Gregory P. Crawford is president of University of Miami from Ohio.
In the 1971 feature film Fiddler on the roof, Tevye’s friend chides him for validating both sides of an argument about involving the outside world: “He’s right, and he’s right? They can’t both be right.” “You know,” admits Tevye, “You’re right, too.” Tevye is onto something that many people overlook: Life is too complex to sort into simple categories of right or wrong, good or bad, positive or negative. Deep understanding, fruitful decision-making, and effective leadership require attention to the nuances beneath the surface of conversations, problems, opportunities, actions, events, and more. This also includes attention to people, organizations, ideas, opinions and many other elements.
As university president, I oversee an organization of some 1,000 faculty members, leaders in their fields with broad research and teaching interests, ambitious goals and infrastructure, along with several thousand employees who support our student-centered mission. The interests of teachers and students span the liberal arts, sciences, engineering, research and entrepreneurial translation. Four generations, from Boomer to Z, get along. Managing such complexity and reconciling such divergent interests requires a great deal of attention to nuance. Leaders of most organizations probably experience similar circumstances.
By “nuance” I mean more than a particular static feature of a complex system, a detail that needs to be discovered and manipulated. Nuance is part of the dynamics of a system; it is present in different perspectives in a team meeting, individual personalities in a division, nuances of meaning in a speech, and the unspoken subtleties of human interactions. What appears monolithic from the outside is likely teeming with movement, exchange, friction and often synergy.
Attempts to make simple binary choices, whether through media spin, political polarization, straw man arguments, or the logical either-or fallacy, will exacerbate the problems rather than solve them. Even artificial intelligence and the results of data analysis require nuanced attention to input assumptions and technological reliability. The journalist and social critic HL Mencken is known to have warned: “There is always a known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible and wrong.” Effective leadership involves identifying nuance, engaging nuance, and leveraging nuance.
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Leaders can often resolve conflict by identifying nuances at the heart of disagreements. Both parties may need to pay more attention to the complexity of the problem before proposing solutions. Here the philosophical maxim applies: “Never deny, seldom affirm, always discern.”
Such a practice requires active critical thinking. When a leader, instead of taking sides, can clarify the nuances of the issue, each side can forego a passionate defense of their point of view and consider alternatives. This can be a powerful conflict management tool that strengthens everyone’s critical thinking, empathy, and unity. It can reveal unconscious biases to correct. It is an opportunity to grow in humility, openness and self-awareness.
Identifying nuance can soften the appearance of disagreement. a study found that media stories highlighting conflicts between scientists, without making caveats that the scientists explained, can influence trust and influence public opinion of science. As the complexity of emerging technologies increases, such as AI, nanotechnology, genetically modified crops and climate change mitigation, public understanding requires nuanced rather than oversimplified information.
Leaders who nuance with their team can prevent erroneous solutions. For example, when researchers in Germany trained a neural network to diagnose melanomas and moles based on clinical images, AI proved to be more accurate than professional dermatologists. However, over 95% of the images used to train the AI were of fair skin questions raised about whether dark-skinned patients would receive a correct diagnosis. From my perspective, a diverse team that has an eye for nuance can address imbalances like this early.
Involving nuance means asking a lot of open-ended questions and becoming familiar with the uncertainty that comes between ignorance and understanding. I often look for solutions by asking questions, questioning the answers, and imagining the opposite of my arguments. By doing this, team members can learn more about evaluating evidence, considering context, formulating conclusions and embracing change. They see their contributions valued and often part of the complex solution that addresses the complex problem. They recognize that input from others does not threaten their ideas, but can strengthen them.
Leaders can use nuance to strengthen a team and drive an organization toward progressive decision-making and action. Nuance removes barriers between colleagues, encourages deeper thinking from different perspectives and generates innovation.
An organization’s system is too complicated for one leader to notice all the important nuances, so they must create an environment where team members are alert to the possibilities. They can listen carefully, ask careful questions, think of alternatives, and weigh evidence that can lead to nuanced solutions. Leaders need clear communication skills to help the whole team participate in the discussion and accept the conclusion, regardless of who is contributing the ideas.
For people more accustomed to seeking the only “right” answer, paying attention to nuance requires a mindset change. Fortunately, nuance involves observation, critical thinking, and communication skills and habits that anyone can practice and apply to gain deeper insight. Think of the reflexive sense of nuance when reading a novel, watching a movie, playing a video game, or having a conversation. Discovering nuance can be a delightful, rewarding experience that accelerates growth in leadership skills.
In Nuance: why some leaders succeed and others fail, Michael Fullan wrote, “Our positive future depends on nuance because the solution will be collective and because only nuance can resolve complex dilemmas under conditions of adversity and diversity.” Leadership requires recognizing nuance – the whole picture beneath the surface – and helping others identify, engage and use it.