make the deal, seeking the expedient solution that pleases the right people most efficiently.  “This pattern of decision-making is invoked by thinking about what people want and by decisions on behalf of experience; it is associated with the Habit Center, Warner Center, and Reactive Self-Referencing Center. (Chapter Two)

The HIGH GROUND offers “a pattern of mental activity, and the corresponding brain circuits, that is a source of strategic leadership. This pattern is invoked by mentalizing, applied mindfulness, and executive function; it is associated with the Executive Center, Deliberate Self-Referencing Center, and Warning Center. (also Chapter Two)

On the HIGHER GROUND (strategic and transformative), the objective is to consult your inner voice of strategic leadership, identifying/seeking the right long-term result, making the decision accordingly. “This pattern of decision-making is invoked by deep mindfulness and repeated attention to the Wise Advocate. [See Pages 24-25] It links the Habit and Executive Centers, so that the executive function becomes habitual.” (Chapter Three)

The great appeal of The Wise Advocate is that the material can be invaluable to leaders at all levels and in all areas of operation in any organization, whatever its size and nature may be.  Over time as well as day-to-day, the quality of leadership is determined almost entirely by the quality of decisions made. Moreover, it is noteworthy that In their book, Judgment Calls, Thomas Davenport and Brooke Manville. explain how and why decisions made by a Great Organization tend to be much better than those made by a Great Leader. Why? While conducting rigorous and extensive research over a period of many years, they discovered – as Laurence Prusak notes in the Foreword — “that no one was looking into the workings of what we term organizational judgment – the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.”

Consider, also, the direct relevance of integrative thinking to strategic leadership. In his book The Opposable Mind, Roger Martin defines it as “the ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.” Yes indeed, the Wise Advocate listens to an inner voice but also to other voices and carefully considers the wisdom they provide. Collaborative thinking does not preclude principled dissent; on the contrary, it is nourished and enriched by it, especially when integrative thinkers are involved.

I commend Art Kleiner, Jeffrey Schwartz, and Josie Thomson on the invaluable information, insights, and counsel they provide in this book, material that can help almost anyone to become a strategic leader by sharpening focus on what happens in their mind brain and in their brain “during those critical moments of choice. The percentage of smart decisions they make — in situations that are volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous — will determine how effective they are. Their book is a brilliant achievement. Bravo!


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