Leadership, Resources

Thinking Makes You Morally Weak

(How’s that for an attention grabbing title?) I’m focusing a lot of my reading so far this year on aspects of brain science and how they apply to everyday leadership. I find it fascinating. There is so much we truly don’t understand about our minds both physiologically and behaviourally. Daniel Kahneman‘s book Thinking, Fast and Slow came highly recommended by someone I respect, and it has already proven worth the time and cost to begin working through it. I was really struck by these words in chapter 3:

Several psychological studies have shown that people who are simultaneously challenged by a demanding cognitive task and by a temptation are more likely to yield to the temptation.
And further:
People who are cognitively busy are also more likely to make selfish choices, use sexist language, and make superficial judgments in social situations.
I see implications of this everywhere. We’ve all known too many prominent leaders (and too many obscure ones too) who fall prey to seemingly absurd temptations and do severe damage to themselves, their loved ones, and their organizations. From the sidelines it appears they’ve lost their minds. In a sense that’s exactly right. If I’m understanding Kahneman correctly, when we are processing complex matters mentally we actually detract from our ability to employ the thinking systems designed to help us make good choices. We become, in my words, morally impaired. We become vulnerable to things that would commonly be easily and quickly rejected simply because our intellectually energy is being applied elsewhere. Whether it shows up as unhealthy snacking, marital infidelity, a few choice words slipping out, or any other regrettable behaviour; periods of intellectually demand create vulnerability. We truly become less able to do what is right. So, what to do? We need to be aware of this reality and prepare for it. In times of not only stress, but also of critical reflection and decision making we need to be more intentional about our areas of weakness. We need to enable others to help by supporting and challenging us. We are wise to anticipate the letdown and be in the right places when it comes. And we lead well when we consider how this impacts others on our team and in our community.