Remarkable Leadership requires Coup d’oeil
Remarkable leaders appear to share a rare high level skill called coup d’oeil.This strange and relatively obscure French expression, which means literally ‘stroke of the eye’, might be better translated as at-a-glance leadership. Truly exceptional leaders have the ability to take in the whole of a complicated situation, do a fast / rapid analysis and then can express it in simpler, clearer terms and develop the appropriate action to take. They seem to be able to distill complex scenarios faster and get better results and achieve long term success.
There are some fantastic examples given by Jim Collins in Great by Choice, listed as 10X companies, although the author doesn’t suggest the process I shall outline here. It is a sequel to his best-selling Good to Great (2001), which identified seven characteristics that enabled companies to become truly great over an extended period of time. Never mind that one of the 11 featured companies is now bankrupt (Circuit City) and another is in government receivership (Fannie Mae). Collins has a knack for analysis that business readers find compelling.
You would probably agree that the business environment (landscape) has changed dramatically in the last few years and is still rapidly evolving. It is more complex, more volatile, and more unpredictable than any so-called thought leaders predicted. The disruptive nature of technologies has yet to be addressed by leadership training processes.
The skills needed for good leadership have also changed. They are more complex and require adaptive, flexible and rapid thinking. Yet the methods being used to develop leaders have not changed much (if at all) over the last 20 years. My personal view of the current leadership training situation (and where it might go) is given in the table below. It is based on my personal experience over many years, lots of research and many hours of discussion and analysis. I don’t claim it is perfect (far from it) and there are of course many examples of excellence out there; we most seek to learn from their content, structure and delivery.
The best explanation I have found of the term coup d’oeil(and it is virtually overlooked in modern leadership literature) comes from an 1827 classic of military strategy, On War by Carl von Clausewitz. The word strategy in fact entered the English language in 1810, when Napoleon’s success as a battlefield general made him Emperor of Europe. His enemies started studying how he did it so they could learn it too and defeat him. Indeed Clausewitz is credited with coming up with the term fog of war (amongst other gems).Clausewitz’s account of Napoleon’s strategy matches amazingly well what modern neuroscience tells us about flashes of insight. Clausewitz cleverly used a four step process, which I have adapted slightly to reflex some cutting edge neuroscience:
- The process starts with the ingestion and absorption of research. Accumulating and taking examples, stories and patterns from history, throughout your life and putting them away careful (filed and labelled) in your limitless filing system of your remarkable brain. Studying memory systems and knowing about modern neuroscience can help in the process. Keep stacking and uploading these examples into your hard drive / Hippocampus. Some might call this process ‘conscious encoding’ and it is the long, tedious part of inspiration.
- The next stage is to develop a particular presence of mind, where you free your brain of all pre-conceptions about what problem you’re solving and what solution might work. By learning transformational breathing or other physiological breath work (the very simple discipline of 3 minutes (eyes closed) of slow, rhythmic and even breaths) certainly helps. This can create and facilitate (via the powerful hormone DHEA) a sense of being in the flow, or the zone and helps with the brain chemicals like BDNF which stimulate dendrite growth and new neural pathways. The process of going for a long walk, doing some exercise and even juggling can induce this state.
- The third crucial stage is developing the space and conditions for the flash of insight itself to occur. Clausewitz himself called it the coup d’oeil. In this flash and moment of extreme clarity, new combinations of the multiple superimposed examples from history, that were encoded over your life time, are recalled and your super brain re-connects them and joins up the dots. The solution is there to be accessed, innovation resolved and better strategies enabled.
- The remarkable leader has then to have resolution, courage and determination to make it happen. This is when the great leader says Ah, I see!, but also, I’ll do it! and Now!
I love the thought of using a 1827 book to inspire leadership training. A good example perhaps ofstanding on the shoulders of giants. Modern technology using fMRI has not given us any definitive brain scans that show differences in the way leaders’ grey matter works. Although the ‘flash of inspiration’ or Coup d’oeil is yet to be recorded by fMRI, there is some consensus that leaders have some commonalities in how they think about the world.
Let’s dissect a standard question used in interviews to ‘find’ leaders: What great leader in history do you aspire to be? This question is intended to examine the types of leaders you naturally gravitate towards and whether or not they are in alignment with your values and what you stand for? Some of the most common answers include: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Winston Churchill, Gandhi, Michael Jordan,Teddy Roosevelt, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Peters, Margaret Thatcher and John F. Kennedy.
Consider then the first quotation from American football coach legend Vince Lombardi,
Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal.
Kari H. Keating, Ph.D., a teaching associate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who studies leadership, published a study in October 2014 which supported existing research that leaders are made, not born. Expanding on work by leadership researcher Bruce J. Avolio which found that leadership ability is roughly 30% genetic and 70% learned, Keating and her colleagues found that the first step to becoming a more effective leader is to believe that you can be a leader in the first place. That is an intriguing finding as it fits with the Coup d’oeil model of rapid analysis. It also implies that the Clausewitz’ 4 step Coup d’oeil process can be taught, practiced and used. To understand whether you are going in the right direction with your own leadership, ask the following questions to be remarkable:
- What must you keep doing to be remarkable?
- What must you stop doing to be remarkable?
- What must you start doing to be remarkable?
- What must you think of doing to be remarkable?
- Where is your unique angle on Coup d’oeil?
The majority of managers are currently developed via on-the-job experiences, training, and coaching/ mentoring; while these are all still important, leaders are no longer developing fast enough or in the right ways to match the new environment. In the emerging future views of leadership, leaders do not have influence simply because they are ‘bosses’ or ‘commanders’. Rather, leaders are people who are committed to creating a world / organisation / team to which people want to belong. It of course involves brilliant communicating, powerful interacting and managing relationships within an organisation, network or social system to move toward one’s highest aspirations.
As we try to take command of our own destiny and guide the destinies of our families, communities, organisations and our planet, the necessity of effective leadership ability has become increasingly obvious. Effective leadership might just need the 4 stage Clausewitz process for Coup d’oeil as one of the keys to our future success and future survival.