F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”** This multifaceted thinking, the ability to embrace complexity and ambiguity and the management of contradiction and confrontation, is a critical skill.

In “The Opposable Mind,” Roger L. Martin lauds leaders with “the predisposition and the capacity to hold two (or more) diametrically opposed ideas” in mind, and then “without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other…produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea.” “The Opposable Mind” focuses on thinking skills rather than doing skills of leaders.

Martin writes of the importance of nurturing the imagination, that integrative leaders realize existing models can be informative but are imperfect. In their minds, existing models are just models, each with something useful to offer but none holding the unquestionable truth. They leverage opposing models, convinced that better models exist and can be found.

Integrative thinking leaders:

– Deliberately “wade into complexity,” by seeking “multiple working hypotheses” when required to make especially complicated decisions.

– Do not merely tolerate contradictory points of view, they encourage them.

– “Face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension (whatever its causes may be) in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.”

Martin cites four steps of integrative thinking:

– Salience (be open to more features being considered in your model/thinking, accept the resulting complexity, which is reality)

– Causality (accept that it can be multidimensional and nonlinear)

– Architecture (see the whole while working on the parts)

– Resolution (creatively resolve tensions)

Our world is becoming all the more complex, all the more connected. We need to eschew simplistic thinking models and embrace a deeper understanding of the high degree of interactivity, thus the variability and uncertainty that confront us as decision makers.

Beware the simplistic solution, beware the over-confident leader.

Confession: I often run across books with theses that interest and intrigue me, but time is short and fleeting. So often I cruise the ‘net and read various reviews of said tomes that frequently serve as synopses and/or offer insightful analysis of same. It is a technique I heartily recommend to maintain as broad a survey of the literature as possible. This is one such case and I’m indebted to numerous sources for bits and pieces of the above.

** Fitzgerald, F. S. (1945). “The Crack-up.” New York: New Directions Publishing.

This is a classic from the NSC Blog archive. Originally posted April 18, 2008.