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Open-Minded Leadership: A Matter for Debate?


One summer evening in the Cambridge Union debating chamber. Some rising stars from companies within a global media group are vigorously challenging the strategies of their leadership. The audience is their leadership…the Chairman, the CEO, the lot – and far from squirming or planning P45s, the leaders are engaged, enthused and entertained.

This was one of the most fascinating evenings of my career, and one that has spawned many other corporate debates. Why? Because it is such a great platform for rising stars to learn skills in oratory, listening and negotiation: and for leaders to show their willingness to listen…and to act on what they hear.

Business leaders in this current disconcerting world no longer want people around them to tell them the answers: they simply don’t believe that definitive answers exist, certainly not ones that will endure. They are looking for people to discuss things with intelligently and constructively, to discern a way forward, and to keep doing so as circumstances change.

If you do this with people of the same persuasion, you will get that lovely warm feeling of safety and connection, but you will also be missing the challenging insights of more enlightened and diverse thinkers.

This is what debate is for: to provide a platform – a safe space – for people of different views, different experiences, different backgrounds and different outlooks to listen actively to each other’s views.

Hearing such thoughts can have one of two effects, both very positive: either strengthening one’s own thinking by building a more robust argument or opening one’s eyes to other ways of thinking.

It’s not a surprise, then, that debating in Britain really took off in the Age of Enlightenment, when innovation and creativity were the talk of the coffee houses and the caffeine of the economy.

Leadership today

It would be great to encourage more debate today. I was approached recently by a final year student in International Politics in Madrid who was frustrated by how ideas don’t get heard. He and some colleagues had developed a plan to launch a not-for-profit business after their graduation streaming debates to give oxygen to ideas from both students and other thinkers around the world. They were being encouraged to retrench though, into a lecture series, for fear of people saying things that could be construed as unpalatable to some elements of the audience.

Debate is not nearly as dangerous as being closed to ideas – which brings me back to why the evening at the Cambridge Union was so invigorating. This was not individuals punting their careers on the basis of some radical ideas for a coup at Head Office. We had run, over two days, a series of debates around subjects critical to the future of that group, operating as it does in a hugely disrupting market.

In each one, we had worked with the teams to develop both sides of the argument and only told the participants which side of the debate they were talking on half an hour before the debate itself. Each person therefore had to explore the pros and cons, find examples, and most importantly, walk in the other people’s shoes and consider their point of view.

When it came then to the final in the evening, the same principle applied: the leadership team knew that the people speaking had explored both sides of the motion and were not ‘campaigning’ for ‘their’ ideas. So it was that everyone in the room could listen with impartiality and decide for themselves what they thought. As a result, new ideas were aired in a collaborative spirit of open-mindedness, and some took root. I commend the leadership team for being brave enough to do it.

Do you offer that safe space for people around you to air their thoughts and ideas? There are few better ways to show that you are open-minded and confident than to have some form of formal, regular debate forum within your organisation.

Or even outside it. Frequently the people who see us most clearly are the people who see us from the outside. Imagine inviting clients to debate with your teams what the future of your industry looks like. There’s an implicit deep confidence in being the convenor of asking such questions, and a sense that yours will be an organisation at the forefront of the future, whatever shape it takes.

It is increasingly easy to make the most of such events with streaming and social media offering compelling ways for people to engage wherever they are. More than perhaps ever we need to be seen to be asking the questions that count, not being the metaphorical frogs
blithely basking as the water warms up.

What Darwin actually said about the survival of the fittest is that ‘It isn’t the strongest of any species that survive, it is the ones most ready to adapt’. Rather than trying to impose our views of how our organisations are going to thrive onto others in the hope that we are right and the future will be rosy we should be brave enough to listen to what others have to say, consider it, and use it either to strengthen our own resolve or to consider adapting our direction.

Debate gives a framework in which to do that.

Debate is therefore essential to the survival of our organisations.