4P Model for Strategic Leadership: Perception


Katya Gonzalez-Willette: [00:00:04] Hello and welcome to Building State Capability at Harvard University's podcast series. In this BSC podcast, Salimah Samji interviews Harvard Kennedy School Lecturer in Public Policy and Leadership, Robert Wilkinson about his 4P Framework for Leadership. Rob describes the framework and delves into the first P: Perception. 

Salimah Samji: [00:00:29] Welcome, Rob, to the Building State Capability podcast series. Today, we're going to start our four part series where Rob is going to discuss his 4P Model of Strategic Leadership. Welcome, Rob.

Rob Wilkinson: [00:00:41] Thanks very much for having me. 

Salimah Samji: [00:00:43] I was wondering if you could start by sharing with our listeners what's the overall framework for this 4P Model of Strategic Leadership? 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:00:52] Yeah. This model we came up with as a framework to try and capture some of the less obvious aspects of leadership that we've seen repeatedly come up with leaders in a variety of different fields, in a wide range of environments and different levels that are consistently important, orienting questions and ways of looking at challenges that we face as leaders that maybe aren't always as obvious in the mainstream leadership literature. I myself have been working on this for 25 years and lived and worked in Southeast Asia and Africa for five years, working Latin America and Europe for five years. So just lots of different places and environments in the nonprofit, public and private sector. And one of the things I noticed both in the literature and in my experience is that great leaders have a focus on aspects of leadership that may be a little bit at odds with the traditional stereotype of what a great leader looks like, a sort of heroic individual, strong leader who comes in to sort of save the day turns out to not really be what a great leader always is spending their time on. So I've synthesized this into four domains of leadership, and I call it the 4P framework. The four P's are: preception, process, people and projection. So I can quickly tell you what I mean by those four things and then we're gonna dig into them a little more detail. Perception is the idea that we all perceive the very same information that we receive very differently. We draw wildly different conclusions. We interpret and assign meaning to these things that we're seeing as leaders and as followers in very different ways. And so we have to start often by just making sure we're clear on what the shared understanding is. And if it's not shared, we've got some work to do before we leap into action. And one of my great friends and colleagues likes to say, "Don't just do something, stand there." As opposed to, don't just stand there, do something. We have to first get clear what the emergency is. Even in a very dangerous situation where I've done some work overseas and aid work, just leaping into action can be more dangerous than stopping to make sure we're all clear what's going on. The second one on process has to do with the fact that simple process choices in terms of how we decide the way we're gonna work together as groups and as teams has a huge impact on outcomes, things that we don't always think about all the way through to just making a decision in a group. How do you do it? Do you listen to everybody first? Do you start by explaining your vision and ask people to critique it? Do you ask people to just go around, take a vote? Every choice you make has some impact on what kind of information, the quality of the information you're going to get. And then people what I mean as the human and emotional impact on people. That's something that sometimes we overlook to our own detriment. There's actually a lot of interesting studies on emotions as a leader. And one of our colleagues, Dan Shapiro, has written extensively about this, where he asks leaders around the world, how do you deal with emotions in your work? Guess what the number one answer is across the board?

Salimah Samji: [00:03:48] We don't.

Rob Wilkinson: [00:03:49] We don't. What are you talking about? Emotion? This is the real world. We're getting things done. Check your emotions at the door. Well, guess what? We can't. We're human beings. There's always emotions. And then the fourth one projection is the narrative that you tell yourself about what's going to happen in the future. What's your vision? What's your story about where we're headed and why? And how you frame things matters hugely. Even just the choice of words absolutely affects the way people think about what they're supposed to do. So these four P's, as I said, come up again and again. And in a nutshell, the way I think of it is perception, the way in which we understand and interrogate all the information that we receive. Process is all about the question of what's the way we engage groups and teams. The way we choose to do it affects the outcome. People, the human and emotional impact on the people involved. And projection is the story we tell ourselves and others about what's coming in the future. The final thing I'll just add to all of that is that for each one of those four P's, there is a kind of an internal dimension and an external dimension. So perception, I want to think about the way that I interpret information in the judgments I make and the conclusions I read and the group of people I'm working with and leading, I want to think about how do I frame an environment where we can interrogate information in a constructive way jointly? When it comes to process, I might say I have some certain goals I want to achieve. I want to increase my personal effectiveness as a leader. What's the process I'm going to use to go about that personal journey? And then there's the external process. How am I going to organize things with the people I work with so that I facilitate an environment which is the kind of environment I want to have as a leader? Similarly, people I have a human emotional impact on what I'm experiencing and regulating my own emotions. I'm not saying don't have emotions, we have them, but there's things I can do to regulate them individually as a leader, and then I can influence the people I'm working around me in terms of their emotions and even just to understand where they are emotionally, something that not a lot of the leaders think about. And then finally, projection is a story I tell myself about who I am and where I'm going as a leader. And then this a story I tell people externally about where we're going in this future vision that we're creating together. So in a nutshell, those are the four P's. They're orienting questions. It's a frame of reference to think about your own leadership approach that pulls together lots of different fields in different ways. And I'm definitely looking forward to diving into more detail for all four of them. 

Salimah Samji: [00:06:10] Great. Thank you very much. I love how your framework has this internal/external because we so many times forget ourselves in the picture. It's all about others are doing to others and not about looking within and kind of think about how are we thinking about this, so thank you very much for sharing that Framework. In today's podcast, let's focus on your first P: Perception and dove a little deeper. So what research or literature is your first P: Perception based on? 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:06:42] The literature is very rich and vast on this topic. And there's so many different people who've tried to look at how we understand the world around us and the sort of tendencies human beings have as they interpret and interrogate information that they receive. One example is one of our colleagues who's done a lot of fascinating work on this topic at the Harvard Business School. He's Professor Rob Robinson, who's been working on this for many years, and he wrote a really wonderful paper called Errors in Social Judgment. And what he focuses on is a range of different psychological tendencies we have when faced with information that we don't always agree with or don't want to see. One of the things he cites, it's a fascinating study that was done in the 50s. It was called They Saw a Game. And what is about is people watching a football game. And he, first of all, points out that the word fan, like a sports fan, guess where the word fan derives from? The word fanatic because we get of fanatical and we're really excited about something we want to see. So what he studied was the way that people interpreted what they saw after they watched the game. The research in the study looked at that and they found obviously, maybe unsurprisingly, two things. One is that the virtues that they ascribe to their own team in terms of the fact that they were more talented and upright, morally and honest, was outsized for their team. And then the second thing, of course, is that the other side was unscrupulous and they were terrible. They did all these awful things whichever side you were on in any game. People always fell into those categories. And guess what? That starts to come to life in a very real way when we think about politics these days. 

Salimah Samji: [00:08:19] Oh yeah, that's what I was thinking. 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:08:22] Absolutely. But it started back with some early studies on things that were little less sort of important, like sports games. But actually, the same psychological process is happening and they refer to this as partizan perceptions. We perceive things in a very partizan way, basically. And so that led to this sort of concept that Robinson and his colleagues developed called naive realism, naive realism. And this is kind of hard for us who think like, well, the world is what it is. You see it and you see it. It's right there in front of you, you know, there's no other way to look at something. It's plain as the nose on your face. I'm looking at it. It is what it is. The thing about naive realism, the way they put it, is like this is sort of three elements to naive realism. The first is that all of us as human beings generally believe the world is just an objective reality. It is what it is. And that's a first step to our assumptions. The second one is that we have this process is called a false consensus effect. We believe that people around us share our view of the world. We just assume that we're all in agreement on this. Right? And the third part is if someone does or says something that seems to go against your understanding of the world, we leap to a conclusion which is they're irrational. They don't get it. They don't understand it. And so this aspect of naive realism is at the heart, a lot of times, of mistakes that leaders make when they go out and tell people, "OK. This is where we're going." They leap to the end of the story and say, "This is our vision, this is our plan." And of course, everyone's going to get it and agree with it without recognizing. I have to do some work to understand what their objective, quote unquote, objective reality of the world is. Whereas, in fact, it's actually rather subjective inherently. So that's a fascinating piece of research that starts things off for me. And one other one I will just quickly mention is our colleagues Doug Stone and Sheila Heen in the Law School at Harvard, who have written a wonderful book called Difficult Conversations, one of the most influential books in the community of people that we work with. I've discussed it previously on podcasts here. And one aspect of that book is really about this question of assuming we know everything we need to know about the way the world works and then moving forward, that can actually be at the heart of a lot of difficult conversations, there's a lot more out there, too. But those are some really fantastic examples. 

Salimah Samji: [00:10:33] Great. Thank you. And we'll be posting links to these in the summary of the episode, if you're interested in learning more about them. So, Rob, if you can share, why does this matter? 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:10:44] You know, it's funny. Again, it's not the most obvious thing you think of as a leader, but it turns out to come up again and again and again in my career I've just seen it in the research I've read. Here's an example. So my background actually is engineering and science. I studied undergraduate and graduate school science and engineering, and I took a deep dive into the basic sciences, physics, chemistry, etc. And one might think, even in the world of science, it's not true that everyone agrees on the you know, you think two plus two equals four. That's not debated. However, in complex scientific fields, there's huge debate on how to understand the same phenomena. So let's just take two of the greatest scientists in human history. We could debate who the top two are, but I think everyone would agree that Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. So if you take an engineering degree or a science degree, you've got to study physics and Newtonian physics. You know, Isaac Newton came up with these laws of physics that are really changed the world, really. And he looks at objects like pool balls hitting each other. And you can write equations that will predict their motions. Now, later on in your degree, you start to study things like quantum physics and maybe the theory of relativity. And even if you haven't studied this stuff, don't worry about the technical part of it. But one of the major insights of Einstein was that if you go to a larger scale, not just here on Earth, but started looking at the way planets and the universe functions, there's a whole different set of equations that describe those motions and they don't really hold up here on Earth. And yet Newton's equations don't hold up on the large scale structure of the universe. So the question might be like, well, who's right? Einstein or Newton? It's sort of a nonsense question because it's just different frames of reference. And one of the many things that Einstein's genius kind of came from is this idea of looking at the same thing in a different way. That's where perception shows up again and it's changed the world. It's a whole different way of seeing the very same thing. And we see it in all sorts of different fields coming up again and again and again. So just one quote from Einstein I love, by the way. He says, "To raise new questions, new possibilities. To regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science." Now, I might just swap out the word science and just say, really any kind of field that you're trying to show leadership in seeing the same thing from a new angle. Right. Here's another quick example. There's a client that I've been consulting with for about almost 10 years now, and they're called the Center for American and International Law, CALE. They're based in Dallas, Texas. And it was founded by a guy named Robert Story. Robert Story is one of the lead prosecutors in the Nuremberg trials after World War Two. And the thing that he said that was the biggest obstacle to making progress was international cooperation in the legal field. It wasn't the law itself. It was working with people that had different perceptions about how to understand and interpret what had happened after World War Two. And so he created this nonprofit to bring together lawyers from around the world to start looking at these questions. And so I've been working with them for a long time. You know, the law isn't the question. It's the interpretation of the law. That's the hard part. And in fact, they have a project, an innocence project. You've probably heard of this where people have been wrongly convicted and they've understood now that they should be released and they're innocent. And now you have to bring together all of these people who are in the legal system, who have only known each other in the world of an adversarial, conflictual interaction. Now they have to sit down and collaborate to help figure out what are we going to do to bring this person back into civilian life. And they don't have any kind of skills to do it. It's really remarkable because it's never been part of their training to see things in a different way. It's just been hammering in one perspective. And so the reason that we're trying to build these skills of perception and interpretation of information from different angles is because they haven't learned it yet. So that's why this is becoming part of the required training for a lot of incoming students here at the Kennedy School and other places, because this turns out to be crucial, seeing the same thing from different perspectives in order to get a way forward. 

Salimah Samji: [00:14:39] Great. It helps one's understanding as well. I love the Einstein quote. Thank you for sharing. Do you have any personal examples that you can share about why perception is really important? 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:14:51] There's just so many. Yeah. Well, let me tell you one example, which was a really striking one. One of the places I worked over the years is a country in Southeast Asia, Laos. I spent a year and a half living in sort of remote communities, working on projects with UNICEF and the Red Cross and Save the Children on different development projects. And it's probably one of those countries I've worked in that has been, you know, it's just a very different perspective on the world. You know, I wasn't used to working in Asia. First of all, it's a communist country. It has Buddhist philosophy, just different ways of seeing the world. Fascinating. And I remember going with a colleague of mine who was going for the first time, didn't like flying, first of all. And so a pretty difficult place to get to. You have to take several different flights. There's no direct flights to the capital, Vientiane. We first change in the Middle East, then we change in Japan and we got to Bangkok. And then by the end, we took a Lao Airways flight on a tiny little plane from Bangkok to the capital of Laos, Vientiane. And he was kind of getting progressively nervous. And we had to walk across the runway to this tiny little plane. And he was thinking, "Uh-oh, this doesn't look good." An absolute true story. We get in the plane and there's Lao Airways magazine in the back flap of the seat. He pulls it out to start reading to get kind of keep his mind off of this flight we have to take. And there's the first page is a letter from the CEO of Lao Airways. The very first line says, "First of all, we would like to apologize for all of the mistakes we made last year. We would like to thank you for your continued loyalty." And it goes on like this. And he just looks at me and he slams the magazine shut and puts it back and says, "That's enough reading for right now." Of course, we fly and we land fine and everything. And we get to our colleagues in Laos and we said, "You know, why would you write that as a CEO of an airline?" And of course, that was just the fact that we were so shocked by that just shows our own story about how we perceive information, because it turned out that the year before there had been a crash and actually somebody had died. So what do you do as a leader if you're running an airline with that kind of situation that happens? Well, in that culture, the thing you have to do is own it, stand up and say, you know, we made a mistake and we're going to apologize and we're not going to hide it. In fact, we're going to put it front and center to prove to you just how seriously we take it and your safety. Whereas our frame of reference is you would never put that front and center right. That would be a horrible thing to do. But it just was a great real example and that it was the insights of how we're gonna have to work if we want to work effectively in this culture, in this environment and this perception of how you deal with crisis. Two different perceptions just clashed in that moment when we read that first line. Let me give you another one that's a little bit more close to home. A close friend went to dinner in Boston in the North End, the Italian section there for dinner with his wife. And they had booked a table, but it was really busy. So they were waiting by the concierge desk there and they could see the restaurant, see all the tables. And the maitre'd said, "Oh, you know, your table is right there. There's some people just finishing their meal. So it'll only be another minute." And they're standing there and they're looking at the table and they see two people at the table having dinner and they're laughing and they're talking and they're sort of like getting more and more impatient. And this woman is sitting there and everybody's coming over to this woman who's at their table, kind of quote unquote. And they're talking to her. And then she's, like, paying no attention to the fact that they're standing there waiting for their table and she doesn't even stand up. People come over and, like, they're hugging her like she owns the place. You know, she doesn't even stand up. And people are treating her like this queen and they're building the story in their head like this arrogant, selfish woman who thinks she's special and she's just taking our table. They're getting angrier and angrier. And finally they go up and they complain and they say, "You know, this woman's been there an hour now greeting all these people. Who did she think she is?" And the maitre d says, "You know, I'm really sorry to keep you waiting. I really apologize. But this is one of our regular customers has been here for a long time. And she was a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing and she actually lost her legs. And this is her first time going out to have dinner since she's recovered. And everybody is so happy to see her congratulating her." And that, first of all, you know, he felt terrible and it explained the behavior and explained why she wouldn't stand up. And it was such a powerful example to him of, wow, my perception of what was going on was so radically different than what was actually going on. And where does that start? Who is the one who can control how we perceive things? It's ourselves. We're the ones who could be asking different kinds of questions rather than leaping to some assumption and then doubling down about how outrageous the situation is. We can actually start by checking ourselves a little bit before we attack or criticism or walking away in anger or whatever we do. It starts with us in terms of our perception. 

Salimah Samji: [00:19:35] That is really incredible. It makes me think about how even in our own lives, the moment your perception changes, your entire mood changes, you can be angry at someone and then like these guys did at that restaurant, realize, oh, wait, there is a reason why. And then just like flipping a coin. It changes. 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:19:53] Isn't it remarkable?

Salimah Samji: [00:19:55] It really is remarkable because you are literally fuming, angry, all these crazy emotions. Then you realize, oh, there's a good reason why this is happening and I should be more understanding. And then you change. It's like flicking a switch. And that really is is incredible about this story. I was wondering, so what does this mean for leaders? Are there some concrete things that you can share with our listeners on what they can do differently about the first P Perception?

Rob Wilkinson: [00:20:24] Great question. Yeah, and we're sort of starting to touch on that, which is that I think it comes down to us individually before we do anything else, checking ourselves about our assumptions about what we're perceiving and to make it even more concrete, I mentioned earlier our colleagues, Doug Stone and Sheila Heen, in that research that they've done, they come up with some great questions to just think about when you're feeling exactly as you just described, frustrated and angry and outraged and something's wrong and we've got to do something. And these people are evil. And you go down this long road of these assumptions, there's these three questions they came up with, which I really love, which is OK, let's focus on what did they actually say or do? Just factually. Not they were rude to me. They were insulting. They were untrustworthy. But just what did they actually concretely say or do? Just like a reporter or a journalist, just getting the facts. Second is, what's the set of assumptions I've made about what they did? Which is separating those two things is huge. You know, it's one thing to say you were untrustworthy. It's another thing to say you didn't do what you promised you were going to do. Therefore, I'm making an assumption that you were untrustworthy or maybe I'm making an assumption that you're incompetent or whatever the story is. What is that assumption? Just be concrete about it. And then thirdly, what are the theories or hypotheses or ideas I have about why they might have done what they did? Because we're masters, human beings, at telling a story. And you know what? The story usually has a hero and it has a villain. And any guesses who the hero is? It's always us right? And the villains, the other side. So let's just try to generate some possibilities about why they did what they did and maybe they were ill. Maybe they had some really bad news. Maybe they just didn't realize what they were doing was a different perception than I had about what the next steps were. There's any number of stories that could explain why they did what they did. And just taking a minute to go through those three questions in your head when you next engage with that person. They'll see it. It just shows up that you've been that thoughtful. Now, as a leader, you're dealing with a wider group of people. The same thing applies. You can still set up an environment where you're encouraging people to take that mindset versus the easier, quicker, simpler mindset of just look, it's their fault. And I'm innocent here. I'm the victim. Really interesting example is a surgeon. My colleagues wrote about a surgeon in this operating room who was really world class, but started to look at these ideas of perception and realized, you know, he didn't actually stop to take the views of other people in the operating room. And even some people, the way he was standing, he was blocking the view of some of the other staffers, anesthesiologists and nurses and everybody. They couldn't see the patient in a way that would have given additional information. And so he changed the process in the operating room so that he could listen to the views of everybody around and they could all see the patient from a different angle, back to what Einstein was saying. And even though he was world class and at the top of his field, his numbers got better still. His mortality rates dropped even further because he created environment where we could tap into the variety of perceptions in the room to get a more informed perspective. And apparently his phrase in the operating room was, "Slow down. We're in a hurry." He'd say, "Slow down. We're in a hurry." In other words, we can't afford to rush past all these important perceptions to get the better outcome because we're in a hurry. That's actually gonna cost us more than taking a few minutes to just make sure we've got the full picture. So it's just another example of how the external part of the group's perceptions can inform everyone in terms of how to move forward more effectively. 

Salimah Samji: [00:23:56] Thank you so much for sharing some concrete questions that our listeners can use to help them with the whole idea of perception. What I was struck by in your questions is this idea of empathy, which you spent much time in our last podcast, right, putting yourself in somebody else's shoes, asking yourself why could they be doing what they're doing? It's not because they hate me. They can't be. Or because they're wrong. Those are two simple two easy ways to be able to rationalize that. 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:24:25] Absolutely. That's right. And, you know, I talked about some sort of examples that are a little bit more funny, like being on a plane or in a restaurant. You can see where this goes, though. It does get quite powerful and quite important when we're in places where there's some real consequences, I mean, we're struggling in a crisis right now, the COVID-19 crisis. And you watch how people interpret actions and they start to say, "Oh, well, they're only doing this because of political expediency or they're only doing this to mask their incompetence." And I'm not saying that there's no such thing as incompetence and there's no such thing as bad intentions. I'm just saying, if we leap to that assumption too quickly, we can cause a lot more problems and damage than we need to. I worked for three years in Rwanda after the Genocide, working to rebuild communities there and training leaders in different environments. And if there's ever a place where you think, OK, this is black and white, right and wrong. There's people who perpetrated genocide in Rwanda. So there's really no way to look at it. They've admitted it even, you know, and there's evidence of it. They're just evil. Even there in such an extreme circumstance. There were all sorts of cases where it just wasn't that clear because you had to take the time to perceive that third question of what might be different motivations to why they did what they did. Sometimes people were completely coerced into doing it. There's one amazing case where there was a person who was hiding in their basement dozens of Tutsis to save their lives and of course, had to keep his house from getting searched by the military in charge at the time. And so he had to go to the checkpoints and participate in these atrocities in order to not look like he was not on board in order to save the people he was hiding in his basement. So yes, it's a pure fact he was participating in one of the worst kind of crimes in humanity. And his motivation was to save even more people who he was protecting. So there's always complexity in perception. As soon as you say, "OK. This one here, though, is just an open, shut case. There's no other way to look at this." I would just say watch yourself. There's always another way to look at it. And we want to just hold ourselves to a standard as leaders of being open minded. I spent also a couple of years doing some training in the White House during the Obama administration. You know, people love and hate Democrats, Republicans, all kinds of political questions you could ask about which leaders you like and don't like. One of the things I like to look at, though, is just the choices they make in Obama's meetings. He would say, I wasn't in directly those meetings. I was working with staffers, but he would apparently always say everyone in the meeting, you've got to share with me your view on this. I don't care if you agree with me or disagree with me. You don't owe me anything. As in, you don't owe me saying yes, you support me or not. The only thing you owe me, he said, is your voice. In other words, he's trying to create an environment where he's getting those different perceptions before making a final decision. And that's just another example of how we can set processes up as leaders to create an environment where we respect the idea that inevitably, inherently, there's going to be a wide variety of perceptions. And without capturing those in a sincere and systematic way, we're actually going to put ourselves at risk for making worse choices. So that's the idea. 

Salimah Samji: [00:27:32] Great. Thank you so much, Rob. We look forward to the second podcast where you will discuss the second P: Process. 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:27:39] Wonderful. Thanks so much for having me. Great to chat with you. 

Katya Gonzalez-Willette: [00:27:43] To learn more about the Building State Capability program, visit www.bsc.cid.harvard.edu. [00:27:43]