How Does a ‘Great Leader’ Think?

In our never-ending quest to become a better leader, we look to those that business and/or society deem successful.  At one time or another we’ve all read a Jack Welch book or a Tom Peters book, hoping to gleen some wisdom to apply to our own leadership dilemma or improve our management skillset.   Modeling their ways will be the key our our future success: being decisive, innovative, action-oriented, heroes!

A great article in the June, 2007 edition of the Harvard Business Review, (How Successful Leaders Think, by Roger Martin) discusses how leaders think through what they do.  The focus of the article is the innate human ability to hold two complex thoughts in our minds at the same time.  According to Mr. Martin, “A more productive, though more difficult, approach is to focus on how a leader thinks—that is, to examine the antecedent of doing, or the ways in which leaders’ cognitive processes produce their actions.”


Conventional v. Integrative thinking

Or, “I have a couple of ideas bumping against each other in my head,” mentions the boss, “let’s get some time to discuss.”


(click on graphic for better resolution)

Four Steps to Integrative Thinking

Let’s run through a simple scenario using Integrative Thinking: Bob’s lunch choice.

Bob works on the 17th floor of a big tower that has a great corporate cafeteria in the lower level.  Bob chooses to go there for lunch.  Should he get the turkey dinner or the spicy chicken wrap?

1.  Determine salience:  Seek less obvious but potentially relevant factors. This is where we slow down just a bit and consider a wider array of factors, or go a bit deeper on the relevant factors we have.  Bob loves spicy food, wants a reasonably healthy meal, and after a brief meeting, will be spending the afternoon deep in reading/research.  He loves potato chips (comes with the wrap).  It is a cold, windy day – great for a hot meal (turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy). There is one person in line for turkey, six for the wrap.  Bob has a meeting in 35 minutes.

2.  Analyzing Causality:  Consider multidirectional and nonlinear relationships among variables.  Here we need to look for more than just cause-and-effect relationships.  If Bob gets the wrap, he gets chips.  If he gets the turkey, he gets a warm meal, and mashed potatos and gravy.  Bob wonders, “Is it possible to substitute other items or not get the chips or gravy?”   How fast could the wrap chef make his wrap?  What else is available as a side choice?

3.  Envision the Decision Architecture:  See problems as a whole, examining how the parts fit together and how decisions affect on another.  Now we must resist the urge to divide and conquer as we attempt to rush to completion/solutions. Bob needs to consider the time he has for lunch, the meeting, his afternoon workload, his diet, his love of chips, the cool weather feeling/warm meal.

4.  Achieving Resolution:  Creatively resolve tensions among opposing ideas; generate innovative outcomes.  Before moving to action, we blend recommendations and work towards a hybrid outcome. Bob chooses the wrap, with warm pasta salad, no chips.  The turkey would have put him to sleep after his meeting.  The warm pasta salad is healthier than the chips.  Even though it may take longer to get the wrap, Bob’s meeting is short and he can finish his lunch later.

Conventional Thinking – choose the turkey: shorter line, warm meal.

Integrated Thinking – choose the wrap.


Save yourself from a ‘one track mind’ – and tap into your innate ability to hold two opposing thoughts in your head at the same time.  And don’t eat the turkey!

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