…than a mind that only knows what to think.”

Through the course of the summer, I kept bumping into this uneasy feeling as I experienced what was happening around me.  I kept asking myself with each new situation, “What were they thinking?” As it turns out, after coming across Neil deGrasse Tyson’s words in the title of this article, I was asking the wrong question. I should have asked, “How were they thinking?” as I now believe that answer has far greater ramifications in our leadership-challenged world of today! Let’s break down his words further to see what we can learn relative to 21st Century Leadership.

  • Only knowing what to think ~ If we define thinking as “…concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it.” as William Deresiewicz does in his October 2009 lecture to the plebe (freshman) class at the United States Military Academy at West Point, then we can begin to break down the challenges of only knowing what to think. Only knowing what to think implies a lack of original ideas on the part of the leader. The resulting behavior becomes very unoriginal and, in many cases, harmful to the sustainable growth of the team, organization and/or business.  While it is a short-term safe bet to think like your manager, the long-term results are a culture of groupthink and yes-men/women!
  • Knowing how to think ~ It is a long-held contention of mine that the basics of effective leadership have not changed in the last hundred years. Respect, effective communications, trust, teamwork and a host of other qualities of effective leadership are still applicable as they were a century ago.  What has changed dramatically is how these principles are applied and the speed at which they are applied in the context of modern 21st Century Leadership.  Knowing how to focus on something long enough to ponder it from multiple angles and create your own ideas about it is crucial to understanding the right context in any given moment in time.  But that takes precious time to do. Those who do it well make the time to reflect and ask themselves, “How does this affect my team, organization, business and/or customer?” in a meaningful and focused way. Like any learned skill, which knowing how to think is, it requires practice and repetition to become second nature to one’s leadership attitude!
  • Empowerment for knowing how to think ~ There are multiple examples in my own career where I can point to my ability to quickly think about a new situation and generate my own ideas about that situation given all the variables at hand for me to work with. Examples from the military that generated successful missions. Examples from corporate leadership situations where careers, reputations and, in some cases, lives were on the line. Examples from the classroom where students learned their own version of how to think and not just repeat what someone else told them to think. In every case, I was at least a step ahead of most others who were stuck in their thinking because it was originally not theirs and thus not as relevant as my own real-time, in context new thinking about the situation. Forcing myself to ask questions like “What if…?” and “Why not…?” gave me the insights to be empowered to make leadership decisions that were foreign to others around me!

If you’ve read this far, you may find yourself asking yourself if you really know how to think or is most of what you think about what others have told you or taught you. We live in an information-rich, knowledge-poor world.  Those who only know what to think have much information to share. Those who know how to think know when and where to share that information so it matters in the present context and creating knowledge for sustainable success as 21st Century Leaders!

How do you think?

Lead Well!