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world upside down

Five Questions to Ask When the World’s Upside Down

Wiley Davi and Duncan Spelman

Recent world events have motivated many of us to step back from our normal routines.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, reprehensible cases of police brutality and protests targeted at dismantling systemic racism, we are confronting uncomfortable truths. These are times for all of us to look inward. Leaders, in particular, should examine their customary ways of operating. These questions are a good starting point.

In the face of bad news, do I usually adopt a learning stance?

We humans often respond to unexpected or unpleasant information by becoming defensive and seeking to explain away what we’re hearing. Adopting a learning stance means consciously choosing a non-defensive posture that welcomes new information.

Do I truly accept the reality that much of what happens in my brain is outside my conscious awareness?

Most of us realize that lots of our cognitive functioning happens unconsciously and we don’t control much of what our brain is up to. Nonetheless, going about our daily business as leaders, we typically feel like we’re in charge of what we’re doing. Reminding ourselves of all that is going on behind the scenes in our brain helps us be more humble about what we really know and don’t know.

Do I appreciate the importance of emotions?

Most of us have been encouraged to keep emotions out of our leadership. This is impossible — and unwise. Staying in touch with our own emotions and observing those of others helps us make better decisions and lead more effectively. In trying to suppress feelings, we may well ignore vital information.

Am I paying attention to social identities?

The powerful events related to race in the United States have highlighted just how important this identity difference is. Yet many of us have been taught that good leaders are “colorblind.” To the extent that we try to pretend that such differences don’t exist, we remain insensitive and uninformed. And race is just one of many social identities that matter. Others include gender, religion, sexual orientation, age and class.  

Do I tend to get too certain too fast? 

Our brains are marvelous instruments, but they tend to like certainty a little too much. We often come to conclusions prematurely so that we can eliminate doubt and make a decision. For us as leaders, this can be dangerous. To the extent that we can resist the tug toward certainty, we can attend to the complexity that many situations contain.

Book Leading with Uncommon Sense

Learn More

Established and aspiring leaders can find more guidance in the professors’ new book (Springer, 2020). They challenge common thinking on must-have skills such as the ability to come up with quick answers to problems. Stepping back to reflect —and question yourself around complex issues — can point the way to better decision-making for people, organizations and societies.

About the Authors

Wiley C. Davi is professor of English and media studies and serves as a facilitator for Bentley’s Center for Women and Business. She also facilitates women’s leadership programs at Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations in Rotterdam. Her teaching and research span the fields of writing, diversity, gender studies, leadership and service-learning. Davi holds a PhD from Tufts University.

Duncan Spelman is professor emeritus of management. He has also served the university as director of diversity and chair of the Management Department. His teaching and research focus on diversity in the workplace, organizational behavior, interpersonal relations and organization change. Spelman earned his PhD at Case Western Reserve University.

Wiley Davi and Duncan Spelman

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