The 11th of September 2001: an infamous day in recent world history. An airliner hijacked by people with a frightening vision of the future slams into a skyscraper in New York City on a beautiful autumn day, and the world changes. We will never really know how almost three thousand people in that building behaved, thought, or acted in those minutes after the crashes. We can only imagine.
Some would have panicked and run; others would have frozen in fear. Many would have demonstrated anger; others would have reached out calmly to the icons and beliefs of their faith and to their values of family and human relationships. Many electronic messages were sent out in those minutes, many of them to family and loved ones. Many prayers would have been said. One can only imagine how many of their messages were never heard. And then there were those who intuitively or by training reached out to others to help, to provide guidance. Many would have sought or even demanded help; but others would have sought to provide it generously with no other motive than that it needed to be done.
In a crisis, our complex and various inner worlds are on view for others to sense as at no other time. In a crisis, some people demonstrate their great leadership skills and others show how much they need leaders. There were people in those buildings on that day who made the decision to lead. Some made the wrong decisions; others made decisions that saved lives.
Those who chose to lead in those moments in that place had decided to make change happen and to inluence other people to follow them. But why were those people motivated to lead at that moment? Why did they feel compelled to say “follow me”? How did those leaders decide to exert their concept of safe passage on others? Did they formulate a strategy?
Also, did people in the World Trade Center intuitively follow certain people and or were they inluenced to go in different directions than they originally planned?
And inally, what did the leaders in the World Trade Center that day actually do? Did they decide on a course of action and then demand action from others? Did they intuitively and rapidly develop a strategy, evaluate it, and convince others of its rightness? If we could determine the answers to Why? How? and What? in that situation, we would have a clear understanding of those leaders and how they led.
So in what follows you will be confronting those three questions in almost every discussion of a newly introduced idea. The answers will help explain the concepts and provide you with essential insights into leadership and how it can be learned. Those three simple questions and their answers will offer a disciplined, systematic approach to thinking effectively and thoroughly about complex ideas related to the role and practice of leadership.
As I noted earlier, skills, character, and behaviour are linked together. Change one, and you change the other two in some way. For example, if you strengthen your character attribute of trustworthiness by learning from other admired leaders, this will improve your skills your behaviour as well – perhaps as it relates to your capacity to inspire others.
There is, though, one desirable capability that relates to all three – that is a skill, a character attribute, and a behaviour: the ability to think effectively. To become a transformational leader who “changes the world,” you must somehow learn to think broadly, critically, and thoroughly about things. You must be able to explore ideas holistically – not just in terms of actions, and not just in terms of your own beliefs. And, importantly, you need to learn to think systematically.
The term “conventional wisdom” has been used by people over decades to reference limited thinking when considering new ideas. J.K. Galbraith referenced the term in his famous 1958 book The Afluent Society. If we are satisied with thinking about things in conventional, well-understood ways and using old concepts, progress and change will be resisted. Aspiring role model leaders who are engaged in changing things and inluencing others' direction need to go beyond conventional wisdom. This takes both will and mental energy; it requires mental tools as well as practice at using them skilfully.
Henry Ford, obviously a very accomplished engineer, was a great proponent of thinking deeply about things. He explained that others were reluctant to think because it is hard work. He, of course, was right.
David Garvin and his co-author of Rethinking the MBA have written that business leaders are asking for MBA schools to incorporate thinking skills
and more leadership development into their curricula.1 His is another way of saying that to become a role model leader, you must learn to think effectively and completely, and that takes skill, character, and purposeful behaviour.
Essentially, the framework for thinking effectively has three steps. Those steps move us from sensing that something must be done, through thinking about what we must do, to taking positive action. In effect, thinking requires us to answer these three questions: Why? How? and What? Below, I expand on this.
This learning framework, presented in Figure 4.1, is used extensively in this book. It was Charles Krone, in the early 1980s, who introduced his nine levels of thought model to us at DuPont Canada. These nine levels of thought have ever since been an important tool for my thinking about leading and leadership. With Krone's permission I will be using the nine levels of thought in various places throughout the book (my version, though, is somewhat different from his) as the basis for the learning framework for thinking effectively and completely about leading and leadership.