Leadership and Thinking – What’s the Catch?
Posted by Mark Bennett on March 3, 2012
The catch is that thinking tends to occur in two forms: “Fast,” or System 1, and “Slow,” or System 2. “Fast” thinking is what we are talking about when we have a “gut feeling” about something or someone or when we are going with our “intuition.” “Slow” thinking is what we are talking about when we “work things out” or “think things through.”
Quick example: When I ask you to answer 2 times 2, your answer comes from System 1. If I ask you to answer 17 times 24, you have to think it through – that’s System 2 doing its thing.
You’re thinking, you’re thinking again
How does this fit with leadership? Leaders can fall into the trap of relying on one type of thinking exclusively. This might come from wanting to have a “leadership style” and a desire for consistency in shaping that style makes a leader feel they need to always be seen as either quick or deliberate in their thinking. It might also be as simple as they’ve had more favorable outcomes with one or the other (or at least that’s how they remember it.)
CBS This Morning had a 5 minute interview with Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow (which I recommended here). The interview happened to bring up the subject of how George W. Bush and Barack Obama are pretty good examples of the two different Systems. Bush was known for, and prides himself on, being a quick decision maker who often “went with his gut” (System 1.) Obama is known for being more deliberate, for looking at both sides of the argument, etc. (System 2.)
What was interesting and important to note was Kahneman’s comments that one type of thinking is not always superior to the other – they both have their respective advantages and disadvantages. When asked when is it better to use one vs. the other, he nicely summed it up this way:
- If it’s a routine situation and the stakes aren’t too high, it’s usually fine to go with System 1 (i.e. save your energy/time for when you really need it.)
- If the stakes are high or the situation is unusual, you are usually better off taking the time to think things through (i.e. turn to System 2.)
Now, you look at that and you could say, “I could have told you that – I must be as smart as a Nobel Prize winner!”
But that’s where the pressures of leadership come in. Kahneman also made the observation that the pubic is often looking for “decisive leaders” and that often equates to being “quick on your feet”, ready to handle the next crisis at a moment’s notice in this world that seems to be moving and changing faster and faster, with danger lurking around every corner.
So the stakes are high, right? Both for the people of a country, and the whole planet for that matter. And with the way presidents, prime ministers, and CEOs are unceremoniously tossed out if things don’t go well, their personal stakes are quite high as well, correct?
Now, how often are circumstances (in our ever-changing world, that keeps moving faster and faster, with new threats around every corner) routine?
Let’s see. Stakes are high and the situation is very rarely routine. That points to System 2. But everybody wants a leader that acts like System 1. Got it.
For you leaders out there, the takeaway is this: sometimes the pressure you feel to “go fast” is a sign to “slow down,” while other times you simply do not have that luxury. Your mission is to get good at knowing when it’s the right time to make that call and when it’s not. Just remember that each type of thinking is valuable and make use of both when you can. Don’t get stuck in a pattern of using just one or the other.
Photo by toddeemel