How Successful Leaders Think.
By: Martin, Roger,
Harvard Business Review,
June 2007, Vol. 85, Issue 6
I have spent the past 15 years, first as a management consultant and now as the dean of a business school, studying leaders with exemplary records. Over the past six years, I have interviewed more than 50 such leaders, some for as long as eight hours, and found that most of them share a somewhat unusual trait: They have the predisposition and the capacity to hold in their heads two opposing ideas at once. And then, without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other, they're able to creatively resolve the tension between those two ideas by generating a new one that contains elements of the others but is superior to both. This process of consideration and synthesis can be termed integrative thinking.
Human beings are distinguished from nearly every other creature by a physical feature: the opposable thumb. Thanks to the tension that we can create by opposing the thumb and fingers, we can do marvelous things -- write, thread a needle, guide a catheter through an artery. Although evolution provided human beings with this potential advantage, it would have gone to waste if our species had not exercised it in ever more sophisticated ways. When we engage in something like writing, we train the muscles involved and the brain that controls them. Without exploring the possibilities of opposition, we wouldn't have developed either its physical properties or the cognition that accompanies and animates it.
Analogously, we were born with opposable minds, which allow us to hold two conflicting ideas in constructive, almost dialectic tension. We can use that tension to think our way toward new, superior ideas. Were we able to hold only one thought or idea in our heads at a time, we wouldn't have access to the insights that the opposable mind can produce.
Young refused to settle for an "either-or" choice. That phrase has come up time and again in my interviews with successful leaders. When asked whether he thought strategy or execution was more important, Jack Welch responded: "I don't think it's an 'either-or.'" Similarly, Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley -- when asked how he came up with a turnaround plan that drew on both cost cutting and investment in innovation -- said: "We weren't going to win if it were an 'or.' Everybody can do 'or.'"
Roger Martin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and the author of The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking, forthcoming from Harvard Business School Press in the fall of 2007.