The Leader You Can Least Afford to Lose

Michael Metzger

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).


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  1. Fascinating. You have just helped me understand someone dear to me. By the way, I love the Temple Grandin movie. “Not less, just different.”

  2. btw, for those not familiar with Temple Grandin, she has written a book: “Thinking in Pictures.” There is also an HBO movie on her.

  3. Mike,

    As always you have a brilliant gift of being able to offer new pictures, new ways of seeing, ways to connect an episode or event with the big picture. Thanks for this. And this one was really good.

    But yet, I missed something. You surely know that there where whistleblowers who did “see” the problem, and the company chose to ignore them (or so it has been reported.) Perhaps besides needing these big picture essays about these big visions, I’d like you to say that what was needed was some human decency, some honesty, somebody willing to take a stand for human life and raise hell until the corrupt corporate culture was shamed into doing the right thing. Where’s the outrage about this heinous, egregious injustice?

    People DID see the big picture, they cried out, and the greedy corporate leaders — c-leaders or whatever– covered it up. Why don’t you talk about that? I love your work, but in this case, you’re speaking abstractly about big dreamy stuff, when what needs to be said at this moment about this matter is plain and blunt. They silenced their whistleblowers and their corrupt culture allowed many to die. Am I wrong?

    Why doesn’t the church equip people to be brave and be willing to pay the price to be such whistleblowers? Why didn’t you write about them — what causes some people to stand up for truth and pay a price? Or why didn’t you call out the dysfunctional idolatrous corporate culture that would play dice with people’s lives? Why aren’t you overtly telling your corporate leaders to stand the heck up and be counted, be willing to risk their jobs and livelihoods to do the right thing?

    Sorry to be cranky. I love your work but as good as this one was, it needed some specificity and outrage.


  4. My Dear friend Byron:

    You DO sound cranky. That’s not you. Eat a Snicker’s bar.

    I rarely hear you paint with such a broad brush. If you feel there is a lack of rage, decency, etc… then saddle up next to someone in the business world and suggest they do what you’re recommending.

    I think you’re overlooking the issue of who has authority. Whistleblowers are given authority according to the law. They often achieve very good results. What you seem to be recommending is taking charge of the situation. Try walking into a CEO’s office and giving him or her hell.

    I was discussing the prophetic voice. Good to remember that even Jesus, as a prophet, couldn’t do certain things in certain situations (Matthew 13:58). The people did not give him authority.

    I know Jesus said all authority has been given to me. But achieving results with other people – between people – requires reciprocating authority. I.e. leaders have to establish a culture that invites the prophetic voice. Otherwise, the anger of man, while it might make us feel good to give ’em hell, might not achieve the righteousness of God.

  5. I am pretty cranky some days, I’ll admit. I did say a lot of nice stuff about you, though. And I mean it – you do such good work and are such a fine thinker and writer! But I’ll just reply with this: I do know whistleblowers. I have come alongside of them. I have had painful conversations. I know guys who have lost their jobs at major corporations; one at a small company. (And I have led conversations about vocation and business ethics, sometimes by showing the movie “The Insider” which is as much about the integrity of the journalist as the scientist and what virtues are needed to be people who, in Steve Garber’s recent phrase, want to live a “Seamless Life.”.) And *that* is my concern here. There have been many reports about how this company knew that people might die and you didn’t mention that; why not? A previous generation protested the cover-up of the Ford Pinto travesty and then another generation the O-rings of the Challenger disaster. They knew. What does it take for a worker to have the courage and virtue to be persistent in speaking up around a specific ethical crisis? And what does it take for higher management and corporate leaders to listen and repent? Actually, somebody does have to walk into their supervisors office and (with tact and persuasion) and stand up and speak out and pay up.

    I like what you observe about authority. See the brilliant (and calm) David Koyzis and his “We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God” which is a must read. Andy Crouch nicely raises these vital questions in his excellent “Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power” — so I’m not advocating anarchy or even rudeness.

    I think you are right and even profound in saying that “leaders have to establish a culture that invites the prophetic voice.” But what when they have not? What do you advise people about speaking up in times of ethical dilemmas? And why not a bit of that this time, since the crime seems to have been (if the reports can be believed) so very egregious, as Boeing knowingly disregarded the whistleblowers? This is no time to be meandering though big picture shifts of perception — as essential as that is in long-haul reformation — but what do you say specifically about this crime in the suites? You brought it up and I kept waiting for some bit of denunciation.

  6. Hi Byron:

    Very helpful. Wait no longer for some bit of denunciation! I denounce insular culures where insiders assume their take on reality is absolute and essentially dismiss outsiders. We agree.

    However, the track record on whistleblowers is not very good. NASA and O-rings. Boeing. Ford Pinto. I don’t see a ground-level solution in your comments. Maybe I missed it.

    I would disagree with your assessment of the approach I’m urging as “meandering.” I think the Bible would call it culture-making. Long-haul. Yes. Hard work? Yes. Meandering? No.

    The approach you’re urging sounds like immediatism, how all problems must be solved immediately and simply. What if this problem is more one of cultures or habits, immediate solutions might be available.

    The Bible depicts cultures as worn paths. Most folks are not aware of the worn paths they walk on (did you wake up this morning and say to your wife: “Wow, honey, we live in a car culture!!!!” I doubt it.) Cultures rule, but they require time to build. According to Polanyi, they require the repudiation of the former culture, repentance, and embracing a more effective culture. In this sense, you and I are in the same business. Just see different approaches.

  7. Typo: 4th paragraph. What if this problem is more one of cultures or habits? Then immediate solutions might not be as available as you imagine.

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