Thursday, November 20, 2008

Contrarian Thinking

Several years ago I attended the Willowcreek Leadership Summit. I remember it being one of the most impacting events I've ever been to. Great worship, great speakers and phenomenal impact. Tim Sanders, Marcus Buckingham and Jack Welch were all presenters.

Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church did an interview with the then President of USC Steven Sample. Steven had just authored a book called The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership. I've picked the book up over the past several years and picked on a chapter or two at a time. It's not one of those books that is dependent on the whole to "get." Each chapter alone presents some great thoughts.

Due to a situation I've been a part of lately I've picked it back up and thought I'd share some thoughts from the chapter called Thinking Gray, and Free.

Conventional wisdom considers it a valuable skill to be able to make judgments as quickly as possible and there are certainly instances where this is true. Think on this for a second. don't we generally subscribe to the assumption that a good leader has the ability to survey a situation quickly, assess and decisively make a determination as to the best course of action? The interesting thing is that Steven counters this with a look back at the battlefield tactics of some of the most notable military leaders of history. Napoleon, Washington all knew how to suspend judgment on important matters until the last possible moment. In fact, this chapter lays out that one of the most powerful leadership traits is the ability to learn to "think gray" while staying true to ones core principles. Rather than immediately categorizing a thought, situation, person, etc. as good or bad, true or false, black or white, friend or foe, a "truly effective leader...can see the shades of gray inherent in a situation in order to make wise decisions as to how to proceed."

Here's the definition of thinking gray: the ability to suspend the formation of an opinion on an important matter until you've heard all the relevant facts and arguments, or until the circumstances force you to form an opinion without recourse to all the facts - to which the author reminds us, happens much less frequently than one might imagine.

There are 3 dangers that he believes will keep us from effective leadership if we only have binary thinking.

1. When a leader forms opinions before it is absolutely necessary to do so, they close their mind to facts and arguments that may subsequently come to his/her attention.

2. Flip-flopping. We've all seen leaders do this. Flip-flop on a decision based on data rec'd from day to day, inevitably causing all sorts of mental and emotional fall out for those they are leading.

3. A well developed sense of thinking gray is the best defense a leader can have against a culture that strongly encourages a believe to act when we sense that our position is strongly believed in by others.

On this last point, there are numerous studies and experiments that show just how far human beings will go the wrong direction or go along with the crowd because they believe that it's what everyone else believes to be true. (Gees, just think about all the stuff we read about the financial collapse currently happening.) situation we find ourselves in. Case in point. It's not that we should ignore the reality of what is happening but it would seem that the majority of the public are very quick to jump to conclusion with absolutely no informed opinion whatsoever. And in the absence of knowledge, a fool can do a lot of damage. (ooh, I just made that up.) Nice!

So to sum up this rather long blog. The goal is that Thinking Gray should be used with the "weightiest" of issues. Practice this with the small decisions and get yourself in the habit of suspending judgment until all the facts are in.

Practice: Be as open to embracing, enthusiastically, a new idea as you are to rejecting it. Suspend judgment. Think gray.

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