The Secret Discipline of Great Leaders

Great leaders make deep, daily thinking a cultural norm.

Great leaders make deep, daily thinking a cultural norm.

Thinking is the most difficult action of leadership. A lack of deep thinking is the reason so many organizations falter and so many people in leadership positions fail to lead well. Deep thinking is the hardest responsibility a leader has.

When people follow people, they are in effect saying, “I trust your thinking and that it will work out the best for me.” Sure, they are saying, “I trust your experience, I trust your vision, I trust your skills”, etc., but all of those are rooted in thinking. Heck, all of us think. It’s not the thinking that’s the problem, rather the lack of thorough, deep thinking.

Having worked in and with many organizations around the world, I am convinced that people don’t really like to think very hard at all. At first I thought it was cultural, but as I worked outside of North America more and more, with more than 60 different nationalities around the world, I have begun to find that for various reasons, thinking seems to stall at a certain, superficial level, globally. 

Superficial thinking is readily evident in organizational cultures where “bias for action” and “getting things done” is a measure of professional worth. Its accompanying style of attention-deficit-management is easily distracted by new ideas, jump-start implementations and the feeling that we need to be moving somewhere, anywhere, fast. I’m sure much of this is enhanced (or made detrimental) by systems that promote decisiveness (Jack Welch), looking busy and simply standing for “something” rather than standing for “right things”.(1)

As a friend of mine recently affirmed, “People are often put in leadership roles because they think or talk and act fast. It’s deceiving. When they don’t get results, they claim they’ve ‘learned’ some insight and adjust quickly with the next thought before anyone can challenge the thinking behind the madness.”(2)

Many organizational systems seem to sustain superficial thinking by allowing mere action to be the litmus test for leadership, rather than right action.(3) When an organizational culture values activity more than productivity, exertion more than significance, then you don’t need to produce real results. In such cases you can get away with A-D-D-management, because the lack of anything substantial over time won’t even be noticed in the shadow of the volume of action.

I find that managers, co-workers, even customers, become impatient when someone tries to think at any level deeper than superficial. I have personally witnessed, throughout my career, even today, very seasoned managers that experience professionally-disabling anxiety the minute someone puts on the breaks in an attempt to establish clear understanding of a problem, situation or question before seeking a solution.

“Let’s just make a decision!”

“We could think about this all day if we wanted!”

“I don’t care about talk, I care about action!”

Deep thinking is not mutually exclusive of decision, speed and action. Fast can be slow, and slow can be very, very fast. I learned this from the deep, highly disciplined actions of the world’s best counter-terrorism and hostage rescue teams. When entering a room, their movements are carefully coordinated, deliberately orchestrated and deeply thought-out. Watch this video to see such a team in action. Certainly, no one can properly accuse them of a lack of decision, speed and action. They are precise, effective, and devastatingly lethal, while maintaining high standards of safety and flexibility. And all of those outcomes are the product of deep, deep thinking. Slow is fast, and fast is definitely slow.

The challenge with many of the paradigms that read this, is that they are supported and shaped by dysfunctional cultural norms. It is difficult to think functionally from a base of dysfunction. In order to help shift that paradigm, don’t see deep thinking as a response to a requirement, event or a decision. Seeing deep thinking in such a way tends to paint mental pictures of resistance to progress, endless hours of pontification and “talking a lot, but going nowhere.”

Deep thinking begins long before a decision-point or immediate need to act. In the case of a hostage rescue team, their thinking begins months in advance of an operation and continues as a daily process in anticipation of future requirements, needs and scenarios. Their doctrine and operations are the result of continual deep thinking that promotes ongoing refinement. Deep thinking is an ongoing process of proactivity at the highest levels, priming mental pumps for future resource generation. Great leaders take the time to cultivate a culture of continuous, deep thinking, in themselves and in their organizations.

Deep thinking is a discipline. In fact, it’s a lack of discipline that prevents it. Studies on habit and willpower back-up this claim by showing that environmental cues launch mental, physical and behavioral routines aimed at achieving specific, neurological rewards. In other words, we form bad habits that give us a quick fix in our brains, and end up sending us in circles to repeat the cue-routine-reward cycle over and over again. For example, we may sense a bit of anxiety or discomfort because we don’t know how to think deeply, and that cue sends us into a routine of “take action and look busy”, after which we feel a sense of relief or satisfaction of having moved in any direction, even if it may not be a “best” direction.(4)

That inability or lack of discipline to resist pausing and taking some time to think deeply may also be exacerbated by a lack of know-how. Most school systems that I am aware of don’t teach deep thinking very well. In fact, they seem to proliferate cultures of assignment-completion versus results-achievement. And if you are thinking, “Completing the assignment WAS the achievement!”, then you have just proved my point.

Our societal, even global, lack of deep-thinking may just be the result of our worldwide educational systems. In fact, in many places it may have been superficial thinking that put them together!(5) However, regardless of the nature of school system formation, we have educated worlds of individuals with the basic skills to take over places on manufacturing lines or cubicles in FIFO-LIFO accounting departments, but rarely to see the forest AND the trees.

These norms of behavior create culture, and superficial thinking has become a cultural pandemic in our organizations and societies. It’s no wonder leaders lack for deep thinking, with no discipline and no “how” (pun intended). It is no wonder that our organizations and societies are so often unfulfilling, on both personal and potential levels. In our haste, laziness, fear or folly, we create the future consequences of our actions. I believe it was Arthur W. Jones who said that, “All organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they get.” Leaders, making decisions with superficial thinking, unwittingly design their organizations to get superficial results.

As Piet Hein wrote, “Our choicest plans have fallen through. Our airiest castles tumbled over, because of lines we neatly drew and later neatly stumbled over.”

Thinking is the leader’s grandest mountain, the heaviest burden and the greatest asset. It is the most difficult task of the leader, and thus the most crucial to organizational success. One author noted, “Destructive organizational habits can be found within hundreds of industries and at thousands of firms. And almost always, they are the products of thoughtlessness, of leaders who avoid thinking about the culture and so let it develop without guidance.”(Duhigg 2012)

Stand up to thinking-impatience and lack of thinking-discipline. If you want to take action and show movement, take action by thinking deeply, daily. In time, you will not only show movement, but show a genuine positive impact to the organization.

Deep thinking saves time, money, lives and relationships. It truly guides people and organizations to productive, positive outcomes. Make a culture of daily, deep thinking a hallmark of your contribution to leadership.

Duhigg, C., 2012. The Power of Habit, Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, New York: Random House.

(1) I’m a big fan of “fail fast and fail often”, but that doesn’t mean action without deep thought. Such behavior also only works in cultures where learning from failure is an institutional norm, not an exception. Such norms reveal a culture of “continuous” thinking and reflection in support of action-learning.

(2) W. Brent Mason

(3) I understand that ‘right’ is a subjective term. It’s the second time I’ve mentioned it in this article, and I use the term to connote alignment.

(4) Note that I am not saying “THE” best action, but rather “a” best action. We will usually never know what is best until we try, and even then, evaluation becomes the domain of results. There may be several “best” actions, based upon desired ends, and only thorough thinking will distill the field of choices to “best” candidates.

(5) Often, superficial thinking is simply the beginning of a process of deep thinking, but never continued or completed. How many organizational policies, processes and procedures were originated, not with the intent of permanence, only to be regarded as written in stone and never challenged, refined and improved?


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