MIT Sloan Executive Education innovation@work Blog

Clarity over certainty, music lessons, and other notes from FRED Forum 2018

Contributed by Peter Hirst, Senior Associate Dean of MIT Sloan Executive Education.

Notes From Fred Forum

For someone who didn’t grow up with the tradition of Thanksgiving, I’ve learned to appreciate the holiday not only in its historical context (for better or worse), but also as an opportunity to practice gratitude. In the spirit of this perhaps unofficial but delightful tradition, I want to express my gratitude for a group called FRED Leadership. Strictly speaking, FRED Leadership is an organization dedicated to cultivating ethical, inclusive, and transformational leadership. It is also a deeply nurturing and inspiring community for leadership development professionals at business schools, corporations, consultancies, and nonprofits. Over the years, FRED has created and refined a formula for a successful workshop supporting people who are in the business of developing leaders. It’s a balance between new ideas, self-reflection, peer engagement, and invigorating experience—all rooted in FRED’s mission, which is as relevant and needed as ever.

Every year, I make it a priority to attend the annual conference called FRED Forum and I return from these trips “very Zen,” according to my colleagues, friends, and family. This year’s conference, aptly named FRED in the Fire: Igniting Leadership, was true to form in lighting a spark in everyone who participated, whether it was their first time or tenth. I was grateful for the opportunity to connect with old friends and make new ones, all the people who are concerned and thoughtful about the need for leadership in business and society.

Practice “spectrum thinking”

Over the course of four days, we heard from artists and thinkers, dreamers and doers. While all presentations and experiences were wonderful in their own way, I’d like to highlight a couple that made an especially deep impression on me this year. Bob Johansen, the author and Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for the Future, shared ideas from his recent book The New Leadership Literacies: Thriving in a Future of Extreme Disruption and Distributed Everything. One of his principal themes is that we ought to be moving from what he calls “categorical thinking” to “spectrum thinking.” The idea being that you can pick almost any issue, topic, or question—let’s say religion, politics, gender, age group, or tax bracket—and instead of seeing a small group of people occupying a small number of well-defined categories, he sees them all blurring into a continuous spectrum. And so, his suggestion is that if you look at the individual level, any one person may have elements of many different characteristics. It sounds kind of obvious, but how often do we hear very definite—as well as limited and limiting—opinions about millennials or women or CEOs?

Johansen suggests that when you apply this lens to organizations, the ability to understand systems in terms of these continuous distributions, where everyone really is an individual, is going to be the next big thing building on design thinking and beyond. To me, this sounds a lot like the theories and practices of systems thinking that have been studied here at MIT for decades. Spectrum thinking could also be instrumental for using big data and analytics to really understand people, things, and whole systems in this much more holistic way.

Another theme of Johansen’s that resonated with a lot of people at FRED Forum was the idea of certainty, stemming from this categorical thinking. As in, you’re certain about which category something belongs. He proposes that instead of talking about certainty, we should be talking about clarity. Which means we can see something how it is and appreciate it in its fullness rather than be certain about what it is—a timely and important reminder to keep your mind open and not put people into little categorical boxes too quickly.

Trust the (jazz) process

One of the key ingredients in a FRED Forum experience involves what FRED used to call “leadership expeditions” but this time were called “quests.” Quests are essentially field trips out to the community to meet leaders in a variety of organizations that are doing extraordinary things. In my case, I suspect that the Forum’s organizers might have deliberately put me into a quest that went to visit Orbert Davis, Artistic Director of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. I wrote about Davis after FRED Forum 2015 in Denver. To my delight, the maestro came back for a reprise.

On the quest, a group of us went to a school where he teaches his unique approach to music, blending classical and jazz, and I experienced a seemingly impossible feat. Davis took eight people, only one of whom (me) had any prior music-playing experience, and in a couple of hours he had us all playing a blues jam. This virtuoso impresario, Emmy-award winning, groundbreaking musical genius had a process and from a very simple beginning of teaching us the basics, he somehow managed to weave this whole eclectic group of hidden talents together.

I was a student of saxophone from ten years old, but I don’t play very often anymore. A significant realization that hit home for me was that if you don’t practice your capabilities, they atrophy. I see a metaphor here about capabilities in organizations that we teach in executive education—you actually have to practice those skills and keep practicing them; even if you are very good at something, you can lose that skill over time.

Expressing gratitude definitely is one of those skills: I am grateful to FRED Forum for inspiring me yet again and look forward to next year’s conference. Let’s all keep practicing!

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