Five Practices of Successful Thinkers

Leading from Your GutBy Dr. John Townsend

There are several dimensions to how successful leaders think that are important to know, but I want to focus on five especially. If you want to develop your thinking, the following practices will serve you well.

1. Know Your Cognitive Style

Your cognitive style refers to the way you process information from your environment. It has to do with how you read journal articles, how you listen to what others tell you, and how you draw conclusions based on how you observe the workplace. One key aspect of cognitive style is whether your thinking tends to be linear or nonlinear.

Linear thinkers are more logical and ordered in how they think, while nonlinears come at problems and opportunities from different angles. Linear thinkers typically have a step-by-step approach to their work. Nonlinears try to see if there is a new way to look at an issue. This description is a broad one. People who research these matters disagree on what specific terms and descriptions to use, but for the purposes of this post, these distinctions describe the difference.

So in terms of your own cognitive style, you most likely know which basic way your mind tends to work. The best way to be intentional about keeping your mind in shape in this regard is to continue honing your dominant cognitive style while appreciating and cultivating the other style as well.

This is important for your leadership because you need to harness and develop both cognitive styles as you lead the people around you. People need to follow someone who can help them with logical progression and also with creativity as their own situations and styles mesh with yours.

2. Think Relationally

Being a clear and productive thinker requires the ability to craft thoughts and ideas in terms of relationships. Your mind didn't develop in a vacuum, apart from people. And it is a mistake to keep your thinking divorced from people—what they mean to you and how your thoughts will affect them. No matter what your area of leadership is, people are part of it. You lead people, you influence people, and you matter to people. Your organization has something to do with some service to people, whether a computer, a bank loan, a home, education, medical care, groceries, personal growth, or a retail outlet. This means it's necessary to keep people in mind when you create opportunities and solve problems.

Consider the impact of your thoughts on those around you. You will have an impact, one way or another. So keep your thoughts connected to relationships, and keep people's faces in front of you. There is no better way to have your thoughts integrated with the rest of your inner world than to be a relational thinker.

3. Orient Yourself to Reality—with a Nod to the Positive

Another aspect of successful thinking is your orientation to reality. To be an effective leader, you need to think about what is going on, not what you would like to be going on. Reality happens, and it always wins. You must take the bad news with the good news, even if it reflects poorly on you. This is the only way you will ever make transformational changes in yourself and in the people you work with.

4. Be Willing to Hold Opposing Thoughts

Another mark of leaders who think well and successfully is that they are able to live in conceptual tension. They can listen to, and think about, ideas that are diametrically opposed. They have enough space in their minds to consider and analyze both sides while they are moving toward a decision.

This is not an easy task. We all have a tendency, as leaders, to think, Plan A is better than plan B for these reasons, so let's go for A. Because of the pressure and speed of leadership today, we simplify things to that level and move on. It becomes a zero-sum game: A wins and B loses. While that is often the right way to go, it is not always. Thinking leaders must resist the impulse to immediately discard an idea that is antithetical to one they like. If they can live with the tension for a while, they are apt to come up with even better solutions.

5. Adapt to New Realities and Truths

Related to holding opposing thoughts in tension is the ability to change and adapt when the facts dictate it. The best leaders know that reality is larger than they are, so they don't mind taking a different course when there is new information. Clear thinking means submitting your mind to any new reality.

Leaders who think will need the ability to admit when they are wrong or should change direction. Those who insist that the original plan is the only plan are often at risk. You instill doubt in people with that stance, and you instill trust in people when you adapt to new realities.

This doesn't mean you have to be open to absurdities. Some things just don't make sense. But it does mean that you have to at least consider two perspectives or opinions that don't agree. Don't immediately react and toss one out. Give your mind a little time to see if there is a win-win.

A Final Bit of Wisdom

Let's conclude this post with a tip I provide for many leaders I work with: Make a habit of challenging your own logic. That is, whenever you work through some problem and come to a decision point, vet and scrutinize your thinking process to see if it can stand up to scrutiny. Don't assume because you have done the due diligence of mapping out an answer to a problem that your thinker is infallible.

Let's say that you have just come up with a strategy to address the growth of a competitive organization. You looked at what they did, how they did what they did, brainstormed tactics that might help you compete better, thought through them, then picked one.

Great. Now do it again, and then bring it to a couple of truth-based associates and have them ask you the hard questions about how you arrived at your decision. If your thinking process was clear and effective, it will come out as a win. If not, you have just saved yourself from an expensive mistake, or what author Dave Ramsey calls the "stupid tax."

Too many leaders are too tired or bored or entitled to question their logic, and the outcomes are not good. Challenging your decision-making logic is a healthy sowing that will enable you to reap success in your organization. As the Bible teaches, "You will always harvest what you plant" (Galatians 6:7 NLT). This principle will never fail you.


Taken from Leading from Your Gut: How You Can Succeed by Harnessing the Power of Your Values, Feelings, and Intuition by Dr. John Townsend. Click here to learn more about this title.

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