Learn to think like the smartest business leaders in the world

By Graeme Codrington 

When we read stories of some of the world’s top achievers, or hear from the world’s best innovators, it can feel as if they see the world differently to the rest of us. It’s no surprise to discover that most of them have actually worked deliberately to cultivate this as an ability.

For more insight into how these top achievers do this, see our November 2017 book review on “The Tools of Titans” by Tim Ferriss available to our Academy members.  But beware - it is dangerous to try to copy someone else directly.

Just like every person is an individual, every leader in the world is unique, and each has their own leadership context. Part of the leadership task - at whatever level you exercise leadership - is to find your own way in your own space. Having said that, when we study leaders we do see patterns emerging. The best leaders do share a number of character traits as well as a set of daily habits that seem to hold some keys to their success. We can learn from these; even if we can’t simply copy them exactly.

Over the years, our team at TomorrowToday have engaged with some really great and smart leaders, and have also worked with some of the world’s leading leadership experts who have done formal and extensive studies of the world’s best leaders.

I was particularly intrigued to find that these leaders appear to think quite differently. They also have daily habits that are distinctive and personality traits that are interesting, but I want to focus in this lesson on how they think. A classic HBR article by Roger Martin on “How Successful Leaders Think” (read it here) says this:

“[A] focus on what a leader does is misplaced. That’s because moves that work in one context often make little sense in another, even at the same company or within the experience of a single leader. Recall that Jack Welch, early in his career at General Electric, insisted that each of GE’s businesses be number one or number two in market share in its industry; years later he insisted that those same businesses define their markets so that their share was no greater than 10%, thereby forcing managers to look for opportunities beyond the confines of a narrowly conceived market. Trying to learn from what Jack Welch did invites confusion and incoherence, because he pursued—wisely, I might add—diametrically opposed courses at different points in his career and in GE’s history.

So where do we look for lessons? A more productive, though more difficult, approach is to focus on how a leader thinks—that is, to examine the antecedent of doing, or the ways in which leaders’ cognitive processes produce their actions."

We believe that there are five important ways that the best leaders THINK that is different from the rest of us. We should all learn these and do them ourselves:

1. Think in Frameworks

The difference between great and ordinary thinkers is that, for ordinary thinkers the process of using models is unconscious and reactive. For great thinkers it is conscious, deliberate and proactive. Great thinkers think about their thinking.

The world’s top achievers collect the most effective mental models from across all disciplines. They test these models out, and internalise them so they always have them available, and they apply them in their daily lives.

For example, they have mental models that define personality types, from simple models around gender and culture to more complex psychometric type personality profile tools. They’re able to use these models to make sense of people they interact with during the day.

Mental models help with three key thinking tasks: (1) ensuring you don’t get stuck in a simplistic or single explanation of what’s happening around you; (2) you have an entire toolkit of options to help you make sense of any given situation, and (3) you remind yourself constantly that your view of the world (or the issue at hand) is not the only one - in fact, your instinctive view might not be helpful at all.

Great thinkers, good leaders and top achievers work hard to find, evaluate and assimilate as many different frameworks or mental models as possible. We all know a few already, I am sure: the 80/20 principle (for prioritisation), introverts vs extroverts (to explain personality and where people get their energy from), causation vs correlation (a statistical model to help us look for root causes, rather than just happenstance), the scientific method of controlled experiments (so we don’t rely on dodgy evidence), crowdsourcing (an updated version of brainstorming, to find ways to hear more opinions) and social proof (the new way people seek to verify their decision making), etc.

For an excellent summary of mental models, see Michael Simmons’ summary here. 

What should you do?

  • Work through the mental models summary and test whether you know something of each model listed in the inner circle of the infographic. If you don’t, then do a Google search for a brief explanation.

  • Identify which of these mental models you use regularly and consciously. Aim to add more to this list by looking at your day ahead and selecting a framework that you are going to consciously apply at some specific point during your day. For example, using a personality framework to help frame the way you engage with colleagues in a meeting; or testing the concepts of a project you’re working on against a variety of cognitive biases.

  • Aim to add one new mental model to your toolkit each week for a month. Choose one, study it and then practice applying it.

2. Be curious, read widely and seek out differences of opinion

Not every leader is good at this, but most of the truly great leaders we’ve met are. These days, great leaders ask great questions. It used to be that the task of the leader was to have the answers to questions, but in a world that’s changing as much as ours is right now this is no longer a defining feature of a top achiever.

Instead, we need people who are good at asking the right questions. We need to develop the habit of asking probing, insightful questions that cause others to pause and think. We need to ask ourselves questions that invite reflection, interrogation and fan the flames of genuine curiosity.

What should you do?

  • Keep a journal of really great questions. When you hear a great question, write it down and keep a record of it.

  • Start each week with a key question that will guide your week, and ask that question at least three times per day each day. My favourite question is “Why do we do it THIS way?”. You could also try: “How is this growing me?”, “What’s the bigger picture?”, “Is there a better way?” or any number of other provocative questions.

  • Take time out each week to decide to investigate something you don’t understand or don’t know enough about. Actively develop your curiosity and allocate time in your diary to allow your curiosity to guide your reading and interactions with others.

  • Future of Work Academy members can also access our lesson on Asking Great Questions from the Curiosity and Storytelling course here.

3. Know the limits of your abilities, and build a team around you to ensure there are no weak areas

Strengths-based development has been the revolution of the past two decades, and it works. Focus on your strengths: identify them, build on them, develop them. And then compensate for your weaknesses by building a good team around you.

In an excellent article in Forbes, by Michael Simmons (read it here), he argues that some of the best people in the world are generalists, despite the popular warnings of being a “jack of all trades and master of none”. But what these people, like Elon Musk and Marie Curie do is to make sure they form independent opinions by looking at as much data as they can, learn the big ideas in the big disciplines that impact their field (this is about thinking in frameworks and being curious), and build a network of people around you who can help you do these things.

They also spend less time worrying about being original and more in reading widely and taking in lots of different information from many different sources, especially including historical sources, as they look for clues to the future in yesterday’s and today’s worlds and are radically open to new ideas.

What should you do?

  • If you haven’t done so yet, read Markus Buckingham’s “Now Discover Your Strengths” or “Strengthsfinder 2.0” by Tom Rath. Identify your strengths, and the strengths of your closest colleagues and team members. Discuss these profiles with each other, and know where one person will be strong, and others weak. A team is not just “there for each other” - a good team knows which team members do what tasks best. Work on this together.

  • Identify the thing you did last week that was you at your weakest - some task or activity where you really weren’t able to be your best you; not because you were lazy, ill-prepared, under-resourced or new to a job, but rather because it represents a weakness for you. See if you can find a way to ensure you don’t have to do this again, and get that task/activity/responsibility shifted to someone else.

4. Hold paradoxes in tension

The world’s top achievers don’t see the world in black and white - they are very good at seeing the shades of grey in between. They are able to recognise that there are many different ways of looking at every issue, and don’t need everything to fit into neat little boxes. They are even prepared to hold competing and conflicting ideas in their heads (at least for a time), while they wait for new information and clarity to emerge.

What should you do?

This is a hugely difficult skill to learn. It involves not just mental ability, but also the development of EQ and social intelligence. And, most of all, it requires the taming of the ego.

It is beyond the scope of this article to teach this skill, but we can recommend one activity to you: take a topic that you are fairly knowledgeable or opinionated about and seek out someone who holds a different view to yours; then, take the time to ask them explanatory questions (as opposed to interrogative or gotcha questions) that will enable them to explain their view to you.

Do not attempt to change their view, attempt only to understand it. Then, armed with this knowledge, find someone who shares the same viewpoint as you, and try to change their mind by arguing the opposite of what you actually believe. 

5. Be very clear about what levers need to be pulled

The best leaders and top achievers that we know are laser focused, and they do this by clearing out the things that don’t really make a difference - they clear them out their minds and out of the schedules. They get rid of clutter, and focus the majority of their time, attention and resources on just a few things that will make all the difference in the future.

Knowing what those things are is part of the key to being a great leader, and we haven’t found any magic formula for working out what is really important. But it does seem that this is a question great leaders ask themselves: “is what I am about to do really going to make a difference”? If the answer is “no” then they invariably don’t do it. Of course, it’s the luxury of being in leadership that you can delegate tasks to others, but this ability to do the most important work first, and to know what the most important work actually is, is what separates the great leaders and achievers from the merely good ones.

Stephen Covey referred to something similar to this in his book, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. He called it “the big rocks”. He uses an illustration of filling a container with big rocks, little rocks, pebbles, sand and water. If you put them into the container in that order, you eventually fill it up until the water runs over the top. But if you try and put the same contents in, but with the big rocks last, you’ll never get them in. He used this picture to say that in our lives, we need to put the big rocks in first. This is both about what’s overall important to our lives, but also about how we manage our diaries every day.

What should you do?

  • Don’t just have a “to do” list. Also keep a “not to do” list. These are activities, issues or even relationships that you’re in the process of removing from your life. 

  • Be more conscious of all your activities, interactions and relationships in the next two weeks. After each one, do a quick assessment of whether they are (a) important, (b) maintenance jobs that just have to be done, or (c) not important at all. See what you can do to get rid of at least one item from the third category each month for the rest of this year.

  • If you haven’t heard of the important vs urgent matrix, then read this short article and apply its wisdom - it will change your life. 


Conclusion

The remainder of this course in The Future of Work Academy’s “Creativity and Intuition” development path will expand on these thinking skills and provide valuable resources and guidance in developing them.

If you haven’t done so yet, we suggest that once you've completed this course that you follow on with the "Adaptive Intelligence, sense making and complex problem solving” course which will provide further insights and help you apply this thinking to the art and science of leadership. But don’t rush through this course. The issues outlined above will take time to develop and need practice. Enjoy the journey to better thinking, creativity and intuition.

Further Reading


This lesson (Learn to think like the smartest business leaders in the world) is the second lesson in The Future of Work's course on developing your skills for Creativity and Intuition.

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