Yes, You Are Indeed Biased!


I had the opportunity a few years ago to participate in a leadership development seminar. The seminar was put on by a history buff / leadership speaker. He used great events in the history United States to provide examples of good and bad leadership.

The event that he used on this particular day was the Civil War and in particular the battle at Gettysburg. He used as his leadership example General John Reynolds, one of the first generals present as the battle began. This union general made the decision to lead from the front, to deploy with his forces in the initial charge against the rebel troops.

This union general was one of the first soldiers on either side killed in the Battle of Gettysburg. There is plenty of debate on how he died, sharpshooter or sniper? Enemy or maybe even friendly fire? But this much is certain, his death put the Union forces in disarray and set back the battle plans immensely.

Upon sharing that story this seminar leader asked if the general had made the right decision, that is, should he have lead from the front or would have been best if he had stayed back.

So I’m sitting in this room full of people that were skilled leaders, people that make big decisions on a regular basis, and I’m surprised by their answers. What surprised me was that they had an answer at all. About half seemed to think it was a huge mistake, that he should have “stayed back” to be able to respond to the changing dynamics of the battle. Others thought he “sent a great message” by risking all with his troops.

There is a part of me that says since the union eventually won he made the right call but here’s the fact… I don’t have enough info to know if it was the right call or not. Did he have an identified second in command, well versed in the battle plans and able to take over leadership? Did he evaluate the various risk/reward scenarios before deciding or did he just “rush” in?

We need to know a lot before we can make an informed decision about whether he was right or wrong. Or do we…..

As I sat there listening, I realized that we were in the middle of a teaching moment, and it was a teaching moment that the seminar leader completely missed.

As you might imagine, I spoke up and I asked how could anyone in the room possibly know with the scant bit of information we had whether it was the right decision or not.

I made the point that they were answering that question based not on facts but on their own life experiences. That those life experiences, good, bad, or indifferent had created a bias within their decision-making process.

That was the lesson from the story, that we make decisions as leaders every day, short of information, and we use our own life experiences and own biases to fill in the gaps. That that can be a very dangerous thing to do.

The best leaders understand their bias and look to fill those gaps with the life experiences of others and the opinions of others realizing that there is value in the diversity of opinions. An authentic leader does not relinquish the ultimate decision making responsibility but they have the confidence and courage to use a wide variety of sources to ensure it’s an informed one.

You are most certainly biased, and that’s not a problem, the problem is not realizing it and using your bias effectively.

4 thoughts on “Yes, You Are Indeed Biased!

  1. Totally agree. Although i suggest that while “look (ing) to fill those gaps with the life experiences of others and the opinions of others realizing that there is value in the diversity of opinions. ” one may need to be watchful to ensure that in considering opinions of others, some experiences are not sanitized, or left out, possibly because they feature at extreme ends of the ‘spectrum’. Obviously, things like context and how appropriate a view is must be considered.

    1. I agree, the “source” of our diversity of opinions is key to its value. As I often say, don’t take advice on how to succeed from people that haven’t.

      1. True, but arguably, that partly depends also on one’s defiition of success, which may be different from one person to the next? i.e. monetary, spiritually, physical wellbeing (health), etc.

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