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  • Writer's pictureDavid Tong

Are great leaders like secret agents?

Updated: Mar 23, 2021

‘The truth of what is before you is clear only to those who lack certainty.’

My summer reading included the latest novel by prize winning author Michael Ondaatje. ‘Warlight’ deals with the murky world of wartime espionage.

A young man tries to piece together the life of his mother, an undercover agent during WW2. To make sense of all the half-truths he is told and the fragments on record, he stitches together a narrative of her activities and what motivated her. The novel is his story, blending facts with his carefully imagined version of the missing pieces.

Business leaders constantly deal with a combination of facts and projections. Plotting a course through ambiguity is a critical attribute of a great leader; however it is important that conviction is not mistaken for certainty.

Certainty can come across as a ‘wall’, meaning ‘no further debate is required, no new insights will be considered.’ This is what I think Ondaatje means when he says the truth is only clear to those who lack certainty.

The successful leader is agile as they flip between periods of conviction and periods of inquiry. They can persuade others about the quality of their strategy yet at other moments they remain open to new thinking.

A client of mine who worked in FMCG and led projects informed by large amounts of consumer data, often talked of the importance of responding to ‘soft signals’ to get ahead of market shifts. He was adept at linking data points and seeing trends in the numbers.

Making sense of half-truths is what leaders have in common with secret agents.

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