Harnessing the power of observation in leadership

What you need to know:

  • When the power of observation is used intentionally there is no more powerful tool for learning and in turn creating effective leadership

Eureka! Eureka!

A voice shouted these words on the streets of Syracuse one day. The voice belonged to Archimedes, an extremely brilliant mathematician who bordered on madness, as many extremely brilliant mathematicians do.

Archimedes, who was born in the city of Syracuse on the island of Sicily in Italy in 287 BC, had just made an amazing discovery that would revolutionise the world of science to this day. His King, Hiero, had ordered for a new crown from his goldsmith and had provided the goldsmith with solid gold for that purpose.

However, when the crown arrived Hiero suspected that the goldsmith had cheated him. He suspected that he had mixed silver into the gold to finish the crown so that he could keep some of the gold for himself. So he called for the services of the ‘mad’ mathematician to establish whether indeed he was right about his suspicion. “Do not, however, spoil the crown in the process!” he ordered.

Archimedes pondered over this seemingly impossible task so much so that when he dipped his body into his bath tab to take a bath later that, or some other day, it was still heavy on his mind. As he did so he experienced a ‘light bulb’ moment. He observed, as he probably observed every time he took a bath, that the full bath overflowed when he dipped himself into it.

This time though, because of the task that was heavy on his mind, he instinctively related this simple everyday observation to the issue at hand. It suddenly downed onto him that he had it! The solution was right there, in his bath tab. He realised that he could measure the crown’s volume by the amount of water it displaced when immersed into a container full of water, and because he could now measure its volume all he had to do was to discover its weight to calculate its density, and that would tell him whether it was made of pure gold or had been adulterated by another substance.

In a moment of excitement at this discovery he jumped out of the bath and run out stark naked onto the streets shouting those famous Greek words which simply meant “I have found it! I have found it!”

Observation is probably the most underrated leadership tool and modern leaders would do well to harness it. It is a great way to read and understand one’s environment and when used well will act as a feedback tool for the effectiveness or impact of one’s leadership. It helps one read the dynamics of the team he/she leads, enables effective decision making and drives relevant innovation.

Harnessing the benefits of this important tool, as always, starts with developing and building it as a leadership competence, and building it starts from first being aware that by being more analytical of everyday occurrences one opens themselves up to the possibility that they will learn something new every day. Learning happens all the time through the things we see as we go about living our lives. By directing the learnings that we acquire from our surroundings everyday towards goals that we have set for ourselves one is able to ensure that random observations lead to beneficial outcomes, and this is when the benefits really start to accrue.

The topmost leadership benefit of observation is seen in one’s communication skills. Communication is a two-way street. By opening yourself up to observation you open yourself up to better listening skills which enables you to ‘take in’ more, and by taking in more you guarantee that the quality of what you ‘give out’, your response, is enhanced. Intuition is also built from observation.

Your ‘gut feel’ is subconsciously fed by keenly observing occurrences around you over time and you are therefore equipped with the tools to make faster, more effective decisions. Furthermore, information is power, so a leader’s ‘power bank’ is naturally charged when they use observation as a tool to build their information data bank which is a natural consequence if one is deliberate about it.

For the sake of these benefits it is imperative that leaders treat the art of observation as they would any other leadership action. It needs to be carried out with intention, as passive action against it will diminish its usefulness. It also needs to be well planned for and executed like any other task is and should be treated as critical. When the power of observation is used intentionally there is no more powerful tool for learning and in turn creating effective leadership.

Louis Pasteur, the chemist who famously discovered the principle of fermentation which originated the process of pasteurisation is quoted as saying, “Chance favours a prepared mind.” What he forgot to add though was that observation is a key determinant of how prepared the mind is to make use of the opportunity when chance comes along.