4P Model for Strategic Leadership: Projection

In this BSC podcast, Salimah Samji interviews Harvard Kennedy School Lecturer in Public Policy and Leadership, Robert Wilkinson about his 4P Framework for Leadership and the fourth P: Projection.


Listen to other episodes in the 4P Framework for Leadership podcast series

Read Eye Movement and Vision by Alfred L. Yarbus.

Read Mindset: The New Pyschology of Success by Carol S. Dweck.

Read What Leaders Really Do by John P. Kotter.

Read Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well  by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen.


Katya Gonzalez-Willette [00:00:04] Hello and welcome to Building State Capability at Harvard University's podcast's 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 and the fourth P: Projection. 

Salimah Samji [00:00:24] Welcome to the BSC podcast series we have with us again Rob Wilkinson, who is sharing his 4P Model of Strategic Leadership. We already have podcasts on the first three P's, which our perception process and people. And today's podcast, Rob, is going to talk about the fourth P of the model called projection. Welcome, Rob. 

Rob Wilkinson [00:00:47] Hi. Thanks for having me back. 

Salimah Samji [00:00:49] Wonderful. I was wondering, Rob, if you can start with explaining what does projection mean? 

Rob Wilkinson [00:00:55] Projection is the idea that we all, whether we realize it or not, are telling a story about where we think things are going in the future. And we're also telling a story about who we think we are as leaders. And so we're projecting our vision of what we think is important and where we want people to focus. And we're actually doing that with our own self reflection as well. And the reason that this matters so much is that we don't always think about this. We don't always think about the idea that we have some control about the focus of where people are going in the future. Let me share, for example, why I'm bringing this up. This is in the heart of a lot of the classic leadership literature. And one of the definitions that John Kotter Professor at the Harvard Business School uses is of leadership is the following. He says leadership is associated with taking an organization into the future. Leadership is about vision, empowerment and producing useful change. I would love that definition because it's so succinct and clear, but it means that a leader has to then tell a story to people about where we're going. If you're going to have followers that go with you. One other example. Warren Bennis is a great leadership scholar. University of Cincinnati. And he says the first job of a leader is to define a vision for the organization. Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality. So for me, the reason I think of this term projection is that we're signaling this future point that we want to get to and we're telling a story about how we're gonna get there, which is something that we sometimes overlook. In other words, we think we work so hard, we're trained to look at the data and the evidence and understand the argument, and we make our case to people, but we don't often think so much about how we make the case. We more think about the substance of the argument itself. And so a very important and sometimes subtle part of leadership is explicitly focusing on that story you're telling people, which can be when we're going to talk a little bit about the research, it shows that the way that you do that, the way you frame it, can radically change the way that people respond to your story. 

Salimah Samji [00:02:59] Great. So why does projection or telling your story matter? 

Rob Wilkinson [00:03:03] It's so influential. There's some clarity and simplicity that comes from just thinking about it this way, in the first instance, I would say, you know, Vincent Van Gogh, the famous painter, said, "I dream my painting and I paint my dream." And to me, it's the same kind of analogy. You know, I've got to be clear of where I'm going. And then we got to paint that story. And to me, this gives us a lot of leverage. A lot of the work I've done over the years has been around negotiation and conflict resolution and violent conflict situations and peace processes and working with the U.N. peacekeeping mission, etc.. And one of the early things I studied was from someone named Johan Galton. They considered the father of peace research and peace studies and has written a lot of influential books. And one of the simple models he taught us, this was like twenty five years ago when I was first studying this. Just imagine like a four quadrant grid. And it's very simple in the top. He has past and future. On the Y axis it's just positive, negative four boxes. And when you're in a discussion with people, whether you're a leader or team member or you know, you're trying to run a project, you'll notice that people have a tendency to get pulled to one of those quadrants. And when there's people who really disagree, where do they go past negative? And so if you're a leader or a mediator or a facilitator, you can actually try to focus them on something different. A lot of times they'll go a future positive, like what might be better if we did it this way? What would it look like if we were successful? Right. Or sometimes future negative. You can say, well, if we don't change anything, what we can see in the future is it's going to go like this, not where we want to go or past positive, you know, it actually wasn't all bad. There were some good things. And, you know, just by posing certain questions, you end up moving people into a conversation that can be more or less productive. And it's something that's a little less obvious, as a leader, than some of the things that we do focus on, which is making the best case we possibly can. Let me give you one other example. Framing. We call this framing, like I mentioned before, which is how you present something affects whether people are onboard or not. One interesting example, research study they did on let me point the question out that they said here's the question. They said to people, "If somebody sues you and you win the case, should they pay your legal costs?" That's majority people. Eighty five percent said "Yes, of course, they should pay my legal costs." Question two is, "If you sue somebody and lose the case, should you pay their legal costs?" And way less than half said, "Why should I pay their legal costs?" It's the exact same question. It just is reframed where you're in a different role in that little scenario. And people have very different answers. More than double are in favor of it if you frame it a certain way. So we're talking about a conscious effort to think about where you focus the attention of the process and how people feel about it and their disagreement on a topic. Where are you going to focus the conversation? It's like orienting questions. There's a really fascinating study done many years ago by a researcher named Jarvis it's called the Jarvis Eye Movement Study. And it was so interesting. There's a picture, an old painting, a classic painting called The Visitor. And it's a person walking into a room. And there's some people sitting in that room and it's just a painting. And yet at the same time, it's filled with all these subtleties if you ask the right questions. So he tracked people's eye movements, looking at the painting after he asked them a series of questions. So one question he asked was, "Estimate the economic level of the people in the room." And the eye movements. You can look this up online and see them. It's fascinating. The eye movements go all over their bodies and around the furniture and around the table to try and judge what level of economic income these people might have. But then he says, "Estimate the time since the guest's last visit." And now you see the eyes are laser focused on everybody's faces, trying to sort of judge what emotion you can pick out. And then he says, "What were they doing before the visitors arrival?" And now it's looking even at broader range of the things in the room and where they might have been if he says, "Try to remember what they were wearing." Of course, their eyes go up and down their clothes. So the point here is that just by the question you ask, you are focusing people's attention hugely, as a leader. And it's not about just having the most compelling arguments or being, you know, very persuasive in how you speak. It's about where you're projecting their attention as you're trying to move forward. And it's something that we often overlook as leaders. And yet it's incredibly powerful and influential. 

Salimah Samji [00:07:22] That's really helpful. I like that. I was wondering if you can share what the internal element of projection is. 

Rob Wilkinson [00:07:31] Yeah. This one is fascinating and I would say it's probably one of the most central tensions in this whole leadership model that's really important to understand, because as we tell stories about the future and project and frame what we think should happen with the group, we're sometimes not as aware that we're also doing this for ourselves. We tell ourselves a story about who we are and what kind of person we are. And that internal framing is something we actually have some control over. One of the things I think about is this wonderful researcher named Carol Dweck, who wrote a famous book called Mindset. And one of her central arguments is that we have as people sometimes what she would call a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset and a fixed mindset is saying to yourself, "I'm smart or I'm not smart or I'm really good at this, I'm really bad at this, or I'm just this kind of person." Not in a way that allows for growth and for change and for transformation. It's a very much like this is who I am. I've always been told I'm like this. I know that I will fail if I try that and I'll succeed if I try this. Versus a growth mindset, which is, you know, we're always constantly evolving as people. We always have the chance to see things in a different way and expand our horizon and redefine ourselves. And what her argument is, is that a growth mindset tends to be much more resilient and flexible and gives us a lot more chance to succeed as leaders. Whereas a fixed mindset can be risky because it's a bit more all or nothing. So, for example, they did a study with children and they gave them a puzzle to work on. And then afterwards, half of the children, the researchers said, "Wow, you're really smart." And the other half, they said, "Wow, you really worked hard on that puzzle." Then they said, "Do you want to do another one?" And guess what? The first group who was told they were smart was less likely to do another puzzle. The second group was very eager to do another puzzle because they didn't have as much on the line. You know, they didn't have much to lose. They just have to try hard. But the first group, if they didn't do it right, uh-oh, maybe I'm threatening this status that I've achieved now of being smart. And so this is an example of how we are both externally projecting, but also internally, you know, if you just say, "I'm good at this." As opposed to, "This is a really exciting learning opportunity for me. This is something that's challenging, but I'm learning new things or I'm being stretched in different ways." It's a difference between a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset. And so we do have some control over this. And I do think that a lot of the leaders that we work with, you know, sometimes you're working with entry-level people through to very senior leaders. You can quickly tell what kind of mindset they have. And so working with them to think about revisiting the fixed mindset can be helpful. Albert Einstein had a great quote I love, which is "The only thing more dangerous than ignorance is arrogance." And I love that because I think the arrogance means I don't have anything else to learn, you know, and that's that's dangerous. That's worrying. And then I think maybe the final thing I'll just share about that point, another quote that I love is from a woman named Carol Moseley Braun, she's the first African-American female U.S. Senator in history. And she said, "Defining myself as opposed to being defined by others is one of the most difficult challenges that I face." And that is such a fascinating insight, I think, as a leadership question, because we're always in this tension between telling our own story to ourselves about who we are in the world with, how people are projecting onto us their version of who we are in the world. And that's a difficult tension that we'll always be grappling with, not only as leaders, just as people navigating the world really. 

Salimah Samji [00:11:03] Absolutely. That's really powerful, Rob, because it reminds me of a lesson that I learned at one of my previous jobs from the communications team there that would often tell us you need to own your communications, you need to define your story, or you need to create your narrative and not let others do it for you, because then you're always playing catch up and trying to re change a narrative when you could have been proactive and owned your narrative. That really rings true for me, too. 

Rob Wilkinson [00:11:32] You've capture the essence of this concept so nicely with that explanation. It's so fundamental as a leader and just as a person, I think to be clear about your ability to define your own narrative. I think it's always something that we feel we notice other people are imposing on us and projecting onto us. And we have the ability also to define our own narrative. And one thing I'll share about this projection P of the four P's, that line between the internal projection in the story you tell yourself and the external story, that line is at the heart of this concept that many people have heard of - authentic leadership. In other words, if the gap is pretty big between your internal version of what you think and the story and external version of the story you're telling, people can start to see that they'll notice that you're working really hard to tell a certain story and project a message and a vision that internally is not consistent with what you actually think or how you behave. That kind of thing. And it doesn't get you off the hook just to conflate the two. That's not the only thing people are looking at. You have to have compelling vision based off of multiple perspectives, the first P; a robust process, the second P; that is at the heart of what people really care about the human impact, the third P. All that has to be there, of course. Then we get to the fourth P, projection. If that story you're telling is really different than what you really think, people see it. You know, when people don't like politicians because they're saying something they don't believe in, that's because they have a huge gap between the internal and the external projection. And some people love, there's politicians who are like they just say it like it is. They're straight talkers. And there's almost no gap between just what they're thinking internally, what they say publicly. We see that resonates with people. Like I said, doesn't get you off the hook because you may not like the story or the vision they're creating. But there is an element of authenticity there that we have to be mindful of. I'm not saying just unfiltered share everything without any confidentiality. Just say it all openly. That obviously doesn't make any sense. At the same time, though, if it's too much of filtering out only the right stuff. So people think a certain thing, that's not true, then we're in trouble. Stephen Covey is a well-known leadership author and thinker, wrote some famous books, obviously like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People When the most well-known books. He said something really interesting in a talk I listened to him give once and he said, "You can't talk your way out of a situation. You behaved your way into." And what I love about that is that it's your actions and your consistency and your behavior over time is what people are gonna judge you on. So you can't just quickly tell a little story. This external projection. This is what's gonna happen if it's not consistent with how you actually authentically behave, which is a reflection of the story you've been telling yourself. So this tension right here is really one of the most central ones in the model overall, I think.

Salimah Samji [00:14:19] Great. I was wondering if you can share some concrete things leaders and some of our listeners can do with projection. 

Rob Wilkinson [00:14:28] The first part of this, I would say, is that as we're trying to bring people on board with us and again, let's just remind our listeners that when we talk about leadership, it's not just CEOs and heads of state. It's anything you're doing in your team and your group and your own family even. Right. So if you're trying to send a message and get people on board with your plan or your vision, one thing to do is to just reframe that message in lots of different formats before you send it out. Just play around with it. Experiment with it. Like I said before, the way that you present it, the order you present things in, can have a very different impact on people, even if it's exactly the same message. So just think about it in different formats. And then a second thing you can do is try it out with a few people beforehand. You know, a close group of friends, some colleagues. This leads us all the way to things like, you know, focus groups. I mean, I wouldn't want to workshop it so much that it's like not authentic, because then we're back to that same problem of the big gap between internal external. Nevertheless, I think we can always benefit from some input from others about how it landed with them. And if it was the same message you intended to send that they received. So experimenting beforehand, trying it out with few people. On the internal side, there's also a couple of concrete things that I think are really valuable. Well, there's a wonderful book written by our colleagues, Doug Stone and Sheila Heen, and it's called Thanks for the feedback. It's really a fantastic book, I think, for personal growth and the essence of the book is all about the fact that when we get feedback and all kinds of forms about who we are and how we perform and what people think of us, it's not just a once a year meeting with your line manager where you have a performance review. It's every day, all the time. We're getting feedback about ourselves in different forms. And what they say is, you know, we're really good as human beings at rejecting all that feedback. We don't like it. We find lots of good reasons to say, "I don't know what you're talking about or they're not qualified." We throw it all out. We all do. And there's no asterisk that says if you studied at Harvard or if you read these books, then you don't do it. We all do this all the time. And so what they recommend, they had a lot of great recommendations. A couple that stick out in my mind that I think are super helpful is number one, they call this moving from wrong spotting to what they call difference spotting. In other words, someone gives you some feedback, "That project wasn't great or that presentation or how you managed this situation." And what do we do? We say, "Oh, that's totally wrong. All of it's wrong." We throw it all out. And instead, you might think that their recommendation would be right spotting. In other words. Well, what might be right about this? Which I think is perfectly reasonable. You know, we're not saying take on board feedback that is bad feedback. Just ask yourself, is there a chance that anything embedded in here might be valid? This is a very emotional thing, getting hard feedback for people. So if it's too hard to even say what's right, you could at least look for what's different from what you understood, how you see yourself. You know, the story you tell yourself. You think that's not the story I tell myself. That doesn't sound like me. What they're saying. What's different here? And then why is there that difference? So moving from wrong spotting and just saying it's all wrong. Say, well, why is there a difference between how I see myself and what they're saying? So that's just the first step of being open minded about growth. Personal growth. And here's the fourth one I might just share is that they have this idea in the book about just try it on. In other words, you know what? Maybe this is a good idea. Maybe not. I don't know. Does it mean for ever, for the rest of your life, you have to commit to making this change that they said you should make, that's sort of a fixed mindset, way of thinking about it. You can just say, let's see what it's like. Maybe when I do my lectures, I should not open up with this preamble. Or maybe when I meet clients, I should go to their sites instead of mine, whatever the suggestion is. You know what? I could maybe try it out and just see. And you may not like it. You go back to what you did the first place. But it's that open mindedness and humility to recognize that we have some areas we can sort of maybe redefine ourselves in our identities that could be for the better and maybe not, but we can at least be open to exploring it. So there's just a few concrete things we can try. And we're thinking about the story and we're telling others and the story we're telling ourselves as we sort of project our vision forward. 

Salimah Samji [00:18:29] I particularly like the last one. I've often heard it used as rent this idea. And what's amazing is, again, the whole point of your framing, right? When you frame it as I'm just renting this, you are able to be much more open to things that you would normally say, "No, this is crap." You know, you have your normal filters and all it's crap. I don't believe this. I'm not going to do this. But I'm like, all right. I won't try it out. I just have a different mindset in terms of, "All right, let's try it out." Because I don't have to do anything with it. I'm not making any promises to do anything with it. And it just does lead you to having much more openness. 

Rob Wilkinson [00:19:04] That's a fantastic way to put it, I hadn't heard that. But the rent signals this temporary nature to it, which I think is great. You know, it's just a an experiment. Basically, it's like a scientific experiment. And I think like the other P's, if you have done this internal work. This internal thinking and reflection, it really shows up for people. You know, I like to think of. You've heard about this KISS principle. Keep it simple, stupid, you know, which in itself it's valid. But just in and of itself, being simple isn't enough. The idea is that you capture the range of reflections and then you simplify that. There's a great quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Former Supreme Court Justice that I'll paraphrase, which is basically, he says, "Simplicity on the near side of complexity is meaningless. But simplicity on the far side of complexity is priceless." So that's the essence of why it's so important to do all this reflection and this recognition that the stories we tell are complex stories and we have to simplify them so people understand where we're trying to go and how we think of ourselves. But that takes a lot of work and a lot of reflection. And we can get to this KISS principle and keep it simple. But we can't just leap to that. We have to do the hard work first before we can boil it down to something that's crystallizes a lot of complex ideas. And, you know, one of my colleagues likes to point to this sports analogy. He was looking at the Olympics hundred meters competition that happened in Athens in 2004 or something and he said that the men's hundred meters, the first three people came in and I think was 9.85 was the gold medal, 9.86 was the silver, 9.87 was the bronze. And like 9.89 was the fourth person who's like a footnote in Olympic history now, right? And his point was like that one hundredth of a second took these years and years of refining every aspect of their competition and their health and their physique to just shave off one hundredth of a second. These small differences can have these huge impacts. So all this work of reflecting, how am I framing it? What's the real message? What's the consistency with my internal story? When someone stands up and is an effective leader and speaker and a communicator and team member and colleague, it's not just because they worked out the right things to say. It's this deep reflection that they've been doing for a long time to try and get the story. A compelling story right, based on really thoughtful and meaningful interrogation of what this vision of projecting really should be. 

Salimah Samji [00:21:32] Rob, I was thinking for the final question, if you could kind of pull all of your P's together for our listeners, just give them a sense of your 4P Model of Strategic Leadership. 

Rob Wilkinson [00:21:43] The 4P Model in a nutshell, these four P's: perception process, people and projection is all about what you see inherent in great leadership that we look at around us every day. And just to recap the content of it: So for perception, the internal element is that instilling humility and creativity, and open mindedness and how you see the world and how you reason with information that you get and the external is creating an environment or conditions to achieve a shared understanding with people who have multiple perspectives. Process, internally, you have to create an internal approach or process that promotes your own personal learning as a leader and, externally, managing a process where you bring together a lot of stakeholders in a way that's efficient and effective and overcome some of those pitfalls we've talked about. Checking yourself on this idea of privileging with process. You know, who are you leaving out? Who are you bringing in? Being explicit about that. People, internally, our own human and emotional impact that things have on us emotionally. We have to get good at regulating and recognizing and understanding our own emotional triggers, the kinds of things that trigger us emotionally that we can sort of predict sometimes before we go into a situation and be more intentional about how we pay attention to that and regulate that and be aware of it so we get better outcomes. Externally, recognizing and responding to the emotions of other people that we're having to deal with to get good results, which sometimes we skip over as leaders. Finally, on projection, as we just talked about, this is internally defining and redefining and refining your own story of who you are in the world, your own identity, how you see yourself as a leader. And then, externally, projecting a compelling vision that brings people along with you so you can get to the goals that you're trying to achieve. So in a nutshell, these four P's, a sentence I would sort of used to just bring it all together is: Great leadership is basically projecting a clear story and vision built off of multiple perspectives that come out of or result from a strong, inclusive process. And that touches people on a compelling human level. So that's projecting, perspectives, process, people all the P's together are what you repeatedly see again and again that great leaders are doing every day with this purposeful, intentional reflection on the domains that are most important for leadership. 

Salimah Samji [00:24:03] Wonderful. Thank you so much, Rob, for sharing your model with our listeners and particularly for sharing concrete ideas and steps that they can use to help have all of the four P's. Thank you very much. 

Rob Wilkinson [00:24:16] Thank you so much. It's been a real pleasure working with you. And I wish all the listeners the best of luck in their ongoing leadership journey. 

Salimah Samji [00:24:23] Thank you. 

Katya Gonzalez-Willette [00:24:26] To learn more about the Building State Capability program's Public Leadership through Crisis blog series, visit www.bsc.cid.harvard.edu/public-leadership-through-crisis.