Leadership for Collective Wisdom

Alan Briskin, author and consultant, explores and shares insight on what he describes as “the interplay between the soul’s journey and society, a manifestation of the collective.” His work might be described as falling into a “new age” category, but his principles of leading for collective wisdom correspond to current research in organizational behavior (Briskin, 2009) and could be very useful for General Motors as they engage in the difficult work of culture change. Conversely, the absence of these principles at the “old” GM helped create the conditions leading to the ignition switch crisis.

    • Deep Listening: in addition to listening with intention and attention so that the other person has the space to express him or herself, deep listening involves awareness of what is said – and what is unsaid.
    • Suspend Certainty: Be willing to suspend our preconceptions to be open to other alternatives.
    • See Whole Systems: Using systems thinking is difficult because as employees, we are specialized. However, it is really the only way to approach complex problems. Briskin (2009) recommends asking questions and solicit perspectives from diverse sources. He also mentions sensemaking in relation to systems thinking. “Sensemaking is the activity that enables us to turn the ongoing complexity of the world into a ‘situation that is comprehended explicitly in words and that serves as a springboard into action’ (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005, p. 409, as cited in Ancona, 2009). To engage in sensemaking, according to Ancona, organizational members, guided by leadership, need to 1) explore the wider system, 2)create a map of the current situation, and act to change the system to learn more about it.
    • Gather for Group Emergence: This principle can best be described as setting a climate for authenticity in which dialogue is promoted, individuals are respected, and emotions are considered.
    • Trust in the Extraordinary: Briskin describes this as trusting “what can emerge above and beyond your current understanding.”

The “old GM” failed to listen and certainly did not engage in deep listening as employees flagged early warning signs or mentioned recalls (as early as 2005). Because they categorized the moving stalls as a customer convenience issue, they treated the categorization as a certainty instead of revisiting it when new data arose. One of the biggest delays in the recall related to the GM engineers’ failure to see whole systems, even though certain review committees had employees from different departments expressly to prevent siloed thinking. The GM culture was one in which employees failed to take accountability (e.g., the “GM nod” and the “GM salute”). Since employees wanted to fly beneath the radar of executives, they failed to express their true concerns. Thus “group emergence” was impossible. Certainly without these four elements, it would be difficult for employees to trust in the extraordinary or to even have hope.

CEO Mary Barra has promised change. It won’t be easy, but it is an opportunity to create new values and norms that will enable GM to perhaps become extraordinary.

See also: Root Causes, Culture Shock


Ancona, D. (2012). Sensemaking: Framing and acting in the unknown. In S. A. Snook, N. Nohria & R. Khurana (Eds.), The handbook for teaching leadership: Knowing, doing, and being (pp. 3-19). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Briskin, A. (2009). The power of collective wisdom and the trap of collective folly. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.


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My husband likes to tease me by telling me I must be an alien. When I worked as a faculty member in a Business school, colleagues from other disciplines liked to say, “She’s not one of them.” I choose to take these comments as compliments and attribute them to the contradictory characteristics that define me. Highly analytical and results-oriented, I also approach interactions and challenges with empathy, curiosity, and wonder. I see myriad possibilities and delight at considering how to implement them. Since they are based on a solid theoretical foundation, most of them are reasonable and effective. In brainstorming conversations, others often respond to me by saying, “I didn’t think of that.” At the same time, I enjoy learning from everyone I meet, and I want everyone leaving a conversation with me to feel like they have been heard with compassion. My hobbies include knitting, making jewelry, reading, and hanging out with my husband and dogs. I am a long-time vegan committed to social justice and animal rights.

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