Non – Linear Leadership Thinking vs. Behavior

Once upon a time, in the land of the business gods, an epic battle was fought. B.F. Skinner challenged Sigmund Freud to a duel, the winner to take the hearts and minds of business trainers and consultants thereafter.

Skinner, as we know, beat the crap out of Freud, and ever since then the behaviorist agenda has dominated the field of business advice.

Until, that is, Roger Martin, writing in the June Harvard Business Review, writes:

…this focus on what a leader does is misplaced…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.

Precisely.

What do I mean by the “behaviorist agenda?” I mean unthinking recitations of, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” I mean training objectives statements that start with, “participants will learn the behaviors associated with…” I mean “just give me the tips and tricks, skip the theory part.” I mean coaching programs that define outputs entirely behaviorally. I mean, most definitely, the question “what are the behaviors of a trusted advisor?”

The behaviors of a trusted advisor, I can assure you, are the behaviors required to be trustworthy by the particular situation. It’s the mindset behind it that drives, else it’s a Skinner box.

Martin, dean at Toronto Business School, says most leaders with exemplary records

“have the predisposition and the capacity to hold in their heads two opposing ideas at once. And then…they creatively resolve the tension between those two ideas by generating a new one that contains elements of the others but is superior to both.”

“…the process of consideration and synthesis can be termed integrative thinking. It is this discipline—not superior strategy or faultless execution—that is a defining characteristic of most exceptional businesses and the people who run them.”

He readily acknowledges this isn’t news, citing F. Scott Fitzgerald. He could have gone back to Kant, or even Plato.

But it might as well be new for today’s business world. The idea that “A and not-A” could belong together drives the average manager, b-school prof or HR trainer nuts. "It can’t be. That’s illogical. It’s crazy."

Not to regular folk. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Or, “I was never so alone as when in a crowd.” This is common literary stuff. How about, “play the ball, don’t let the ball play you,” or “to hit the golf ball, don’t think about hitting the golf ball.” Common sports stuff.

In the trust realm, I suggest the best way to sell is to stop trying to sell. Sounds like a paradox. Drives most linear people nuts (“but you can’t do that, the whole point is to sell!”).

In philosophy, it’s called thesis, antithesis, synthesis. We had a great example in this blog earlier this week. Two well articulated points of view were put forth. One argued that honesty must serve empathy—another said empathy required honesty.

Which is right? This is not a “have you stopped beating your wife” trick question; there is an answer, and the right answer is “both.”

Martin contrasts the linear, causal thinking so dominant in business today with non-linear, holistic and tension-reducing approaches. The more complex the issue, the better the quality of answer to come from this process. Think Abraham Lincoln. Or Socrates.

What’s Martin up against? Linear regression, powerpoint, process mapping, KPIs, behaviorism, decision trees, compensation systems, and other business infrastructure du jour. Skinner. The rat guy.

I’m rooting for Martin. The human guy.

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