The Thinking Part of Leadership

If you have ever closely watched a professional baseball game, one thing that sticks out is the how much strategy is applied to the game.  This starts months before game night with the coaches and general manager assembling the team to be on the field.  The starting pitcher and those pitchers in the bullpen are set.  The manager fills in the lineup card after considering his team members and the matchups they will face with the other team.  By the time the opening pitch is thrown, mounds of data have been reviewed and analyzed to create a game plan.  The resulting game we watch is not random, but it a result of the review and plan of the data.

Consider a general who inspects the field of battle.  He uses his training, assessment of resources, terrain knowledge, weather, and other factors to set up a plan to defeat the enemy.  His acts are not random.  They are the result of training, instinct, and analysis used to process current data and continue to make decisions for the war.

In many cases, the actions of the baseball team and the general may seem to be random or uncoordinated to the outsider.  They are the result of months and years of deep thought.  Leadership starts as an intellectual activity.  Action is the result of leadership that we can see, but action is the result of thinking.  The harvest of successful leadership actions must begin with the sowing of seeds of thoughts.  If the wrong seeds are sown, the desired harvest will not be seen.  Albert Mohler states, “Our actions may never reach the heights of our thinking, but you can be certain that the quality of your actions will never exceed the quality of your thinking.” 

Hence, good leaders are characterized by careful attention to thinking.  I believe a problem here is that most of us don’t want to put in the intense effort thinking requires.  We would much rather veg in front of the TV or check social media than engaging in focused, critical, and careful thinking.  Most flitter from thought to thought like a butterfly, without serious reflection, analysis, or questioning their own decisions.  Most are not seriously interested in the discipline and process of deep thinking. 

Leaders, like most others, operate on instinct, habits, and hunches at times.  What is different from a leader from a non-leader is the effective leader will bring these under the control of deep and right patterns of thinking.  Look at a well-run company.  It is not the result of luck.  The leaders there devote intense energy to thought. 

Leader’s thoughts must tackle the truth of today, no matter how harsh it is.  We tend to see through rose-colored glasses when we view problems that we hope will go away.  It is like the Peanuts cartoon where Linus asks Charlie Brown, “Is it better to solve a problem right away or think about it for awhile?”

Charlie Brown replies, “Definitely to think about it awhile.”

Linus asks, “So you can think of the right action for the problem?”

“No,” Charlie Brown replies, “so you can give the problem time to go away!”  Unfortunately, as leaders we sometimes take Charlie Brown’s view on problems.  While we do need to strategize, we must also use those thoughts as springboards for action instead of analysis paralysis.  I find this true in lending.  It is rare when a problem crops up with a borrower that just goes away on its own.  Oftentimes, they get worse.  The best end solutions for problem loans I have managed have centered around strategic thoughts shared with the borrower.

Successful leaders think strategically.  Why?  Strategic thinking simplifies what is difficult and forces us to ask the correct questions.  It matches strategy to the problem and prepares you today for an uncertain tomorrow.  Deep thinking produces the immediate responses to insure success and reduce the margins for error.  The problem is that good strategic thinking is taxing and requires intense efforts.  Some are not willing to give it. 

John Maxwell in his book How Successful People Think gives seven strategies to think strategically.  I believe these are valuable to consider.

1.       Break down the issue.  Focusing on smaller, manageable parts allow you to tackle a large task little by little.  Henry Ford said, “Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.”

2.       Ask why before how.  If you jump right into problem solving mode, how do you know you are solving the right problem?  Eugene Grace stated, “Thousands of engineers can design bridges, calculate strains and stresses, and draw up specifications for machines, but the great engineer is the man who can tell whether the bridge or machine should be built at all, where it should be built, and when.”

3.       Identify the real issues and objectives.  William Feather wrote in The Business Life, “Before it can be solved, a problem must be clearly defined.” 

4.       Review your resources.  A strategy that does not review the physical assets, people talent, reputation, and current reach is often doomed.

5.       Develop your plan.  Start with the obvious to bring unity and consensus to your team, then build momentum and creativity from that point. 

6.       Put the right people in the right place.  If you have the wrong person, you will have problems instead of potential.  If you have the right person in the wrong place, you will have frustration instead of fulfillment.  If you have the wrong plan altogether, you will have grief over growth.

7.       Keep repeating the process.  Olan Hendrix stated, “Strategic thinking is like showering, you have to keep doing it!”

Hopefully, some of these ideas will convict you of the necessary to carve out time regularly to think strategically.  This is a hard discipline which will pay great dividends.