Independent thought not always easy, but essential

"It is a truth universally acknowledged ..."

Now anyone who truly knows me, understands straight away that this is one of my favourite lines from what I consider to be among the best literature ever to grace a library.

And while I would happily pen a few hundred words on Jane Austen, even I know its going to require a very long bow. Happily however, the opening line of Pride and Prejudice does provide me with a governance angle.

How many truths have you found universally acknowledged around your board table? Wise heads nodding in unison, papers ticked off at pace in a "hail fellow, well met" sort of way. No challenging questions asked about the past, present or indeed the future; instead compliments neatly arranged before retiring to refreshments and the social agenda.

Sound familiar ... No! Never happens, I hear you say. Ok well perhaps things have moved on a little these days, but have you ever sat there and found yourself going, really? Am I the only one not seeing this or, surely others are thinking there is a different angle here?

If that is you, then General George S Patton would have you among his troop any day. His well-known quote, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking” reminds us why diversity of thought around a board table is important.

And its the thinking that really is where the hard work of directors is done. Reading words on a page is the easy part; bringing judgement to bear on those same words is entirely different.

That requires critical thinking. Critical thinking is a skill, a learned skill in my opinion. One which is honed with experience for sure, but comes from time invested in gathering, understanding and interpreting data.

The gathering of course comes from the matrix of interactions we have. From the colleagues we talk to, the media we consume or the observations we make, but critically from an open mind to alternative interpretations of the truths everyone else has already universally acknowledged.

This is the slow, detailed and often challenging work we do beyond the reading of the board pack each month.

Its the hours spent pre- and post-meetings where we challenge ourselves to consider the perspectives being presented, and where we start to form our views.

Its through this work that when the chair or convener of the meeting says, we will take the papers as read, and opens it up for questions, you raise your hand and speak from a place free of personal bias or group think.

Sounds pretty easy when you say it like that, but if it were, then we wouldn't have any failed decisions and group think wouldn't be a thing. The truth is, it’s hard.

A different perspective can be unwelcome, buzzword bingo starts playing all the reasons why not and an inexperienced leader may choose to avoid conflict at all costs and seek comfort in the consensus, leaving the outlier view — well, frankly, firmly on the outside.

Of course sometimes that is where they belong, when bordering on the ridiculous or outside the purpose and scope of the organisation, but sometimes the point might be to hear them anyway. Because its in the hearing of them that an alternate view of life is presented and evaluated.

I would far rather hear the view of someone far removed from my world than read another reply-all email that self-congratulates without acknowledging the good and probing the necessary.

Of course bringing out independent thought around a table requires a confident skilled leader. Someone who by necessity must be comfortable with a challenge to their own thinking and just like the conductor of an orchestra, can bring perspectives into harmony.

That requires more than just input at the scheduled meeting. Rather this requires an investment in time. Time to understand colleagues, the narrative important to them and what is occupying their thinking at present.

Equally as the chair invests time, so too can we around the table do the same in our observation of and interaction with others.

As a marketer, it is always evident to me that I do not see the world the way, for example, my accounting colleagues with their black hats do as they bring judgement down over another set of accounts.

Equally I am sure the more colourful hats I personally might wear, to pick up off de Bono’s six thinking hats, must feel to them very much like another classic line from Austen: “I have not the pleasure of understanding you. “

But understand we can, by broadening our perspective. Indeed Austen herself has had independent thought applied to her opening phrase.

New perspectives recognise her prevailing wisdom of universal truths, but her iconic line has today been repurposed into our pop culture and re-energised.

And from a director perspective we see it has happened too, as it’s now rightly a truth universally acknowledged that flexible working practise is possible, or it’s a truth universally acknowledged that mental health and wellbeing is as important as safety, for example.

If Austen can be adapted and grow with fresh independent thought applied some 200-odd years on, what might you aspire to for your next meeting?

 - Trish Oakley is the chairwoman of the Otago Southland branch of the Institute of Directors (IOD). This article is opinion only and not intended as governance advice. IOD is the professional body for directors and is at the heart of New Zealand's governance community.

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