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.


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.

0 replies
  1. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I tend to think in this non-linear way, and it has driven my bosses nuts in the past.  The way I do things doesn’t make "sense", but it works.  In order to be trustowrthy, and close the sales, you have to GENUINELY care about your client MORE THAN YOU CARE ABOUT THE SALE.  If you do this, the sale takes care of itself.  I think that the sales profession has a bad wrap because of sales people who only care about sales, or even worse, their commission checks.  If you are sitting with a potential client, and all you see are dollar signs, you are in the wrong profession.  It is refreshing to read this blog, and realize that there are more people like me out there than I realize.  I also want to commend you on pointing out something repeatedly that I think is blatantly obvious.  You can’t fake concern.  When you do that, the client sees through your attempts, and you lose the sale.  You are 100% on-target with this one!

  2. Lark
    Lark says:

    Charlie, I too prefer Martin’s approach.

    In sales, one should never promote anything which smacks of pain and suffering – and this includes all its guises and permutations.  Recognizing this easily in a business context is akin to zeroing in on all that’s NOT always said in polite conversation.

    Whenever I’m speaking to new restaurateurs or nightclub owners, for instance, I have to remain cognizant of the real reason my clients are speaking to me about a substantial equipment/furnishings purchase. Never is it so they can become hard-working,  stressed-out, under-the-gun hospitality business operators.

    No-no-no! With the historically high failure rate for start-ups in this industry, I assume they’re scared out of their minds already.

    Most of the time, they’re scared they’ll be all out of money before they hang up the open sign.

    They’ve grown accustomed to imagining what it’d be like to be visiting their place as a patron… with their guests… acting as the hosts. And the most delicious side benefit they can imagine is picking up the tab… with just a wave of a hand… and the stroke of a pen.

    This is why I focus on their vision of the future… and connect with them by talking up the  food, the drinks, the setting… and all the great fun to be had down the road.

    I tell them if I give them a great deal on their equipment package they might have to pick up my food and drink tab someday.

    Then I tell them if I go broke I may show up at their back door one day rattling a tin cup, furtively calling out their names to the guy emptying the trash…

    … Hoping against hope… it’s not one of them!

    No problem is too difficult to solve when we have a few competitive advantages – like insider friends in the business.

  3. Roger Martin
    Roger Martin says:

    Thanks so much for the kind words and the analysis in your blog (and the various comments thereon).

    If you haven’t seen it already, you will probably be interested in my latest article for Business Week Online, which deals with the question you raise about analytics and judgment. I come down strongly on the side of you and the commentators to your post.

    It is the most recent of a long series of articles I have written there and can be found at:

    [Note: I urge all readers to go check out Roger’s link, it’s a fine little piece of writing.  Needless to say, I think he’s completely right.]
    –Charlie (Green)

  4. Rob
    Rob says:

    The two thoughts that I ponder over, that many people feel are conflicting, are efficiency and effectiveness. Most companies use the scientific management methods that Mr Martin decries in his Business Week article to gain efficiency. They confuse cost savings for efficiency. I have borrowed the definition of efficiency from  physics which defines it as the measure of effectiveness. What this means is that you need to become more effective to become more efficient. If companies focus on effectiveness first – ie what customers want and what employees need to serve them – they will become efficient. The analogy I use in my post ‘The Efficieny Myth" is instead of making a car’s engine more effective (less friction, etc) so that it uses less fuel, today’s managers would turn off four cylinders to make it run on just two to save fuel!  

  5. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Rob raises an excellent point.  I urge readers to click on his link above and check out his (highly readable) set of examples.  I love his explanation of how the efficiency obsession at the cost of effectiveness explains why we are all driven absolutely bonkers when we have to interact with call centers–but you can see exactly the logic of why they get set up in this way.

    It’s a good read, check him out.

    Thanks Rob.

  6. Sean
    Sean says:

    The fact that Martin has applied basic compromise and common sense  is great. The theoretical back up and philosophical mockery is just icing on the cake. His ideas, which are clearly published, supply a vivid example for any uninformed individual to become enlightened by a simple transition of thought. 


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