Put   an   End   to   Unsolved   Mysteries

Smart leaders believe only half of what they hear. Discerning leaders know which half to believe.

—John C. Maxwell

The first rule of holes: When you're in one, stop digging.

—Molly Ivins, Columnist

Always at the Heart of the Matter

Mayra Sklodowska always wanted to get to the heart of things. As a child growing up in Poland, she loved school and learning. When her parents lost their teaching jobs and took in boarders to survive, she spent endless hours helping with the chores. But that didn't stop her from finishing first in her high school class— and her exams were in Russian!

Since higher education wasn't available to her, she became a governess and tutor. Somehow she managed to save enough money to send her older sister through medical school in Paris. Then she also moved to France to study at the Sorbonne. Two years later she finished first in her class in physics. Another year of study earned her a master's degree in mathematics.

It was then that she turned her attention full time to research, conducting experiments for a French industrial society. But her real passion was searching for the secret to uranium's rays.

While looking for a better laboratory, Marya met the man who would become her husband and research partner, Pierre. You've probably heard of Marya Sklodowska, but it's likely that you learned the name she preferred after she married Pierre Curie in 1895: she called herself Madame Marie Curie.

Madame Curie went on to do groundbreaking work in the field of radioactivity (a term she coined), and she opened the door to the study of nuclear physics and modern medical radiology. And when Pierre died in an accident in 1906, Marie Curie continued the work and made many additional breakthroughs.

"Life is not easy for any of us," she once said. "But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained." Her research brought her great recognition: fifteen gold medals, nineteen degrees, and two Nobel prizes (one in physics and one in chemistry).

Curie's tenacity was evident not only in her desire to know, but also in her practical application of her research. During World War I, she noted what was happening on the battlefields and recognized that the technology she had discovered could help save lives. She and her daughter Irene (who would later also win a Nobel prize) developed X-radiography and then led a movement to equip ambulances with X-ray equipment. And Curie trained 150 technicians to use it. Curie also helped found the Radium Institute at the University of Paris. Not only did she oversee the building of its laboratories, but she raised funds and materials in Europe and the United States to equip it.

Curie observed, "Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood." Her intelligence and discernment allowed her to understand and discover many things that have made a positive impact on our world. Unfortunately keen discernment did not extend to her health. Because she was on the cutting edge of research with radioactive materials, she did not protect herself from the effects of radiation. Her work slowly killed her. Rather suddenly, her health declined, and in 1934, she died of leukemia at age sixty-six.

Fleshing   It   Out

Discernment can be described as the ability to find the root of the matter, and it relies on intuition as well as rational thought. Effective leaders need discernment, although even good leaders don't display it all the time. For example, read these comments made by leaders, which I like to think of as famous last words:

"I tell you Wellington is a bad general, the English are bad soldiers; we will settle the matter by lunch time." —Napoleon Bonaparte at breakfast with his generals preceding the Battle of Waterloo (1815)

"I think there is a world market for about five computers." —Thomas J. Watson, chairman of IBM (1943)

"I don't need bodyguards."

—Jimmy Hoffa, one month before his disappearance (1975)

Discernment is an indispensable quality for any leader who desires to maximize effectiveness. It helps to do several important things:

1. Discover the Root Issues

Leaders of large organizations must cope with tremendous chaos and complexity every day. They are never able to gather enough information to get a complete picture of just about anything. As a result, they have to rely on discernment. Researcher Henry Mintzberg of McGill University stated, "Organizational effectiveness does not lie in that narrowminded concept called rationality. It lies in the blend of clearheaded logic and powerful intuition." Discernment enables a leader to see a partial picture, fill in the missing pieces intuitively, and find the real heart of a matter.

2. Enhance Your Problem Solving

If you can see the root issue of a problem, you can solve it. The closer a leader is to his area of gifting, the stronger his intuition and ability to see root causes. If you want to tap into your discernment potential, work in your areas of strength.

3. Evaluate Your Options for Maximum Impact 

Management consultant Robert Heller has this advice: "Never ignore a gut feeling, but never believe that it's enough." Discernment isn't relying on intuition alone, nor is it relying only on intellect. Discernment enables you to use both your gut and your head to find the best option for your people and your organization.

4. Multiply Your Opportunities

People who lack discernment are seldom in the right place at the right time. Although great leaders often appear to be lucky to some observers, I believe leaders create their own "luck" as the result of discernment, that willingness to use their experience and follow their instincts.

Reflecting   on   It

Are you a discerning leader? When faced with complex issues, can you readily identify the heart of the matter? Are you able to see root causes of difficult problems without having to get every bit of information? Do you trust your intuition and rely on it as much as you do your intellect and experience? If not, you need to cultivate it. Value nontraditional thinking. Embrace change, ambiguity, and uncertainty. Broaden your horizons experientially. Your intuition will only increase with use.

Bringing   It   Home 

To improve your discernment, do the following:

Analyze past successes. Look at some problems you solved successfully in the past. What was the root issue in each problem? What enabled you to succeed? If you can capture the heart of the matter in a few words, you can probably learn to do it with future issues.

Learn how others think. Which great leaders do you admire? Pick some whose profession or gifting is similar to yours, and read their biographies. By learning how other discerning leaders think, you can become more discerning.

Listen to your gut. Try to recall times when your intuition "spoke" to you and was correct (you may or may not have listened to it at the time). What do those experiences have in common? Look for a pattern that may give you insight into your intuitive ability.

Daily  Take-Away

For a long time, the Swiss had a lock on watchmaking. They built the best watches money could buy, and by the 1940s, they produced 80 percent of all watches worldwide. In the late 1960s, when an inventor presented an idea for a new type of watch to the leaders of a Swiss watch company, they rejected it. In fact, every Swiss company he approached had the same negative reaction.

Believing his design had merit, the man took it to a company in Japan. The name of the organization was Seiko, the design of the watch was digital, and today, 80 percent of all watches use a digital design. One discernment-driven decision can change the entire course of your destiny.



Keith Hunt