Written by Phil on February 6, 2012
A key skill for today’s leader is knowing what to remember and what to forget. Sometimes it is good to forget sometimes it is essential to remember this article assesses the importance of forgetting to leadership
Modern Leaders must be able to make clear decisions drawn from myriad bits of information; their decisions need to reflect a big picture understanding. With information becoming so abundant in this modern age, it is very easy to become overloaded and therefore not to comprehend the big picture. Total recall has often been associated with a high level of intelligence and hence achievement but this is not always so. When in a positions of leadership the opposite is more the case. Those with total recall often have difficulty differentiating the information and hence making strategic decisions. They more readily miss-understand the overall point or concept because they get so enmeshed in the detail. Detail is for managers and not leaders as forgetting, it turns out, has enormous value for leaders and big picture thinkers; forgetting and forgiving are both key attributes to good leadership. But timing is essential.
General Sir John Hackett as a commander in the 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars employed a driver who had failed in battle as his own tank driver so showing compassion and leadership as he knew that the man would give anything not to repeat the experience of such failure and yet Hackett’s humanity and compassion would serve his reputation as a leader as they were quickly evident to the rest of his men! General Hackett had chosen to forget and forgive and General Hackett was an outstanding leader.
The other reason for forgetting detail is to enable strategic clarity. One of the greatest exponents of total recall was Solomon Shereshevsky who could recite entire speeches, word for word, after hearing them once. In minutes, he memorized complex math formulas, passages in foreign languages and tables consisting of 50 numbers or nonsense syllables. The traces of these sequences were so durably etched in his brain that he could reproduce them years later. However, the issue was forgetting them and when Solomon was asked to make decisions, as chair of a union group; he could not see the big picture and tripped up as he was so entwined in irrelevant details. . “Human memory is pretty good,” says cognitive neuro-scientist Benjamin J. Levy of Stanford University. “The problem with our memories is not that nothing comes to mind-but that irrelevant stuff comes to mind.”
“The act of forgetting crafts and hones data in the brain as if carving a statue from a block of marble. It enables us to make sense of the world by clearing a path to the thoughts that are truly valuable. It also aids emotional recovery after a traumatic incident. ‘You want to forget embarrassing things,’ says cognitive neuroscientist Zara Bergstrom of the University of Cambridge. ‘Or if you argue with your partner, you want to move on.’ In recent years researchers have amassed evidence for our ability to wilfully forget. They have sketched out a neural circuit underlying this skill analogous to the one that inhibits impulsive actions”. Wilful forgetfulness aids self confidence and enables forgiveness of others.
Leaders need to learn when to remember and when to forget. Given that the best learning is experiential then the experience of failure must be built upon rather than being dwelt upon. Leaders must learn to accept failure as part of an individual and teams development however, they must also remember failures if they are repeated too often. They must also remember lessons from previous failures in order to prevent themselves from becoming involved in systemic failure. As Albert Einstein said ”the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and expecting a different result”.
Leaders benefit from selective forgetfulness of their own failings and others failings as well as forgetting detail to enable strategic clarity as detail is the domain of managers. For leaders there’s a time to remember and a time to forget!