How Successful Leaders Think
By Roger Martin
We are drawn to the stories of effective leaders in action. Their decisiveness invigorates us. The events that unfold from their bold moves, often culminating in successful outcomes, make for gripping narratives. Perhaps most important, we turn to accounts of their deeds for lessons that we can apply in our own careers. Books like Jack: Straight from the Gut and Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done are compelling in part because they implicitly promise that we can achieve the success of a Jack Welch or a Larry Bossidy—if only we learn to emulate his actions.
But this focus on what a leader does is misplaced. That’s because moves that work in one context often make little sense in another, even at the same company or within the experience of a single leader. Recall that Jack Welch, early in his career at General Electric, insisted that each of GE’s businesses be number one or number two in market share in its industry; years later he insisted that those same businesses define their markets so that their share was no greater than 10%, thereby forcing managers to look for opportunities beyond the confines of a narrowly conceived market. Trying to learn from what Jack Welch did invites confusion and incoherence, because he pursued—wisely, I might add—diametrically opposed courses at different points in his career and in GE’s history.
So where do we look for lessons? A more productive, though more difficult, approach is to focus on how a leader thinks—that is, to examine the antecedent of doing, or the ways in which leaders’ cognitive processes produce their actions.
I have spent the past 15 years, first as a management consultant and now as the dean of a business school, studying leaders with exemplary records. Over the past six years, I have interviewed more than 50 such leaders, some for as long as eight hours, and found that most of them share a somewhat unusual trait: They have the predisposition and the capacity to hold in their heads two opposing ideas at once. And then, without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other, they’re able to creatively resolve the tension between those two ideas by generating a new one that contains elements of the others but is superior to both. This process of consideration and synthesis can be termed integrative thinking. It is this discipline—not superior strategy or faultless execution—that is a defining characteristic of most exceptional businesses and the people who run them.
I don’t claim that this is a new idea. More than 60 years ago, F. Scott Fitzgerald saw “the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function” as the sign of a truly intelligent individual. And certainly not every good leader exhibits this capability, nor is it the sole source of success for those who do. But it is clear to me that integrative thinking tremendously improves people’s odds.
This insight is easy to miss, though, since the management conversation in recent years has tilted away from thinking and toward doing (witness the popularity of books like Execution). Also, many great integrative thinkers aren’t even aware of their particular capability and thus don’t consciously exercise it. Take Jack Welch, who is among the executives I have interviewed: He is clearly a consummate integrative thinker—but you’d never know it from reading his books.
Indeed, my aim in this article is to deconstruct and describe a capability that seems to come naturally to many successful leaders. To illustrate the concept, I’ll concentrate on an executive I talked with at length: Bob Young, the colorful cofounder and former CEO of Red Hat, the dominant distributor of Linux open-source software. The assumption underlying my examination of his and others’ integrative thinking is this: It isn’t just an ability you’re born with—it’s something you can hone.
Opposable Thumb, Opposable Mind
In the mid-1990s, Red Hat faced what seemed like two alternative paths to growth. At the time, the company sold packaged versions of Linux open-source software, mainly to computer geeks, periodically bundling together new versions that included the latest upgrades from countless independent developers. As Red Hat looked to grow beyond its $1 million in annual sales, it could have chosen one of the two basic business models in the software industry.