Understand How They Think

By | October 13, 2020

[October 13, 2020]  For the first half of my long career in the U.S. Army, I was wrong.  I was most wrong about learning the way to think like a leader.  For so long, I thought the solution was to understand what successful leaders thought rather than how they thought.  It was the essential process of thinking that made them successful.

Not unlike learning a bunch of dates and names in history class – which is tedious and unproductive – it is more important to understand the perspective of the times and circumstances under which events occurred.  Doing so is both more exciting and informative.  How things unfolded in our history gives us a better view of why we are here and, thus, a better perspective on the way ahead for our community and also for our society.

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” – Maimonides, medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher

I like this quote because it points to the importance of the process (teaching a man to fish) instead of a possible result (a fish).  Like my sister who told me where the Easter Eggs were located, those who emphasize the latter would do us all a favor by instructing us how to perform better.  It was my mother who showed me how to find those Easter Eggs under bushes and behind trees.

I have to point out, at this juncture, that teaching how to think is not easy.  Learning any process can be daunting, on occasion embarrassing as we are learning too slowly, and frustrating as we reconfigure our ways of thinking.  We’ve all seen how difficult it is to learn how to care for children properly and not let them control us, for they will if we let them.  Children are smart little things, and they will always push boundaries.  It is incumbent upon us to show them the proper path in life and not focus on objects to obtain.

Understanding how leaders think was difficult for me.  I was fortunate to have a mentor who pushed and pulled me into the right frame of mind.  I was also lucky to have that done in peacetime, where the penalty for failure was less.

Years later, while in combat, I worked productively through some of the most complex and demanding assignments of my career.  I only did so because of others pointing me in the right direction and focusing my efforts on HOW, rather than WHAT successful leaders thought.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

21 thoughts on “Understand How They Think

  1. Lady Hawk

    Very good thinking here, Gen. Satterfield. You made me think real hard about this subject and to reorient my thinking. 😊

    1. Greg Heyman

      Lady Hawk, just what I was thinking. We should be looking at Trump and Biden to see “how” they think also. Someone should do an honest psych workup on them both.

  2. Dead Pool Guy

    This article is more important than most of us may realize. It points us in a very important direction on how to be better leaders and better persons, as well.

  3. Max Foster

    It takes a strong man to admit that he was wrong. I think you’ve made an excellent point that goes to the heart of the difference betw/ junior leaders and much more senior leaders. Senior leaders must be thinking strategically (tactical thinking is okay but shouldn’t get in the way of strategy). Just look at how Sun Tzu (which Gen. Satterfield has written about often) in his tactics vs. strategies. This is all about HOW he thinks and thus important for us all to study him and all successful leaders. Gen. Satterfield noted once that is why he reads autobiographies so he can read the words of the leaders themselves.

    1. Otto Z. Zuckermann

      Several excellent ideas here Max. Well done laying them out for us. Yes, and this is one of the main reasons that I keep coming back to this website on leadership. It gives me a better understanding of how Gen. Satterfield and other leaders think.

    2. Willie Shrumburger

      Yes, it does take a strong man to admit he is wrong but it also takes someone with confidence to do so. Too many of our politicians would never admit they made a mistake. Just take New York Gov Cuomo whose policies put COVID positive patients into Nursing Homes. He is directly responsible for the death of thousands but he blames PRes Trump. Typical socialist Cuomo deflecting.

      1. Dennis Mathes

        So true and so sad that this happens. Admit you’re wrong when you’re wrong, learn from it, don’t make the mistake again, and move on.

    1. Len Jakosky

      Thanks Karl. Great reference. I did some reading here and will go back later to read more. Just wanted to say hi to everyone here and thank all in the forums for making this a great site to visit. I also suggest we send it out to our families and friends so that they can also enjoy the articles.

  4. Tom Bushmaster

    Excellent article. Important subject. Don’t overlook what we can learn from others in terms of HOW they go about getting things done. It’s the PROCESS dummy!

  5. Georgie B.

    Gen. Satterfield, I found this part of your article very interesting and maybe you could, some day, expand upon it … “Children are smart little things, and they will always push boundaries. It is incumbent upon us to show them the proper path in life and not focus on objects to obtain.”

    1. Watson Bell

      I had the same thought, Georgie. The piece about to not focus on objects is especially good to follow thru with.

  6. Army Captain

    Yep, that’s it. Too many think it is WHAT successful leaders think and that is wrong wrong wrong. Why? Because Hitler, Mao, and Stalin among many other evil men were very successful leaders as defined as getting people to follow them. What they thought was evil but how they did it is something we should study closely and possibly adopt.

    1. Forrest Gump

      HOW they think is what matters most. I would also be careful in copying what they think too. It might be good but your examples prove otherwise.

      1. JT Patterson

        True and will always be true. But that is not how we are taught.

      2. Yusaf from Texas

        Yes, Forrest, once again you hit the nail on the head. I do believe that is Gen. Satterfield’s main point. Let’s elaborate on it a bit, now. 👍

      1. Army Captain

        Thank you Randy, my experience in the army tells me that understanding how leaders think is critical to getting yourself in order and to be a better leader.

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