Unquestioned Brilliance: Why Good Leaders Make Bad Fortunetellers


"Unquestioned Brilliance" is a research-backed challenge to the "rational leader myth". Author John Austin, leadership consultant expert and researcher, guides readers through the maze of psychological traps and dead ends that lay waiting and (unintentionally) sabotage our efforts at reaching a higher level of leadership.

"Unquestioned Brilliance"

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Despite the vast amount of leadership advice out there, some of it centuries old, the gap between knowing leadership principles and acting on them couldn’t be wider. This fact has spawned the steady rise of the leadership coaching industry, complete with hundreds of books, mentoring, workshops, and more.

While these resources might be helpful, they ignore the underlying problem. That problem, as shared in “Unquestioned Brilliance: Navigating a Fundamental Leadership Trap“, is a fundamental (but unintentional) set of psychological flaws that lay waiting in your brain.

What “Unquestioned Brilliance” is About

Business planning is praised as a rational attempt to navigate a business through an uncertain future. This line of thinking is directly challenged in “Unquestioned Brilliance,” which argues that leaders instinctively rely on psychological blind spots instead of rational thought. Leaders, the book says, — even the good ones — unintentionally fall prey to errors in judgement on a persistent basis.

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By default of their position, leaders are required to make decisive predictions about the future, without a crystal ball to guide them. Instead, they must rely on an extremely efficient — but fallible — brain that likes shortcuts, believes it is always right, and quickly limits options.

The “Fundamental Leadership Trap” is set.

This “trap” is a combination of three specific psychological tendencies — overconfidence being one of them — that are common to all of us but are magnified in the mind of a leader. To provide an example of how overconfidence affects leadership, author John Austin asks readers to make a guess using only three clues. Whether or not we got the right answer, a reader’s brain will correct itself to confirm what we already know.

If we picked correctly, we congratulate ourselves. If we picked incorrectly, we believe the error is an exception.This psychological tendency to focus on what we believe is right — known as the confirmation bias — proves that, contrary to popular belief, leaders often don’t look at the facts. Instead, it suggests that a leader’s brain actively selects information that matches what he or she believes, and ignores the rest.

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After dissecting the “Fundamental Leadership Trap,” the book shifts to the 10 cognitive tools designed to challenge and confront the trap. (Unfortunately, the brain can’t remove itself from the Fundamental Leadership Trap”) This, in turn, helps readers develop a realistic approach to planning as a leader.

A speaker, workshop facilitator and researcher, Austin (@TripleTranslate) is also a professor at several schools. These include The Wharton School, Georgetown University and the University of North Carolina. In addition to all of that, he serves as the president of Triple Translation, an executive leadership development organization.

What Was Best About “Unquestioned Brilliance”

The strength of “Unquestioned Brilliance” lies in its applicability and accessibility. While the book focuses predominantly on leadership in the business world, the psychology behind it all can be used by anyone. We all face an uncertain future, therefore we could also use some assistance in planning more effectively for that future.

Austin demonstrates this applicability in the story of Branch Rickey. Rickey was a key behind-the-scenes leader who facilitated Jackie Robinson’s historic moment as the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball. Rickey’s skill at strategically pressing forward while navigating the uncertainties in his path exemplifies the leadership that Austin wants everyone to emulate.

What Could Have Been Done Differently

The main problem with “Unquestioned Brilliance” is the pairing of the 10 cognitive “tools” with the conceptual model. Austin provides the model and tools that challenge the model. He then gives readers free reign to choose which tool to use. While this gives the reader flexibility, it might be too overwhelming (even with just 10 tools) for a leader who doesn’t know where to start. Further explanation of which tools to use and when to use them might be a little more beneficial.

Why Read “Unquestioned Brilliance”

“Unquestioned Brilliance” challenges readers to confront their thinking patterns in a way that contributes to the “knowing-doing” gap in leadership. Most leadership advice centers on a “rational” leader, the one who learns and applies leadership principles in a logical manner. This book openly challenges this assertion, but does so in a way designed to help leaders create strategic and lasting change.

Austin’s advice goes beyond just creating a new policy. Instead the goal is to create sustaining change. “Unquestioned Brilliance” is about translating and transforming knowledge into action, not just storing it for a distant future. For readers requiring that kind of advice, this book does the job.

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Charles Franklin Charles Franklin is a Book Reviewer for Small Business Trends. He has a background as a professional reviewer, and is also a content provider and customer relations professional.

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