The ability to discern is the most essential competence for any business leader. In both my own experience as a business owner and in the experiences of our clients, I see that those who have a good ability to discern are the ones who prosper even when times are really tough. People who struggle with discernment are the ones who are constantly making costly mistakes, experiencing setbacks and failing to succeed. But what is discernment and why is it so important?
The most basis definition of discernment is the ability to make good judgement, but there’s more to it than that. There is an element of wisdom needed for discernment, which is why many consider it to be a gift. Discernment can be learnt through experience but only if a person is really self-aware and can see situations objectively, which is not easily done.
To use a biblical reference, discernment is the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. To be able to sort through the vast amount of information and noise, to pick out what is really important and to disregard the rest that can lead to distraction and confusion.
In the world of business, having a strong ability to discern will make the difference in 4 main areas:
To distinguish between good and bad advice.
The world is full of people ready to give well-meaning advice, whether you actively seek it or not. It is important to realize that not all advice is good advice, even if it comes from a trusted or respected source. Often, we receive advice from people who care about us or who have a vested interest in the outcome. What is important to consider is what qualifies this person to give advice? If the advisor has never been in the same or a comparable situation, does it matter? What stakes did they have on the outcome of the situation? Often people will flippantly give an opinion on a situation, but they don’t have the same vested interest in you. They don’t have to live with the consequences, and they may not have access to all the elements of information that you have. Therefore, can the advice be considered sound?
To distinguish between an investment and a gamble.
In business we know that decisions are made on an assessment of cost and benefit, but almost always there is some guesswork and assumptions involved. Is there such a thing as a sure bet? It is usually not a yes-or-no, black-or-white situation. How do you know when you are making an investment in an anticipated outcome? How do you know when you are making a gamble on a hopeful outcome? There is always risk involved. Every entrepreneur will tell you that sometimes you have to take a leap of faith that sometimes will pay off and often times it will not. It’s part of the game of entrepreneurship. What is important is to be aware of whether you are entering into an investment or a gamble, and that depends on the level of confidence you have in the research and due diligence performed.
To distinguish between when to forge ahead and when to change tack.
Many ventures will be fraught with challenges. It is laudable to stay the course. We all know of extremely successful business people who have eventually succeeded after long periods of hardship simply because they stayed true to their vision and made it eventually. Sometimes the smartest decision to make is to change the plan, but what is the right time to do that? How soon is too soon to adjust the plan? Does it feel like giving up? The answers to these questions are situation-specific but they need to be asked. In business it is important to be crystal clear on the vision and objectives you wish to achieve, but not be too stuck on the plan of how to get there. We need to be constantly reviewing the outcomes and willing to make adjustments, if and when the time is right.
To distinguish between healthy diversity and an ill-fitting team.
Diversity is so important if you want to have a strong, innovative team. Having a team comprised of different experiences, perspectives, representation and skills is the right set of ingredients for success. Creative abrasion leads to breakthrough ideas, if the conditions, culture and leadership is geared to foster such an environment. But diversity is not the same as being different. Not all competition is healthy, just as abrasion can be creative or it can be destructive. How do you tell the difference? And how do you design your teams with the right kind of diversity that propels the business forward and avoids having a group of people who undermine success because of the challenges of their differences?
The key to good business is the ability to make the right decisions at the right time. There is no magic formula to being able to do this, but developing a strong ability to discern is the closest thing to having a compass to guide leaders through volumes of information and distractions.