The Thoughtful Leader: A book review by Bob Morris

thoughtful-leaderThe Thoughtful Leader: A Model of Integrative Leadership
Jim Fisher
Rotman/University of Toronto Press (July 2016)

How and why integrative thinking is the foundation of great leadership

Obviously, leaders have a great deal to think about before making decisions with varying degree of importance. Smart decisions are based on rigorous consideration of information that is relevant and sufficient. Leaders must also have access to diverse perspectives, opinions, and recommendations. As I indicated, they gave a great deal to think about.

Jim Fisher explains that this book “will help you to be a better leader by being more thoughtful about what leadership is, how you are expressing it in your daily life, and how you exercise it when needed.”

I agree that leadership involves teachable skills and one of the most valuable is being able to think both fast and slow. “The simplified idea is that we deal with through either the thinking fast part of our brain, which enables us to respond to people and situations as they arise, or the thinking slow part of our brain, which more carefully considers how we might respond to people and situations to arrive at an optimal outcome. The thinking fast skill gets us through the day but is prone to influence and error. Using the thinking slow part of our brain is more likely to avoid errors but takes more effort and is tiring.”

The subtitle of Fisher’s book refers to “integrative leadership” and Roger Martin has much to say about that in The Opposable Mind (2007). As I began to read that brilliant book, I was reminded of what Doris Kearns reveals about Abraham Lincoln in Team of Rivals. Specifically, that following his election as President in 1860, Lincoln assembled a cabinet whose members included several of his strongest political opponents: Edwin M. Stanton as Secretary of War (who had called Lincoln a “long armed Ape”), William H. Seward as Secretary of State (who was preparing his acceptance speech when Lincoln was nominated), Salmon P. Chase as Secretary of the Treasury (who considered Lincoln in all respects his inferior), and Edward Bates as Attorney General who viewed Lincoln as a well-meaning but incompetent administrator but later described him as “very near being a perfect man.”

Lincoln possessed what Martin views as “the predisposition and the capacity to hold two [or more] diametrically opposed ideas” in his head and then “without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other,” was able to “produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea.” Throughout his presidency, Lincoln frequently demonstrated integrative thinking, a “discipline of consideration and synthesis [that] is the hallmark of exceptional businesses [as well as of democratic governments] and those who lead them.”

The great leaders whom Martin discusses developed a capacity to consider what Thomas C. Chamberlain characterizes as “multiple working hypotheses” when required to make especially complicated decisions. Like Lincoln, they did not merely tolerate contradictory points of view, they encouraged them. Only in this way could they and their associates “face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension [whatever its causes may be] in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.”

Jim Fisher provides an abundance of information, insights, and counsel to help prepare almost anyone to become a thoughtful or become a more thoughtful leader, especially today when the business world seems more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than at any prior time that I can remember. He makes brilliant use of the story format to anchor his key ideas in real-world situations with which his reader can readily identify.

I share his concluding thoughts: “Anyone and everyone who picks up this book has an idea that will make some part of some organization a little or a lot better. I hope I have given you the courage to try and the skill to succeed. You will make the world a better place for all of us, and that will make it all worthwhile.”

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