The hidden trait of a leader is to dodge stupidity

Inversion Thinking

Inversion Thinking is avoiding being stupid

On the court, Djokovic continues to pull off magical feats. Last season, every single grand slam tournament seemed to yield a new all-time record, from clinching the record number of weeks at No 1 to the astounding feat of securing every grand slam tournament and Masters 1000 event at least twice. He is the men’s player of the last 10 years by a mile.

Yet his breathless ability on the court is paired with his frequent tendency to self-sabotage. It is often said about the best players that their greatest opponents are themselves but Djokovic takes it to new levels.

He chases history and a record-setting 21 grand slam titles, yet he is so taken by alternative science that he was willing to complicate his chances by arriving unvaccinated at one of the world’s strictest borders. It is hubris and it is the single-minded self-belief that drives his tennis but that also so often leads him astray. 

‘It is hubris’, wrote The Guardian. 

Hubris- a great or foolish amount of pride or confidence. 

In today’s habits for thinking, we are not discussing whether Djokovic’s act is full of hubris but will focus on what Charlie Munger popularised – Inversion Thinking

“Invert, always invert: Turn a situation or problem upside down. Look at it backward. What happens if all our plans go wrong? Where don’t we want to go, and how do you get there? Instead of looking for success, make a list of how to fail instead. Tell me where I’m going to die, that is, so I don’t go there.”

Charlie Munger

To see where one could die and avoid that route is not a simple decision, definitely not one exercised by Djokovic and his team in this case. The shade of hubris as written in several ‘Djokovic-refused-entry‘ articles makes us notice the absence of inversion thinking practice by his team and decision-makers. 

Inversion Thinking is not turning the goal backward and trying to see how to achieve the goal. Inversion Thinking is always thinking about how to fail, thinking meticulously, step by step, in interconnected and independent ways. If First Principles Thinking is about reaching the building blocks of the problem by deconstructing, Inversion Thinking is playing the part of how building blocks will fail to assemble to make a secure castle. 

Thinking about how to fail seems easy. You just need to remove a big chunk of the building block and you know it will fail. Like, you may think not having a marketing head is going to make the business fail. The marketing head is a chunky building block. However meticulous inversion thinking is looking at various aspects of the marketing team, not just the team leader, as the strength of the entire team, getting the right partners, getting the positioning right, building the right consumer context and connection, etc. If any of these small building blocks fail, the business will face a setback. This is meticulous inversion thinking, thinking in detail on how could one fail. 

How does Inversion Thinking help: 

Not all decisions that are made are reversible decisions. We make some decisions that are irreversible and have a large impact. This is applicable in both personal and professional life. These decisions, the ones that are irreversible and impactful, need clear, noise-free thinking. 

Secondly, the process of inversion thinking also helps one identify the right metrics for measurement. Like in the case of marketing one would keep an eye on measuring consumer connect. In case if the measurement is away from the desired results one would know which aspect of marketing needs rework and corrections to be back on the track of achieving goals. 

How to practice Inversion Thinking: 

Avoiding being stupid is the way to practice Inversion Thinking. How does one avoid being stupid? By learning stupidity from others. It is funny and true at the same time. Why funny? Funny because when you see someone take a stupid step, you laugh- how could he be so stupid? The day Djokovic news came out, the internet was flooded with memes on him.  His name turned as a trend “Novax Djocovid”. Seeing stupidity is funny. Seeing stupidity is learning too. 

“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”

Djokovic meme

It is true that stupidity teaches you a lesson in bad judgment. Collecting bad judgments from any other area, unrelated to your scope of work is still collecting lessons in bad judgments. These lessons work with our own set of mental models and help us in our future decision-making, helping us from stupidity. 

Not everyone has the stature of Novak Djokovic and not everyone needs to find this visa issue as a stupid decision. There are many people who are against taking a vaccine. But what everyone can learn from this is a leadership lesson. When you are on the top, assisted by a team of invisible people, you are alone. Your decisions are seen as only your decisions, and not as your team decisions. You may be right in your mind but as being a person on the top, you are presented as an object in the context of reality. 

The Economist writes– Yet although as a tennis player Mr Djokovic’s vaccine hesitancy is exceptional, as a Serb it is not. Despite there being little shortage of vaccines in Serbia, where he is from, just 45% of adults have been double-jabbed. Meanwhile, the country has been battered by the disease. According to The Economist‘s tracker, Serbia suffered the second-highest number of excess deaths in the world per head of population. With as much clout off the court as on it, Mr Djokovic’s public hesitation to take a life-saving vaccine may well be costing the lives of his countrymen

Your audience is not just people from your field, but the audience is from across different sectors. In fact, when you play at a large, global scale, it is not a different set of audiences but it is a singular audience and your context may not hold true for the singular audience. 

This brings to context collapse, where your single decision that should only impact you, your decision to not vaccinate, becomes a decision in the public domain. A decision declaration, at the time of the rising Omicron wave, in a country that is not your own, and when the world is nudging everyone else to vaccinate, is a decision most unwelcomed. When the world wants to stay safer by vaccinating, you stand on the other end and the media finds a target to shoot at. It is a leadership lesson to understand how a personal decision can be caught in a context collapse and come in the way of a professional goal. 

It is a failure of Djokovic’s team to not foresee a sudden change in travel policies when almost all countries are changing travel rules frequently depending on the shape of the pandemic curve. It is also a failure of his team to take leadership for granted and not invert the thinking to test the decisions.

Sports personalities are living lessons. They align their mind, body, and goal in the most effective manner. Naomi Osaka redefines quitting and our thinking, Novak Djokovic accepts his mistake of hitting a line judge are some instances I have written about learnings from judgments of sportspeople. 

The Australian court on Monday decided to release him from detention and restore a visa it had canceled because Djokovic has not been vaccinated for Covid-19. While there is a win on Djokovic’s side, this is an event they could have avoided on their path to the next grand slam title. As an admirer of tennis and his game, it is very discomforting to share his and his team’s lack of inversion thinking as a case of bad judgment as a note in your habits for thinking. 

Inversion Thinking is avoiding being stupid. To avoid being stupid, collecting bad judgments as a lesson is a thinking skill. Collecting bad judgments can be from any sector, any field, even from Novak Djokovic. 


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