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Leadership and Thinking – What’s the Catch?

Posted by Mark Bennett on March 3, 2012


It would be nice to know that the two go together, right? And they usually do, but…

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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!”

Under pressure

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

6 Responses to “Leadership and Thinking – What’s the Catch?”

  1. […] Mark Bennett, from TalentedApps, starts us off with Leadership and Thinking – What’s the Catch? “What kind of thinking is best for leaders to exhibit vs. what kind of thinking do people […]

  2. Thinking by way of ‘relationships’ and ‘influence’ can also improve leadership qualities.

    “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.”

    Great point and advice. Thanks for the post, I enjoyed reading.

    • I agree completely that relationships and influence are key facets for both deciding when and how to pursue either path – not everyone reacts to, or expects the same behavior from you. I’m sure that what goes on between a world leader or CEO and his or her staff, peers, and immediate followers can be different in many ways from what goes on with the “masses.”

      It’s definitely a multifaceted topic, addressing a wide range of constituencies. Thank you for your comment – I hope to do a follow-up soon that focuses on the closer relationships that leaders must address when thinking about an issue. Meg presents a good strategy in her comment. I’d be interested in what ways you suggest.

  3. Meg Bear said

    I would add one thing — I do agree that complex and new things need time for slow thinking. I’ve also found that, as a leader, holding up the team to think things through can be very costly. I’ve developed my own hybrid approach to this where I do a few things to bridge the gap
    1) I am careful to not wait to communicate while I think — if i do that it creates a void that people tend to fill with negative energy — instead I communicate my process and what I don’t know.. this way people know I’m thinking..
    2) I make sure to give some hints as to why it’s important for the team that I take time to think. If you don’t give context of WDIMTM (what does it mean to me?) a slew of problems arise.
    3) I make a point to communicate when the thinking phase is done so that people know it’s no longer and idea but a plan.

    Net message: Thinking slowly is important and requires a different communication strategy to be effective when leading a team..

    -Meg

    • Excellent strategy – you optimize constructive work and thinking in parallel with your team. “Commander’s Intent” doesn’t have to be “this is my final position on the issue,” in other words. The other thing that’s great is the focus on communication, communication, communication – nothing has as much potential to complicate matters or cause unnecessary problems then when teams are left to conjure up their own “worst case scenario” in their imagination when they have nothing else to go on.

      Thanks for the practical advice!

      • I love the point “I am careful to not wait to communicate while I think — if i do that it creates a void that people tend to fill with negative energy”.

        A great post followed by a lively discussion.

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