February 11, 2020

Why we need to be more discerning as people & leaders

By Tony Boobier

This month, we turn to the topic of being more discerning. Several pieces of recent content have prompted this theme.

In “Digital Minimalism“, Cal Newport encouraged us to be more discerning in our use of time & focus. In “How Charts Lie“, Alberto Cairo encouraged us to be more discerning when reading & sharing Data Visualisations.

So, is that easier or harder to do these days? Why should it matter for us as leaders and in our wider lives? To help kick us off in thinking about this topic, I’m pleased to welcome back guest blogger Tony Boobier.

Regular readers will recall that Tony is an experienced Insurance executive who has shared with us before on project management, customised learning & careers. His focus now is as a commentator, mentor and author. Here’s the review for Tony’s latest book “Advanced Analytics & AI” and I’m pleased to announce another is being written.

In the meantime, here are Tony’s thoughts on being more discerning…

Are consumers being more discerning?

When you describe someone as being ‘discerning’, we think of them as being able to judge what particular things are good or bad. It’s to do with ‘knowing’, ‘discriminating’, being more ‘critical’, and simply being more ‘aware’ of the positives and negatives of a product, service or even a person.

I wonder whether, in today’s data-driven age, it is easier or harder to be discerning? When once we relied on our own experience, hearsay or even intuition nowadays it increasingly seems like we rely on others to do the task for us.

Our holiday choices are often influenced by reviews on booking websites. Book choices can be based on Amazon reviews. Restaurant bookings by the opinions left on TripAdvisor (to name but a few sites).

Increasingly aren’t we trusting the opinion of others before we make up our own mind?

Does being data-led = being more discerning?

Data-driven reviews can also be subject to abuse. Disreputable customers might threaten a restauranteur with a poor review unless a handsome discount to the food bill is provided. Product suppliers have also been known either to falsify reviews, or to pay for positive responses. As a published author, I have first-hand experience of organisations offering to review my books ‘for a fee’.

Human nature being what it is, for those whose cup is ‘half full’, often they see the positive side of a situation and score on the high side.

Personally I’m more interested in low scoring reviews from the ‘half empty’ brigade, but even then I read them with a large pinch of salt. I suppose I have become ‘discerning’ about the information and insights provided to me by others.

Where do you get your news/opinion?

By the same measure, it’s easy to be influenced by the media in all its many forms. Online, on-demand and traditional; such as the printed press. Whilst a great amount of news is directly factual, opinions are often coloured by specific political or economic viewpoints.

Other front-page stories might equally fail to recognise the hidden complexity of a situation which, perhaps for quite sound reasons, haven’t been disclosed to journalists and reporters.

The benefit of benchmarking

I’m also always very interested in benchmarking one organisation against another, especially those carried out by independent bodies such as regulators. Aggregating a large number of responses takes out those reviews which are unreasonably favourable or are excessively critical. It helps me understand more about, for example, the punctuality of a train service or service by a utility provider.

More importantly, benchmarking helps put information ‘into context’. According to the American computer scientist Alan Kay, ‘Context is worth 80 IQ points’.

Is there a ‘discerning leadership’ gap?

But there is a crucial issue to consider, and that is the matter of discernment in leadership. It’s becoming increasingly critical that our leaders have both the capability and the competence to be discerning about the information they receive, both in a structured and unstructured form. That is, to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff.

It’s a task easier said than done. Evangelists of the data-driven era might point to data providing a single, undisputed version of the truth. But doesn’t that depend on the data being comprehensive and representative of the full picture? Only as far back as 2011 tobacco companies were accused of using misleading data to support their argument against new health regulations:


Today’s and tomorrow’s leaders need to have yet another competence.

In addition to being charismatic, adopting an ethical and diverse approach, and having the ability to be transformative in approach, don’t they also increasingly need to be discerning? To demonstrate discernment in their approach to information and data-driven advice? The hardest job might just have got a little bit harder.

Are you discerning in your inputs and outputs?

Thanks to Tony for those thoughts & provocations to think more about this topic. I agree with him that it is a competence needed by today’s leaders, perhaps more than ever.

That is one reason I’ve reviewed the books that I have so far this year. I hope they help your leadership development in this area.

To close I am also reminded of the advice from Alberto Cairo, to balance your information diet. For instance to read news from source with opposite political biases. Could you be more discerning in your outputs (decisions) as a leader by ensuring you don’t have blind spots in your inputs? Who else should you listen to in your organisation?