Nature vs nurture, the age-old debate over what makes you, you. If we were just to look at the nature side of the argument alone, it is hugely complex. As Bill Bryson put it in A Short History of Nearly Everything

“Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result – eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly – in you.”

A blend of myriad factors in our genetics, the environment, and the way the environment impacts our genetics (epigenetics) are dialled up or down dependant on the situation to produce a response, moment-by-moment, to what we are experiencing. All of these blended experiences (conscious or otherwise) then build on top of each other as we travel through life to shape our way of being and the way we encounter the world.

“We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are” Anaïs Nin

So, as with any complex phenomena, taking a polarised position (nature vs nurture) would be improper and lead to being incorrect a large proportion of the time.

The challenge we face when leading in an increasingly complex world is that it is constantly shifting in front of us, and we only see what is happening through our lens. There are a whole host of things we cannot see and second and third order effects that we cannot predict. Therefore, any time we take an immovable position or opinion, we are also opening ourselves up to being incorrect.

So, these two positions, either polarised, immovable (or worse, both!) are dangerous places to be. This is demonstrated by the work of Philip Tetlock, summarised in his book, Expert Political Judgement, How good is it, how can we know? Over a nearly 20 year period Tetlock ran forecasting tournaments with 284 experts from a variety of fields, leading to 28000 predictions.

Experts were only slightly more likely than chance to be correct, however the interesting part was in discovering that how the experts thought was more important than what they thought when it came to the accuracy of their predictions. Tetlock characterises these two styles as Foxes and Hedgehogs after the title of an essay by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, based on a quote by the Greek philosopher, Archilocus a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing”.

When the hedgehog is challenged, they curl up in a ball with their spikes out to deflect the world, and it is the same with the experts, their position is immovable, and they deflect critique. Experts who were more fox like were less sure of their predictions and more willing to change them as events unfolded. Foxes were more likely to be accurate in their predictions than hedgehogs, particularly in the long-term. Hedgehogs had the potential to be more precise, but with a much greater chance of being wrong. When dealing in complex environments, when you are wrong, you have the potential to be spectacularly wrong.

Interestingly, the more famous the expert, the more likely they were to be wrong in their predictions. My take; more polarising, strongly held opinions and more certain predictions make for better TV, so draw more ratings. Saying “it depends” a lot is more boring, but probably more accurate.

In a complex environment, every decision taken is, to a greater or lesser extent, a prediction. Thus, the best way of operating in complexity is to be more fox-like, to have strong opinions, loosely held and be open to new, sometimes conflicting information that can influence our position. F. Scott Fitzgerald, the great America novelist, wrote…

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”.

We need this mindset, not only in leadership but also in those we lead. In his later book

Superforecasting Tetlock describes how working collaboratively in teams leads to better predictions. This is because each team member sees the world through their own lens and as a collective we have a clearer view of the whole picture.

This means we need to recruit foxes, but also create a space in which challenge of thought and process is promoted as conducive to success.

Considerations for moving forwards…

  • When was the last time that you actively sought challenge to your opinion?
  • How would you feel if your athletes/team directly challenged your position?
  • How do you encourage your team to challenge their own assumptions?
  • How agile is your team/organisation to be able to change it’s position?
  • Who is checking and challenging your processes?
  • In which domains are you liable to be more fox-like, and which more like a hedgehog?