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Leader Mental Models in a Time of Crisis

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Leader Mental Models in a Time of Crisis

People behave, make decisions, in accordance with their mental models. A mental model is an explanation about how something works in the real world. The general direction of society’s response to COVID-19 has tended toward lockdown vs. maintaining an active, robust civil society. This demonstrated a collective mental model, if you will, that did not allow for the possibility of dealing with the pandemic AND maintaining an active civil society- and the economy that goes with it. As such, the choice was framed by government leaders as a binary one: lockdown to preserve life OR maintain civil society with deadly consequences. This is contrary to the collective mental model that prevails in the business world. The business world is a world of ANDs not ORs. To thrive, businesses must produce a product or service that customers want, AND produce it at a cost that is valuable to users, AND it must perform repeatably to specified quality criteria, AND be delivered precisely when and where desired- these conditions are the minimum standard to compete in the business world today. Think of the economy in terms of how the brain functions as we mature physically- its neural network is always working to produce more effective and efficient connections. In my estimation, it was a terrible mistake for public policy leaders to break the COVID-19 problem down as an OR statement and sell it to us constituents as such. 

In the past, there was a time when the ideal leader was thought to be one where dispassionate, analytical bearing held sway; these calm thinkers then would theoretically make “data driven” decisions with evidence so solid we would all certainly agree with the direction indicated. In lock step with this underlying mental model, the catch-phrase “follow the science” was routinely used by public policy leaders, and then by private sector leaders as re-opening of the economy loomed. Private sector leaders were quick to point out in interviews how they were all about making “data driven” decisions that “follow the science” in an effort to reassure outsiders. Unfortunately, and for the most part, leaders from both the public and private sectors did not really pushback on lockdowns and even consider the most powerful science of all- science much more fundamental and basic than how the virus might spread. You may remember Sir Isaac Newton and his Laws of Motion. Newton’s 1st Law of Motion says that the behavior of all objects tend to “keep on doing what they’re doing” unless acted upon by a unbalanced force. An object, if at rest, tends to stay at rest and an object, if in motion, tends to stay in motion. You may be thinking that I’m taking some liberties with Newton’s 1st Law, but I believe it applies to some extent to human institutions as well. Now that we have chosen, or maybe accepted, lockdowns and putting a large part of the economy at rest, it may well take an unbalanced force to get us back into motion again.  A wise senior leader once told me many years ago, “Matt, whatever you do, never do anything that turns off this money machine.” He recognized the outsized amount of initiative and effort it would take to put back in motion what was now in some state of balanced synchronization. Well, we turned off a large part of this country’s money machine for an extended period of time, and now the unintended consequences of this course of action premised on a poor mental model- you can turn off the economy and then merely turn it back on when the danger has passed- may be a proverbial mill stone around our neck for a very long time to come.

The lesson? As a leader, you must always consider the perspective of those reporting to you, providing information, or proposing a certain course of action. You must understand your people’s mental models. Not because they are bad people, but because they are often specialists responsible for some particular aspect of the business. Naturally, their perspective will be colored by their circumstances, and their data often pertains narrowly to the overall story-line the leader needs to discern. In one company I know, the VPs in the business urged the senior leader to shut-down operations and go into quarantine as COVID-19 converged in mid-March. By contrast, the rank-and-file workers urged the senior leader to keep the business open. If you think about it, the reason for the difference may be obvious- the VPs can probably weather a lockdown financially, and the rank-and-file employees maybe not so well. I contend that the greatest gift a leader can have is wisdom. In addition to that, the ability to trust their own intuition, and create an environment where other stakeholders trust their intuition. When hiring leaders, how do you determine their mental models? How do you determine if they have wisdom? These may seem like odd questions for the leader selection process; however, “good judgement” is ultimately what separates great leaders from others. LBR possesses techniques that can help illuminate these traits. It troubles me that a majority of Americans polled agree with the course of action we have taken on COVID-19. I believe that will last as long as government assistance does.

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