Last week I read a great article from the Harvard Business Review blog entitled “The Best Debater May Not Be the Best Leader” that I found to be true for leaders but also very true for Enterprise Architects. When I read this article I reflected a bit on the meetings, conversations and get togethers with Architects over the years. One common thread among that reflection is that there is quite a bit of debate. This debate often ends in a stalemate between the parties. For the debates that center around pure technology it’s even worse. Don’t bring in Java vs. .Net or iPhone vs. Android, the debate turns into conflict.
I believe healthy debate and constructive conflict is actually very useful. Challenging ideas and the status quo is what I believe EA should be doing. However there is an approach that should and shouldn’t be taken.
But having worked with hundreds of senior leaders over the years, I’m not convinced that debating skill is a good indicator of leadership potential. In fact, from my experience, the ability and willingness to debate is often a leadership liability.
This is not to say that debating is unimportant. Being a good debater requires a mastery of facts and issues, and the ability to put them together in a coherent and convincing manner. It also calls for rapid adaptation of arguments and being fast on your feet, which is a great skill for managers who need to make quick but informed decisions.
If the bolded text doesn’t say EA I don’t know what else does. EA’s are unique leaders. They often don’t have direct influence over the organization. EA’s lead through influence and must win over the hearts and minds of their customers. If that is true, it is critical that EA’s don’t alienate their customers through the process.
Personally this has been tricky for myself as well. I love a good debate. I observed sometime back that my passion was getting in the way of progress. Being so wrapped up in what might be philosophy or what had worked at another company actually got in the way. It was hindering my ability to move the business forward. I had the absolute best intentions and the debate wasn’t centered around why I am right but rather my passion for moving the business forward. But the approach was all wrong.
This article gets to the heart to what I had to learn the hard way. Believe me, I have the scars to prove it.
Similar to what I learned HBR goes through a simple mental context change. A different way of approaching the debate. See below:
Effective leaders spend much more time listening, probing, exploring, and facilitating discussion than they do debating. In fact, debating the issues, trying to score points, and focusing on “winning” arguments is usually a recipe for shutting down dialogue. Each side ends up becoming more attached to their position and it becomes harder to find middle ground.
This hits the nail on the head. Those four aspects are key:
- Listening – This is very important, maybe even the most important of the four here. There are two reasons for this. First, it is easy for the debater to “tune out” or doesn’t pick up on valuable information because we are so focused on our side of the debate. This then turns into debate for debate sake instead of focusing at the problem at hand. Second, When the other person(s) in the debate feel like you are listening and empathizing with their position they are more willing to be persuaded and get past just debating but moving forward to solve the actual problem.
- Probing (Asking Questions) – This is linked to my second point above. If the person(s) you are debating with understands that this isn’t personal to you and you actually want to hear their position and move forward it helps everyone.
- Exploring – Problems that EA’s try to solve are often complex and are broad. Exploring all avenues and perspectives are important to have a fully rounded solution to any given problem. Open your mind to all other aspects of the problem. You will be surprised what you may of missed and how the solution evolves.
- Facilitating – I find myself doing this all the time. Since I primarily try to stick to 1 – 3 above, often times others don’t. EA’s can take this mental framework and apply it to meetings to shepard the organization in the right direction. This again shows the EA as an enabler thus wins credibility with the customer(s).
I think HBR ended the post well, I couldn’t say it any better.
But in organizations, debating skills — such as presenting logical arguments, responding to questions, and challenging opposing views — should instead be leveraged in the service of exploration and engagement. This means that the objective should not be to win, but to bring out the nuances of the issue. This way, you’ll reach a better conclusion that people will be confident in, because they’ve heard the various sides.