The Dress and Success as a Leader

The dress to the left has become the hottest mess in the west. While to many it certainly appears to be gold and white, to others it’s blue and black. Really. I mean, really.  You may think this is a Dress of questionable colorjoke, because you so clearly see blue and black.  Or you may think this is not even a funny joke, because you clearly see gold and white (as I do, for what it’s worth.  And it is worth nothing!).

If you want to understand the science behind such utterly polar perceptions, here’s a fun 2-minute video.  Only when I watched it did I really “get” the optics.

If we’re talking about leadership, which of course we are, then there are two important points, and one important question to the mess with the dress. Point one: it turns out that context is nearly everything.  Our eyes are attached to our smart brains, and our brains feed (often missing) context into the pictures we see. People truly see different colors in this picture, because the surrounding light in the photo is so ambiguous that your brain fills it in.  You can simulate changing the light: Slowly squint while looking at the photo, until your eyes are nearly shut.  What do you see?  For me?  It’s now blue and black.  In a similar way, if you saw me walking through a nursing home, you’d likely see me as quite young, while students at Cal, when they see me on a basketball court, have it written all over their faces: “What’s that old man even doing here? I hope I don’t get stuck with him on my team!”

The second major point that comes screaming out of people’s reactions to this dress is that we can feel utterly certain that what we see is what’s there…with 100% conviction that we are seeing an objective reality not a subjective perception.  Thus, until I was forty, every political debate I watched, I was sure my guy won! I  I thought Mondale whipped Reagan, Dukakis destroyed Bush, Gore beat Bush…

So, what does any of this matter for leadership?

First, leadership requires seeing things in a different light. Were we really that successful, or did we benefit from some good breaks?  What about our plans? Are they so sure?  What if we cast a more sober light? What if it takes us 3 months, not 3 weeks? What if there’s a downturn? As my wife loves to say, “I trust in God. Everyone else? Bring data.” Leaders demand full context.

Second, what do you do when confronted with strongly divergent views?  Seriously! What do you do, when you are really sure about something, and a colleague, kid, friend, spouse is equally convinced that what you’re seeing is not what’s there?  What do you do?  (I love that my agent and her husband literally never argue about anything if they can Google it. Unfortunately, not everything is Googleable.)  Sometimes, interpretations are required. What do I do?  1) Seek first  to understand the other’s view.  (2) Ask a lot of questions.  (3) Recognize that there seldom has to be a right answer; she’s looking at it in a bright, optimistic light, and I’m looking at it in a darker more somber light. She’s seeing based on her experience with engineering; I’m seeing based on my experience with psychology. She’s seeing as a Myers Briggs ENTJ, a field general ready to implement a broad, sweeping plan, and he’s seeing as an ESFP, perfectly ready to experiment, dabble, and adapt.  Our eyes see wildly different things because of our wildly different minds. So, we are best to look not for what’s “right,” but instead for what can enrich our view…

As we lead with our best self.

P.S   The dress — viewed in normal light — appears to be blue and black.


  • In the book, The Black Swan, the author, among other things, writes about the habit of persons to mentally disclaim or minimize things that go against heir belief systems and to magnify things that support those beliefs. When some of us wonder why there are persons who think that what the see and hear on FOX News is true and objective, the reason is that there is a belief system at work, and commercial value in playing to that belief system. Bill O’Reilly can exaggerate all he wants and not get fired.

  • Hi Dan, it’s a nice illusion trick to the minds eye. However, the iris and cornea and all receptors likely process the blue and black until they manipulate the RGB color tool (if they used RGB). They change the curve of the color diagram on the right back and forth inversely. Most photographers try to achieve an “S” shape curve. However, creative liberties exist. So which part is black, blue, gold or white. The black is what transforms to Gold and the Blue transforms to White. Interesting right. Yes. But what do we know about Black. it absorbs light and white reflects light. Therefore the colors have to be transposed or affixed to the Black and Blue Dress. Why, the fabric is not stated to have any special light reflection, optics or warming mood materials. So for me the leadership perspective is…Is this a true illusion or transposed/affixed. It’s the latter for me but for the sake of leadership you can say I like the idea of illusion. Each person can be right in that fact. However, the fact is there is no gold but the two size smaller is the real illusion. Yeah for me and other women who want to have that high school skinny. 🙂 I just like to determine what is tangible first. Can I read/see what’s really real. If so then I look for the deception. Just like we typed or wrote the words black and blue so shall our eyes see this to be so with the dress. Now wet and wild 521 well that’s a color. Ask someone from the 70s and they’ll likely recall the color with no problem. But which shade of color is the question? It’s all a teachable moment.

  • Hello, Dan! Perception is part of the reason editors (and proofreaders) exist. Make an error (typo, grammar, spelling) and your mind happily corrects it for you. Arguments seem completely valid in your own thoughts, because you have access to all the reasoning, facts, and values supporting them. Your readers don’t always have that benefit, and process your arguments through their own filters. Perhaps it is this ability to see through another’s eyes and hear with another’s heart, that makes one a great leader, author, and/or speaker. Pantone color charts or not, in all my years in publications work, I don’t remember any color piece printing exactly the way it looked on my computer monitor — and mine was carefully calibrated for accuracy. I learned to listen carefully, give a lot of feedback to check perceptions, and finally to go with the flow and enjoy the inevitable surprises!

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