Temple Grandin says disasters like the Boeing 737 MAX could be avoided. But it requires a particular kind of leader that other leaders can least afford to lose.
Temple Grandin a visual thinker. In a recent Forbes article, she describes how visual thinkers can complement data-minded peers. This ensures businesses are more likely to avert disasters like the Boeing 737 crashes. Visual thinkers often see errors before they happen.
The key is how visual thinkers operate. When Grandin read of the Boeing crashes, her mind started processing everything as photographic pictures. When the images came together, Grandin found herself thinking, “How could you make this mistake? It was so obvious.” In the case of the Boeing 737 MAX, she saw a lack of redundant angle-of-attack sensors.
Boeing engineers didn’t. They’re data-minded, what Grandin calls mathematical thinkers. Good with numbers and forecasting known risks. But Grandin says metaphorical thinkers see unknown risks. They’re visual thinkers, providing what Daniel Kahneman calls the outside view. Data-minded thinkers are the inside view. Insiders often overlook what visual thinkers see.
The Bible describes visual thinkers as prophets, providing the outside view. I’m a visual thinker. I hear a conversation, see a plan, hear a sermon—it doesn’t matter—and a series of pictures pop into my mind. It’s involuntary. I don’t conjure the images. They come to me, causing me to think: “How can you make this mistake?” And that makes life encouraging or deflating.
A deflating example. Years ago, I was in a meeting with c-levels leaders. They were discussing why the company’s values didn’t seem to be sticky, or meaningful to employees. They suggested all sorts of solutions. Suddenly, a series of pictures popped into my mind. Friedrich Nietzsche. Values. Gertrude Himmelfarb. Positivism. I saw what these c-level leaders were overlooking. I saw unknown risks, and why their solutions would likely be ineffective.
Friedrich Nietzsche said God is dead. If God is dead, so are virtues and morality. We only have what Nietzsche called “values.” Gertrude Himmelfarb called this the de-moralization of society. You have your values, I have mine. Can’t impose your values on anyone. This is positivism, where facts govern the business world, faith is for the weekend. In this sort of society, any company’s “values” are going to be essentially meaningless to employees. I saw all this in an instant.
Suggesting to these c-level leaders that they might be overlooking something was another matter, however. They loved their values. They dismissed my concerns. Deflating.
Here’s an encouraging example. About 10 ago, I heard a preacher describe our relationship with God as “vertical.” Our relationship with “the culture” is “horizontal.” Listening to him, a series of images suddenly popped into my mind. René Descartes. The Enlightenment. Descartes’ Cartesian Coordinate System. Spheres. C. S. Lewis. “The Discarded Image.”
René Descartes = the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment reduced humans to rationalist beings (“I think, therefore I am”). Descartes was wrong. Worse, he reduced the universe to straight lines—vertical, horizontal, diagonal. It’s called the Cartesian Coordinate System. The Bible differs, depicting the universe as spheres. C. S. Lewis wrote about this in “The Discarded Image,” describing how Enlightenment thinkers discarded the spherical depiction of reality.
After the sermon, I had a conversation with this preacher. I suggested that describing these relationships as vertical and horizontal is thinking the Enlightenment way. He welcomed my comments, encouraging them. I became his preaching coach. We’re good friends to this day.
About 100 years ago, Walter Lippmann wrote that we operate according to a picture in our head. If it’s inaccurate, or incomplete, we overlook unknown risks. The remedy is the court fool, Lippmann wrote. “The best servants of the people, like the best valets, must whisper unpleasant truths in the master’s ear. It is the court fool, not the foolish courtier, whom the king can least afford to lose.” He got this from King Arthur’s Round Table.
In the Arthurian legend, Dagonet is the court fool, a visual thinker. He whispers unpleasant truths in King Arthur’s ear. The knights, the foolish courtiers, don’t take well to Dagonet’s critiques. After a while, Dagonet leaves the Table. So does Merlin. The kingdom collapses.
Welcome to 2020. Forty years of Harvard Business School research indicates most organizations—businesses, churches, schools—don’t have the leader that they can least afford to do without—the court fool, the outsider, the visual thinker.[i] Temple Grandin agrees.
By 2030, I hope for more leaders recognizing that visual thinkers are the leaders that they can least afford to lose. I’m hoping for more leaders like my friend, Tom.
Tom’s been a pastor for 31 years. We’ve been friends even longer. He called a few days after New Years, just to catch up. Tom closed our conversation with an invitation: call him if I ever sense he’s overlooking something. Tom is the kind of leader who recognizes a visual thinker is the leader he can least afford to lose. May his tribe increase.
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[i] John Kotter, “Accelerate,” Harvard Business Review (November, 2012).