Indian cola protest

How to notice the gorilla in the room

In a famous scientific experiment, a group of people were asked to count how often the ball on a basketball court was passed.

by Knowledge@Wharton
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Whilst they were engaged in this task, a gorilla walked across the court. No-one noticed the gorilla, as they were so focused on the task of counting the passes. This classic experiment provides a useful insight into business leadership. It underlines the point that so often leaders can be overly focused on operational matters that they overlook some of the bigger issues affecting their industry.

This occurred, for instance, when India's Centre for Science and the Environment announced last August that Coke's and Pepsi's carbonated drinks contained more than 24 times the safe limits for pesticides. The companies responded in a text-book operational way by investigating the problem first to assess what they needed to do next. They got caught up in technical matters, issued defensive responses and made claims about international safety standards that they found hard to support.

A broader leadership approach (or what is termed vigilant leadership) would have examined it from a wider political and cultural perspective. For instance, there were vested interests who wanted to exploit the issue to stir up dissent against the company and promote political as well as environmental agendas. Also, silence is regarded in India as a sign of guilt, so a 'no comment' response prior to having worked out the legal issues or until the data had arrived does not work as it would in the West.

In changeable and fast business environments, vigilant leadership is especially critical. Leaders of this type ask questions and are curious about internal and external environments.

Vigilant vs Operational Leaders
Professors George Day and Paul Schoemaker

Review by Morice Mendoza

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