One of the five books I listed in my Required Reading post was  The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership by Steven B. Sample.  If you haven’t picked this one up, you’re definitely missing out on a very helpful read.  Some books have a nugget or two.  Others force you to decide what not to underline.  This is the latter.

One of the key ideas in The Contrarian’s Guide is what Sample refers to as thinking gray.  What he’s talking about is the ability to delay forming "an opinion about an important matter until you’ve heard all the relevant facts and arguments, or until circumstances force you to form an opinion without recourse to all the facts."  Of course, the notion of gray is a reference to that place between black and white.  He’s not suggesting that we stay there (In this sense, gray isn’t the new black!).  He’s only suggesting the we stay there "until we’ve heard all the relevant facts and arguments."

Why is this important?  Easy.  Most of us are what he refers to as "binary and instant" in our thinking.  Things really seem black or white and they seem that way immediately in our mind.  But the truth is that binary thinking makes effective leadership much more difficult.  Sample identifies at least three dangers of binary thinking.  See if these make sense to you:

  • Making lasting decisions too soon, based solely on the facts and opinions that arrive first, and closing the mind to facts that emerge later.
  • Flip-flopping when the second set of facts forces you to reverse a decision.
  • Taking the opinions of a group of other people, even when you’re not quite sure, just because a group must be right.

Any of those ring true for you?

At the same time, in leadership everything isn’t gray.  There are lots of decisions that really are binary.  Black and white.  But on the weightiest of issues, learning to think gray will enable us to move to a better position strategically.  So how to learn?  Sample says that we need to begin to practice the art of thinking gray on everyday, black and white seeming decisions.  How?  By delaying forming "an opinion about an important matter until we’ve heard all the relevant facts and arguments, or until circumstances force us to form an opinion without recourse to all the facts."  Could we do that?  Yes we can.  Why not try it tomorrow.  Pick out something to test it on and let me know what happens.  I’ll report in too.  It’ll be fun.  Imagine the possibilities.

Another important tactic in learning the art of thinking gray is to develop the skill of artful listening.  You can find out more about this in an earlier post.  Mostly, I want to encourage you to grow in this area of leadership.  It really is at the heart of what makes a great leader.

Thinking Gray