Leadership's Hidden Skill

May 29, 2024
# min read
Grant Tate

Tom Brady drops back into the pocket. Linemen tug, push, and groan, fighting to tackle or protect Brady. Tom scans the movements downfield and throws the ball to an open spot, but someone is magically there to catch it.

Brady always fascinated me. Yes, he had an exceptional physique and physical skills, but his special talent was pattern recognition. He had an all-seeing eye that fed his brain with information about the movement in a complex environment, and he could interpret it and act on the situation. Yes, there were plays designed by the coaching staff, but the defensive team's objective was to disrupt those patterns and cause chaos. Deciphering that pattern was the quarterback's job. Successful quarterbacks, like Brady, have unusually strong pattern recognition skills.

Successful leaders also need well-honed pattern recognition. A CEO, especially in a complex, fast-changing industry, must discern a multitude of factors about the market, economic conditions, competition, technology, people, and operations. The CEO must deal with ambiguity, conflicts, and too little or too much information, and be able to make decisions and set directions for the organization. Pattern recognition also applies to observation of the team, the people, and the executive team, sensing how they interact, discerning their unique skills, putting each in their particular assignment, and coaching them to higher ideals.

“There are some people who look at a pile of dots and see a picture, then there are others who look at a picture and see nothing but a pile of dots.” That’s the way I described our recruiting effort when heading a strategic planning unit in an international corporate job. I was only half joking because we were searching for the people who were incredibly talented at developing realistic marketing and manufacturing strategies in our eleven-country international market environment that covered Europe, Latin America, and Asia. We were constantly scanning economic indicators from the countries and others from international organizations. In addition, our manufacturing plants had different political and cultural characteristics. In short, we needed intelligent people with excellent pattern recognition. We needed staff members who could visualize a picture from a pile of dots. We found the candidates in our country organizations, by observing candidates over a relatively long period of time. 

Those candidates came from a variety of experiences and educational backgrounds. The best had strong liberal arts education, often had hobbies in the arts. Some had that combined with science or technology. But we found people narrowly focused on engineering or finance were seldom successful in strategy development. 

We consultants often say leaders are made, not born. Yes, we can develop goal setting and the other elements of leadership, but can we teach pattern recognition? A person with broad perspectives in literature, art, science, culture, travel, and interpersonal relations is more likely to be prepared for pattern recognition because such a person can discern patterns and subtle movements. Such a person might be called a polymath, an expert in many different fields. Perhaps that’s as close as we can get to training for pattern recognition. In the meantime, the best we can do is observe would-be leaders to see if they can complete passes.

Read the next article in the series:
Share this post
Leadership & Management Effectiveness

Continue Reading Additional Articles

The Importance of Wondering as You Plan for 2022

Even while daylight is getting shorter and the days colder, I love this time of year because I am inspired to take the time to dream and plan.

Leadership Under Fire

Effective leaders, even when under stress, maintain poise under pressure and can adapt to various situations. Here are a few tricks leaders use to deal with stress.

The CEO Team

Selecting and building the team is one of the essential responsibilities of the top executive. Only people who pledge to support the unifying principles should join the team. Diversity should be built on that foundation.

Contact Us, and let's discuss how we can help you.

Discover for yourself how powerful "Breakthrough Thinking for Your Real World" can be.

In our never-ending quest to serve you to the fullest, please do not hesitate to call, write, or email us with any of your pressing issues or concerns. Your thoughts and suggestions enable you to make us the absolute best in professional services!

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.