Learning to Think Like a Leader – Part 1


It’s just like riding a bike! That phrase is synonymous with the idea that there are certain things we never forget how to do. We don’t have to think. We just do. Hop on the bike, push off, and go! Singing the Happy Birthday song is not something we do every day, but you’ll never forget how the tune goes. For most of us, driving a car is something we can not do for a long time, but once we’re behind the wheel, the skill returns quickly to mind. Jumping rope is another. Reading an analog clock (for those of us over 40) is another. Tying a shoe (unless you were raised on Velcro). All of these are rooted in neural pathways that are deeply embedded and hard to disrupt. We don’t have to think. We jump right to doing. Should leadership be this way?

I acknowledge that there are some people for whom certain skills of leadership come naturally. The most effective leaders, though, are very intentional about leading. They take great care to think through the art of leading and they work hard at thinking like a leader.

In fact, if we do what comes naturally (see Fighting What Comes Naturally), we’ll likely fail at leadership. If you’ve developed bad leadership habits that have become your brain’s “bicycle patterns,” you’ve got some work to do.

Retraining your brain takes work. The video clip below is about a man and his bike with handlebars that work backwards. Watch for a fascinating (and very entertaining) illustration of this point.

The thinking patterns that are natural to most of us are not effective for leading. We need to commit ourselves to learning new ways of thinking (like learning to ride a backwards brain bike). What are those new ways of thinking?

Vince Miller is founder and president of Resolute, an organization devoted to discipling and developing men as leaders. He has seven “principles for advancing a leadership mindset.” These seven principles are the essentials of learning to think like a leader. The first three principles are presented below, along with some of my own comments. Next week, I’ll present the other four.

Be attentive. Give 100% attention to immediate tasks. Ensure that you are focused and purposeful. Apply your mind to one thing at a time, and when it begins to wander, exert focus to bring it back. Secure distinct ideas about what you see or hear.

You, as a leader, have conversations every day with people who need your attention. Your attention tells them, “You matter and I care about what concerns you.” Being attentive validates them. Also, problems pop up every day. (I had three “fires” to put out in the first hour of my day today.) The false belief that multi-tasking is good pervades our thinking and undermines leadership effectiveness. Multi-tasking is the opposite of being attentive. Read through the Gospels and evaluate Jesus’ focus. Was he ever distracted? Did he ever multi-task?

Seek out truth. Find evidence that supports God’s truth from the propositions being set out. Settle only for the truth and ask the obvious question that is not being asked.

Today, many people struggle with the idea that there is truth. They like to think that people can have their own view of the truth. Application of critical thinking to that proposition will break down that belief rapidly leaving only empty value systems and destructive behaviors. Leaders must seek out truth, whether the issue be a matter of ethics and integrity in the office or simply breaking through assumptions about work projects. There is truth. The questions you ask will lead you to truth. Every question Jesus asked eventually pointed to the truth.

Start with the simple in complex matters. Start with simple ideas and then work toward the complex. This is just like starting at the beginning of the instructions when assembling a product. Think backwards to purpose and forward to the implications.

When people can’t quite figure out what to do, it’s almost always because they are confused by complexity. Most problems worth your attention are indeed complex. Nevertheless, complex problems are always comprised of threats to simple ideas (…sometimes lots of them). As a leader, you must identify those simple ideas and understand how they are related to ultimate purposes for the organization and in life. Jesus’ simple idea was “You’ve got a problem you can’t fix—only I can.” Everything else confuses the problem.

As you can see, these principles are simple. On the other hand, they are very hard to apply consistently, fully, and effectively. It takes work. It requires rewiring your brain to think like a true leader. It’s like learning to ride a “backwards brain bike.”

This is how leaders must think. Differently. Boldly.

Please come back next week for part 2.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

Photo by Mikael Kristenson. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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