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Sunday, 24 April 2011

The Rabbi’s Four Leadership Lessons - 4 kinds of thinking


Success is not a matter of what we think but how we think. There are four kinds of thinking. To be a great leader, we must master them all.  

A Rabbi, fabled for his wisdom, was approached by a young man eager to become his student. The Rabbi repeatedly rejected the young man, dismissively suggesting that he return when he was older and wiser. But the young man insisted that he had mastered logic and all the branches of worldly knowledge, and was therefore worthy of the wisdom of the Divine. Relenting, the Rabbi finally said that if the young man could unravel a riddle he would accept him as a student.

“Two men slide down the chimney of a peasant’s hut together. When they get to the bottom, one’s face is covered with soot while the other is clean. Who goes to wash?”

“Obviously the face covered with soot,” the young man said.
“Don’t be ridiculous! The one covered in soot sees a clean face while the other, peering into a dirty face, assumes his face must be sooty as well. The clean face is washed.

The rabbi turned to leave, but the young man pleaded for another chance until the Rabbi finally agreed.

“Two men slide down a chimney together. One face is covered with soot while the other is clean. Who washes?
“The one with a clean face."

“How can you be so slow witted?” shouted the Rabbi. “The man covered in soot can see it on his hands, smell it in his nose, and taste it on his lips. Of course he goes to wash.

Again the Rabbi turned, again the young man pleaded, and the Rabbi recountedthe exact same riddle one last time.

“They both wash,” the young man cried triumphantly.

“Your taste for stupidity is bottomless,” said the Rabbi, sadly shaking his head. “Where is the chimney perched on a peasant’s hut large enough to accommodate two grown men? On the face of it, the whole problem is clearly non-existent. It is that face as well as your own that must be cleaned.

And with that he walked away.
*        *        *
Such paradoxical stories permeate the mystical literature of all the great religious traditions, from the enigmatic koans of Zen to Plato’s dialogue the Parmenides, and the first time I read one back in college I was hooked. On one level they don’t make sense, but on another they make so much sense that my head hurts. They suggest an infuriating insight into thinking itself: an insight that is just as profound as it is confounding.

My own “Rabbi,” Louis R. Mobley, the founder of IBM’s fabled executive school, insisted that successful leaders don’t know different things. Theythink in utterly different ways. Success is not a function of what we think but how we think. Mobley used to say, for example, that the problem with lawyers is that they are only good for one thing: telling leaders why they shouldn’t do it.

Setting aside the validity of this preemptory indictment, it does make the point that all thinking is not alike. All the skills and knowledge in the world will not make a successful entrepreneur of a man who thinks the future is perpetually half empty.

Very few of us stop to consider that thinking itself has been through a long evolutionary process. As the Rabbi points out, there are actually four kinds of thinking, and a great leader must master all four.

I: Magical Thinking
Magical thinking reigned supreme before the dawn of science, and is usually associated with a superstitious reliance on the stars, luck, grace, signs, coincidence, karma, omens, destiny, or God’s will.

But magical thinking is more than superstition. Creativity and innovation rely on the magical ability to envision an alternate reality not yet born. Movies depend on the magic of our “willing suspension of disbelief” as we cry real tears at some fictitious sorrow superimposed on a big blank screen. Empathy, compassion, and love would be impossible if we could not magically place ourselves in another’s shoes. Art produces something called beauty that is much more than a mass of pigments on a canvas. And where would science be without its magical thought experiments like Einstein imagining himself riding on a light beam, taking in the view?

In business magical thinking survives and thrives in every nascent entrepreneur who just knows that it is his destiny to succeed, and uses this self-confidence to magically enthrall a room full of cold-blooded venture capitalists. If you are on a roll at blackjack and the casino swaps out dealers or shuts down the table, you are the victim of a business decision precipitated by the magical thinking of people who don’t believe in magic.
Magical thinking believes that great leaders and even great companies are somehow magically born not made. It argues that business is art not science, and that the Harvard Business School is merely a well-endowed monument to the fact that those who can’t do teach. The management philosophy of magical thinking is “gut feel” and Nike’s “Just do it.”

When the Rabbi reminds the young man that his riddle relies on an impossible premise he is warning against an over-reliance on magical thinking.

II: Modern Thinking
Modern thinking is the enlightenment thinking that ended the Dark Ages and ushered in Newtonian science. Modern thinking thinks that the truth is objective and knowable. Modern thinking looks at the world through the lens of either/or, right/wrong, good/bad. It lives in a billiard ball universe governed by cause and effect, and its true believers think that the “important” things in life are matters of principle, not of taste.

Modern thinking is macro, top-down, and outside-in. In politics, modern thinking assumes that if we want to change people we must first change the environment. Every attempt at macro “social engineering” is an example of modern thinking. It lies at the heart of Karl Marx’s famous dictum that “being determines consciousness” (i.e. economics determines individual psychology) as well as the stimulus/response deterministic psychology of B.F. Skinner and Pavlov’s dog. Modern thinking is the masculine principle of left brain Aristotelian logic, where A and ~A are always and everywhere mutually exclusive.

In business, modern thinking generates every management “system” based on “scientific” laws, policies, and procedures. These systems emerge from things like time and motion studies, and strive to remove the “intangibles” of human nature. Every time an employee punches a time clock he is experiencing modern thinking, and every A/B split marketing test relies on modern thinking as well. Many people (myself included) are attracted to business because of its clean-cut either/or aspects. After all, you either hit your sales target or you don’t.

When the young man jumps to the conclusion that either the sooty face or the clean face will exclusively be washed he is betraying an overreliance on modern thinking.

III: Postmodern
Postmodern thinking insists that truth is “relative,” and owes its genesis to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Where modern thinking emphasizes either/or objectivity, postmodern thinking argues for the both/and of subjectivity. If modern thinking looks for the objective exclusivity of A and ~A, postmodern values the inclusiveness of “diversity.”

Postmodern thinking privileges opinion over principle and in extreme cases may question the very existence of things like “truth” and “facts.” Hamlet’s remark that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” is a prototypical example of postmodern thinking. When modernity insists that important things are matters of principle, postmodernity replies that the most important principle of all, truth, is merely a matter of opinion.

Postmodern business thinking emphasizes culture rather than impersonal, bureaucratic, and scientifically inspired management systems. We see it in the transition away from rules and policies toward a reliance on the bottom-up, inside-out, unifying power of mission and purpose. Postmodern thinking values people, customers, and corporate responsibility over the impersonal metrics of the bottom line. If the either/or approach of modern thinking is a masculine win/lose business mentality, the postmodern is feminine win/win.

In economics the Efficient Market Theory argues in a postmodern way that the Market in its collective wisdom always knows more in a bottom-up way than any stock picker, government regulator, or central planner can ever know. In politics it is interesting to note that conservatives, while they abhor relativistic theology or morality, often argue for the bottom-up approach of markets both economically and socially.

When the young man thinks that by having both the clean man and the sooty man wash he will finally satisfy the Rabbi, he is thinking in a postmodern way.

IV: Paradoxical Thinking
The fourth type of thinking is the ancient yet emergent Paradoxical Thinking. Paradoxical thinking is found in ancient philosophical and religious texts like Zen Buddhism or Plato’s Parmenides. T.S. Eliot’s famous poem Four Quartets echoes the Christian mystic, St. John of the Cross, with lines like these.

In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
-T.S. Eliot

Dismissed or derided for centuries by the Western scientific tradition, it is ironic that paradoxical thinking is emergent precisely because science has been forced to turn to things like Hawkings Paradox to deal with the apparent contradictory nature of the universe. As the famous scientist Sir Arthur Eddington said, “Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.” Trying to figure out what happened before the Big Bang becomes paradoxical because time itself didn’t exist “before” the Big Bang. It’s trying to figure out what was going on before there was a before.

Recently paradoxical thinking has trickled from science into business through buzz phrases like creative destruction, controlled chaos, coopetition, getting outside the box, fuzzy logic, breaking the frame, and the Zen of business. These self-contradictory concepts try to capture the fact that even business may be stranger than we can imagine, and that the old models are no longer adequate.

Paradoxical thinkers hold apparent contradictions in tension by moving among magical, modern, and postmodern thinking as the situation requires while still being able to act decisively. This means paradoxical thinkers are open-minded and close-minded at the same time. The paradox underlying paradoxical thinking is that its openness is anything but indecisive, passionless, or lacking in principled convictions.

In a recent book review in the Wall Street Journal, The Long Way Around, Andrew Stark makes a compelling case for paradoxical thinking. Stark argues for what he calls the “profit-seeking paradox” which he defines as “the best way to maximize profit is not to seek to maximize profit.” In order to be successful, we must master the paradoxical idea that it is in our own self-interest to forget our self-interest. For as every great salesman knows, the more he forgets about his product and commissions in order to selflessly serve his customers, the more product he moves and the more commissions he makes. Every great leader knows that the more he focuses on helping others succeed, the more successful he becomes.

But as Stark masterfully points out, the paradoxical secret underlying this paradoxical formula is that it must be sincere.

“Even if you know that keeping workers on the payroll [in a recession] will elicit their over-the-top effort, the hope of gaining their over-the-top effort cannot be your motive for keeping them on the payroll.”

Stark goes on to say that the profit-seeking paradox embodies the “soul-building wisdom of Zen-style spirituality.” He argues that its corollary, the happiness paradox, lies at the heart of successful life. The happiness paradox states that the more we strive to attain happiness, the less happy we become, and the more we focus on something bigger than ourselves, the happier we get. In effect, the shortest distance between two points is Stark’s long way around.

*      *     *
All four types of thinking are essential. When the Rabbi reminds his would-be student that the man with the clean face will objectively see a dirty face and therefore wash, he is reminding the young man of the importance of modern objective thinking.

When he argues that the sooty man will eventually figure it out on his own, he is doing the same for postmodern subjectivity.

When he tells the young man that the whole riddle relies on an impossible situation, he is warning him against the danger of magical thinking. But since riddles and thought experiments rely on imagining impossible realities, by choosing a riddle in the first place, the Rabbi is paradoxically introducing the young man to the value of magical thinking as well.

But when he finally admonishes the young man to first clean his own face, he is pointing at the “soul-building Zen-style spirituality” that is the real answer to his riddle and the riddle of life. Paradoxically, the only way the young man can gain the wisdom he seeks is by ridding himself of the selfish motivations that inspired him to arrogantly approach the Rabbi in the first place, loudly proclaiming his qualifications. Humility and a spirit of service is an answer to the Rabbi’s riddle that never occurred to the young man.

What Stark refers to as the profit-seeking paradox and the happiness paradox lie at the heart of the Rabbi’s riddle, and of Eliot’s admonition that in order to possess what we do not possess we must go by the way of dispossession. But it remains to be seen whether either the young man in the story, or those of us who are privileged to hear it, will take T.S. Eliot’s, Stark’s, and the Rabbi’s wisdom to heart.

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