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Calgary’s Leadership Cavity – Decision Failures on Fluoridation

The cynicism towards political and corporate leadership is profound in this age of social media where opinions and half-truths often overshadow verifiable facts and thereby compromise sound decision making. Not that there hasn’t always been a tendency in traditional media to create controversy and reduce complex arguments to superficial binary positions.

The sheer volume of data generated through social media makes it particularly challenging to distill the legitimate information from the mass of ill-informed and self-serving content.

This reality plays into the hands of attention seeking alarmists, conspiracy theorists and promoters of misguided causes. So, it is more important than ever for leaders in every realm to find the courage and fortitude to withstand the polarization of issues and do the hard work required to contribute to insightful and intelligent conversations.

Decision Pitfalls

When Calgary’s City Council deliberated fluoridation in 2011 they politicized an issue that should have remained in the hands of health professionals and health scientists. But, for political advantage and self-interest, several council members chose to weigh-in on something that they knew little about and for which they had not conducted appropriate due diligence. In doing so, they contributed to the general public’s confusion by giving credence to ill-informed outliers in the debate.

In short, they took a position rather than leading a meaningful discussion.

Additionally, they fell prey to one of the most common decision making biases… seeking out evidence that supports one’s own opinion while consciously ignoring evidence that refutes it. Yes, undiluted fluoride is poisonous; and so is citric acid if you could consume enough orange juice concentrate!

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t allow and embrace the expression of dissenting views on important issues. But, when leaders don’t rely on acknowledged experts and avoid challenging the extremist elements on important issues they fail to play their role as facilitators of insight and understanding.

Strong Leaders Do the Hard Work

We are predisposed as humans to look for (and often want) simple answers to complex questions. Strong leaders, however, don’t get drawn into or perpetuate the polarization of views. Instead, they do the hard work associated with determining the verifiable facts and synthesizing the collective knowledge from credible sources. And, they don’t put their self-interests or personal beliefs ahead of making evidence-based decisions.

Leaders Need to Anticipate Likely Outcomes

When faced with important issues, true leaders consider both direct and indirect implications of the available alternatives. Health professionals rightly predicted that there would be an immediate and significant decline in the dental health of children in Calgary. Five years on that reality is being seen… a lamentable direct result.

The indirect implications though are numerous, the breakdown of fundamental principles of governance (arbitrarily reversing the results of not just one but two plebiscites); the loss of confidence in leaders generally; the triumph of pseudo-science over evidence-based science, and so on.

Advocacy Versus Inquiry

The Scots have a phrase that relates to this leadership pitfall. They call it ‘drinking your own whiskey’. That is, when a person takes a position on an issue and begins to advocate for it, they eventually delude themselves into believing it is right. This practice is often referred to as ‘advocacy’ versus ‘inquiry’ and, of course, contributes further to the polarization of issues rather than the creation of understanding and insight.

Guiding a Process to the Best Decision

Leadership is difficult precisely because a big part of the role is to make sense of complex and dynamic issues where there is seldom an absolute right or wrong answer. It is not about fighting for what one person or group thinks is right. Leadership is about guiding a process that leads to the best decision. And, sometimes the most courageous leadership is demonstrated when leaders defer the decision to those who are better equipped to make it (in the case of fluoridation, the health professionals).

The fluoridation issue illustrates how easily decision processes can go awry. Leaders can have the best of intent but fail their members, employees or constituents by allowing a debate between polarized opinions to prevent sound decisions based on evidence and insight.

For more on leading your organization through challenging decisions please contact Dickson Wood, Matthew Page-Hanify or Carolyn Craig.