Mindful Leadership

Based in Johannesburg; Delivering services Globally

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© 2019 by Design Simplified

  • Casper Oelofsen

Wise Leadership Key Competency = Metacognition

Updated: Sep 6, 2018

“Life does not consist mainly – or even largely – of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts forever blowing through one’s head.

(Mark Twain).

What are one of the key competencies of Leaders? What do leaders get paid for? If Leadership was a sport, what would the sport be about?

  • Leaders are paid to make wise judgements – All the time – Even more so in complexity.

  • To make wise judgements, Leaders need to engage in quality thinking (not just any thinking).

  • 3. Quality thinking is dependent on our Metacognition*. Our ability to think about our thinking.

It is not what we know that is most important, but rather, how we think.

Eagleman describes in the book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the brain.

Brains are in the business of gathering information and steering behaviour appropriately. It doesn’t matter whether consciousness is involved in the decision-making. And most of the time it isn’t. Consciousness is the smallest player in the operation of the brain. Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it. Our neural circuits were carved by natural selection to solve problems that our ancestors faced during our specie’s evolutionary history. Your brain has been moulded by evolutionary pressures just as your spleen and eyes have been. Consciousness developed because it was advantageous, but advantageous only in limited amounts.


Our brain functions and performs on the patterns it has formed from experience. Anything that I see or hear (or feel or taste) today gets analysed based on what I have seen or heard in the past. We do not see the world/reality as it is but rather as we are.


It is therefore important that we practice our thinking. Challenge it, expand it, broaden it, be curious about it, change it, deepen it, open it, and so the list continuous

In our aim to become great at what we do we have to develop and practice skills that are crucial for the task. A professional sportsman, artist, teacher, writer, scientist (and many other examples) need to practice their key skills to ensure they become great in what they do. If you want to be the best athlete, you must train your muscles and practice your running. If you want to be great in research, you must practice and develop research skills. If you want to be a world-renowned artist, you have practice your artistic skills. Again, and again and again


And, if you want to be a great leader you must be able to do quality thinking. Therefore, you have to practice your thinking. Quality Thinking is a skill that can only be developed through practice. It is not IQ, an attitude, a commitment or a new passion after a new course in leadership. Quality thinking is not a nice idea or a goal or a tactic. It is a skill. It needs practice, more practice and more practice.

*Metacognition is "cognition about cognition", "thinking about thinking", or "knowing about knowing" and higher order thinking skills. It comes from the root word "meta", meaning beyond. It can take many forms; it includes knowledge about when and how to use strategies for learning or for problem solving.


“Knowledge is to know that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom (Metacognition) is to know not to put it in a fruit salad” (Italian quote)


All leaders are professional athletes, competing against leaders of other organisations, competing with leaders of their own organisations to be the best quality thinkers for a sustainable period. Leadership is a professional sport.


Mindfulness based practices are one of the best ways to develop and practice our thinking of our thinking. These practices develop our ability to take a step back and observe our habitual cognitive process from a distance.

Safety expert Sidney Dekker argues that you either see “human error as the cause of a mishap” or see “human error as the symptom of deeper trouble”. He also asserts that “to understand failure, you must first understand your reactions to failure” and, more importantly, “the more you react, the less you understand.” Understanding human error is also critical in avoiding the effect of hindsight bias on future decisions.


How habitual (autopilot judgements) thinking gets us in trouble?

A leader’s interpretation of a recent failure inevitably will shape his or her future strategy – therefore, for example, there is so much anxiety as to what the US will do in Syria and Iraq during the Trump administration.


Along with these mistakes, there are other important cognitive biases related to decision-making when facing uncertainty.

  • Confirmation bias: we place extra value on evidence consistent with a favoured belief and not enough on evidence that contradicts it. We fail to search impartially for evidence.

  • Anchoring and insufficient adjustment: we root our decisions in an initial value and fail to sufficiently adjust our thinking ways from that value.

  • Groupthink: we strive for consensus at the cost of a realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action.

  • Egocentrism: we focus too narrowly on our own perspective to the point that we can’t imagine how others will be affected by a policy or strategy. We assume that everyone has access to the same information we do.