Great Leaders Don’t Think in Straight Lines

By | November 6, 2017

[November 6, 2017]  One of the privileges (some say advantage) of having worked in a senior leadership position in the upper reaches of the Department of Defense is getting to meet some really intelligent folks.  These were great leaders who led soldiers in combat and created a consistent legacy of outstanding performance and service to the United States.

A few were to become my mentors and their goal was to expand my thinking.  One of the distinguishing traits that I discovered in my mentors was that they didn’t think in straight lines.  In fact, initially I was puzzled when speaking with them – not because I didn’t understand what they were saying – but I had a hard time following their logic.

“Reading is a means of thinking with another person’s mind; it forces you to stretch your own.” – Charles Scribner, Jr., American publisher

Expanding one’s own abilities often means working with someone who will do those things that help us “see” the logic outside the normal.  Typical thinking – “normal thinking” – is linear; from point A to point B and so on.  Leadership, however, is not linear because it is complex and multifaceted; useful for solving complex and ambiguous problems.  Problems which seem to have no good answer require thinking beyond the linear-logical form we’ve all come accustomed to.

I was told many times that I had to step outside my comfort zone to truly understand how to think beyond the “normal” pattern.  Listening to my mentors discuss difficult subjects, reading history and philosophy, debating people much smarter and more experienced than myself, and living among those who have a diversity of opinions was the most helpful way of growing my maturity as a leader.

Not everyone will have that opportunity but each of us can begin with the most basic premise by getting away from those who think like us (regardless of race, gender, and origin) and mix with folks with a variety of intellectual skills.  Only then can we start to expand our thinking talents.

General George S. Patton made a great point when he said “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”  My friends call those who refuse to expand themselves as people who love the echo chamber of their small mindedness.  I like to think that with a bit of nudging, anyone can begin to improve their thinking abilities and be a better leader.

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