Is leadership just an illusion in an economy in which everyone is talking rather than listening?



With a regularity surpassing that of the annual migration of Artic terns, I ask my management students to explore and explain how birds flock together. After discussing whether birds have leaders and followers, we explore various hypotheses of where they learned to fly south. We then compare such bird flocks to markets, corporations, and territories with similar questions about leadership, followship and organizational learning.  In an “attention economy”[i], not to mention in a classroom, in which everyone is talking and no one seems to be listening it is bemusing to believe that any one “bird” has the vision, information, and charisma to lead the flock.

 Our perceptions of market and organizational dynamics reflect two basic models of how we use data in decision-making that I’ve referred to as the “Ladder of Initiatives.[ii] In the first model we accept that our leaders have exceptional vision. They understand where the market is going, and intuitively what the organization can produce in the months ahead. They announce the intended results and count on management to define the actions that will produce decisions about what types of knowledge are pertinent to solve the problems at hand. This knowledge then will define in which contexts organization needs to work to collect the data to design, produce and sell.

An alternative vision suggests that no one leader has the answers or the insight to seize future market opportunities. Rather than working top-down, this vision suggests that the organization should begin by collecting and aggregating the market data available to elucidate the contexts in which the organization operates. This context conditions both what knowledge needs to be acquired and how to transform knowledge into action. Organizational results are not the product of outstanding leadership, but of collective decision making based on constant scanning of the data.


The ladder of initiatives describes two models of decision-making that reflect contrasting beliefs about leadership, vision, and the pertinence of data. The first focuses on the importance of the individual, best practices, and the need for process optimization. The second privileges collective decision making, the importance of network dynamics, and the need to learn to explore the context in which we work. They reflect deterministic and stochastic decision environments associated with structured and non-structured learning. These visions models underpin how we teach decision science and how we practice management.

The practice of business analytics is heart and soul of the Business Analytics Institute. In our Summer School in Bayonne, as well as in our Master Classes in Europe, we put analytics to work for you and for your organization. The Institute focuses on five applications of data science for managers: working in the digital age, managerial decision making, machine learning, community management, and visual communications. Data-driven decision making can make a difference in your future work and career.


Lee Schlenker
March 24th, 2017

[i] Chatfield, T.. (2013). Does each click of attention cost a bit of ourselves? [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Mar. 2017]..

[ii] Schlenker, L. and Matcham, A. (2005). The effective organization. 1st ed. Chichester: J. Wiley.