How much are you a ‘smart-thinking’ leader? …… 10 key factors to consider

At Owen Morris, we believe that all organisations run fundamentally on a vital combination: good thinking + good leadership. Every idea, intention or action first starts with thought! And usually nothing much gets done without the need to influence others. It’s a natural combination!

Unfortunately, though, the two fields are often considered separate: leadership is seen as about people whilst thinking is seen as about data, ideas or decisions. We think it’s time the two are seen as an item!

Let’s hear it for ‘smart leadership‘. This is what Owen Morris helps clients with – particularly with strategic thinking and leadership.

Thinking more about your thinking: taking more conscious control.

Sadly, good thinking skills are not an area of strength of most managers. One reason is that education systems – including universities – have tended to emphasise the acquisition of existing knowledge (what to know), rather than how to think or how to think differently. Also, in most organisations the traditional, general expectation is that managers are employed to get things done, not waste time thinking about what they might do!

But, to prosper in today’s complex, fast-moving world – where intangibles play a greater role in competition – leaders do need to pay more attention to their thinking skills.

So, what is good thinking?

Well, at its heart, it’s about not letting yourself simply react to things that happen around you or deciding things impulsively or using instinct only. Instead, it’s about pausing to look at situations in a well-rounded way, seeking to apply a few different types of thinking, possibly seeking views or insights from others, avoiding being biassed, and following a reasonably systematic process. The aim is to think about situations with more conscious awareness and control and so reach better, different or more original solutions or decisions.

In a bit more detail, here are 10 notable factors that contribute to smart, effective thinking:

How leaders can be smart at thinking

a) Be aware of how people naturally form different thoughts: Fundamentally, thoughts are built on what individuals know, their experiences in life and, crucially, what their values and beliefs are. As we all have different life histories, each of us has a unique set of thoughts and opinions. Our thoughts are also highly influenced by our own emotional tendencies – how we feel and react subsconsicously to situations and topics – together with our mood states at a given moment.. Smart leaders appreciate this framework and how it naturally leads people to see things differently.

b) Be aware that what people see and perceive can be heavily distorted by the brain. Humans do not just passively and objectively take in and experience reality through their senses. Instead, much comes from ‘inside-out’ influences from the brain, including: our existing beliefs, our previous experiences, our existing mental models/pre-conceptions, our expectations, and the mood we are in, as well as ‘contextual’ influences (e.g. how/where things are located).

c) Know how various personal ‘sub-conscious’ biases’ can heavily distort how people process information. Examples of personal biases are: ‘confirmation’ bias (only heeding evidence that appears to agree with your existing beliefs); ‘availability’ bias (making a decision by relying on data that comes to-hand most easily); ‘halo effect’ bias (letting someone’s positive qualities in one area influence overall perception of that person); ‘anchoring’ bias (relying excessively on the leading piece of information given when reaching a decision); ‘in-group/out-group bias’ (seeing people who are similar to you more positively); and ‘egocentric’ bias (treating your own beliefs as more correct or important than others’ views).

d) Be aware how oganisational and professional biases can also influence individuals’ thinking. At work employees’ thinking is usually highly infuenced by their organisation’s culture (values, norms, expected behaviours) and the various views, beliefs and assumptions (e.g. what customers value) that have become established in the organisation. Sometimes, though, some of those elements lead to serious ‘blindspots’ and erroneous views, which can hold back or damage organisational performance. Note also, of course, how many ‘professional’ employees are influenced by the norms and standards defined by their professional or regulatory body.

e) Adopt an ‘open’ mindset and outlook towards life: In particular, be attentive to what’s going on around you, stay curious, maintain a positive mindset, and value learning and growing as an individual. Other, useful psychological traits include being able to cope with uncertainty and handle ambiguity. And some useful, general habits are: looking after your general health (e.g. getting enough sleep and exercise), meeting regularly with different people (to come across a wider range of viewpoints), keeping up with current affairs and key trends in society, travelling widely, and trying new experiences often (e.g. new hobbies) to help keep your mind fresh!

More ways to be smart about thinking

f) Look at a problem or situation from different angles and using different thinking modes. There is never one single, unique way to view any situation, so a good thinker – especially for ‘big’ issues – will seek to look at a situation through a few different ‘angles’ before making a decision. One way to do this is to imagine yourself ‘in the shoes’ of a range of different people connected with the issue and think what their particular viewpoint might be. Also, it’s valuable to try a few different ‘thinking modes’: common examples include intuitive thinking (your ‘gut’ feeling), conceptual thinking, critical thinking, systems thinking, and creative thinking. All leaders usually have their own preferred (default) style but, for optimum decision-making or problem-solving, it’s best to apply a few different modes. Don’t dismiss intuitive thinking – gut instinct can often be wise! – but always supplement it with wider thiinking before making your decision.

g) Leverage the different thinking of others. Smart leaders amplify the power of their own thinking by also tapping the different perspectives – as well as the knowledge and experience – of other people. Ideally, seek a range of people who have different backgrounds and ways of thinking (i.e. a good level of ‘cognitive diversity‘). Those people consulted should have at least some degree of existing familiarity or experience with the subject at hand and, ideally, to prevent ‘social’ influencing between each other, they should be consulted individually and privately. If you use a meeting of a group to discuss an issue, take other steps too to limit other potential ‘group’ biases e.g. confident individuals limiting time for others to voice their opinions.

h) Seek relevant and accurate information. Effective decisions – especially for more complex or risky issues – need, of course, decent and relevant information to consider, analyse and think about. Information doesn’t have to just be ‘hard’ data i.e. facts and numbers, but can also include ideas, opinions or feelings. It’s usually wise to seek information from a variety of different viewpoints or people (e.g. customers, employees etc) relating to the issue: it can be particularly useful to consult people at the ‘periphery’ of the situation, as their ‘outside-in’ anchor can often yield very different or original ideas.

i) Follow a systematic approach for your thinking and decision-making. Better thinking is achieved if you follow an overall process that is reasonably structured and methodical and – certainly for more complex issues – make use of relevant supportive tools and techniques. A methodical process includes defined stages/steps for looking at and working through an issue – for example, definition of goal, analysis of the core issue, collection of data, development of options and so on. Thinking and decision tools range from ‘hard’ (i.e. data-centred) statistical and analytical techniques to ‘softer’ tools like creative thinking methods.

j) Appreciate the need for supportive organisational and management processes. To complement all the above useful behaviours by leaders, an organisation should have suitable supportive qualities and processes. One vital factor is having a culture that values good thinking (for example, job descriptions refer to it; training/coaching is offered in thinking skills; and staff are recognised/reqareded for evidence of good thinking). Another key factor is having good internal communications and plenty of opportunities for staff to meet and interact with colleagues (to share experiences, knowledge and ideas).