Top leaders in organizations face a terrible dilemma: presiding over teams that are busy executing today’s well-laid plans, their own biggest responsibility to spot when and how the whole operation is about to be blindsided. They are expected to perceive the competitive context in ways the rest of the workforce need not, and to sense when the world is changing and shifts in strategy are demanded. But everything about their senior position, and often many things about their psychology, prohibit that.
By interviewing 200 of the world’s most innovative CEOs and senior executives, I discovered that the leaders are acutely aware of the Leader’s Dilemma. Further, they have taken deliberate steps to counteract the insulation of their position. Almost all of them, in some way or another, had to increase their likelihood of encountering pertinent, provocative information by changing the conditions in which they habitually find themselves. You can see it in their schedules and you can see it in their daily interactions and how they go about their work. They consciously place themselves in situations where they will be, sometimes incrementally and sometimes spectacularly, more wrong, more uncomfortable, and uncharacteristically quiet. By doing so, they open up a possibility: that they will stumble over insights about which they not only didn’t know—they didn’t even know what to ask about.