Sir, Put Down Your Narrative And Step Away Slowly

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A U.S. Marine Corps drill instructor with Alpha Company, 1st Recruit Training Battalion, gives his platoon a command during a final drill evaluation at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Dec. 22, 2018

A U.S. Marine Corps drill instructor with Alpha Company, 1st Recruit Training Battalion, gives his platoon a command during a final drill evaluation at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Dec. 22, 2018

I am skeptical of a lot of the recommendations I read on leadership, which often strikes me as pyramids of buzzwords, but I liked this article by a former British submariner who went on to do a PhD in leadership.

His first step is: "Ask difficult questions – It is too easy to go with the flow. Chances are that if you don't understand something, others do not either. Or it is a narrative fallacy that everyone believes without evidence." This resonated with me. When I was a reporter, I often found the best question was to say I don't understand something—this policy, or how this works. When I said, "General, that's an interesting approach, but I don't see how you are going to get Congress to go along with it," you could see the colonels all lean forward, because they were wondering about that too.

His second step: "Identify false narratives." As he notes, this is difficult, because, it "requires critical thinking skills. Military Estimates can be a tool to identify false narratives but be careful you are not affected by confirmation bias. Look for information that does not fit the narrative." I think this may be the hardest step, because organizations really cling to the narrative they have developed.

Third, "Be prepared to challenge, manage upwards, or to challenge your peers."

I think this is easier if you have his fourth step firmly in hand: "Consider new possibilities – Construct a new narrative based on critical thinking from the first stage. Be prepared to test the new narrative as well as the old (i.e. carry out the process again until you have a tried and tested awareness of the situation)."

He does have a buzzwordy label for all this, which is "SWAN"—for "Start With Another Narrative." In this case, I think he's earned it.