The Four Ways Great Leaders Think

imageSuccess is not a matter of what we think but how we think. There are four kinds of thinking. To be a great leader, we must master them all.


A Rabbi, fabled for his wisdom, was approached by a young man eager to become his student. The Rabbi repeatedly rejected the young man, dismissively suggesting that he return when he was older and wiser. But the young man insisted that he had mastered logic and all the branches of worldly knowledge, and was therefore worthy of the wisdom of the Divine. Relenting, the Rabbi said that if the young man could unravel a riddle he would accept him as a student.

“Two men slide down the chimney of a peasant’s hut together. When they get to the bottom, one’s face is covered with soot while the other is clean. Who goes to wash?”

“Obviously the face covered with soot,” the young man said.

“Don’t be ridiculous! The Rabbi retorted. The one covered in soot sees a clean face while the other, peering into a dirty face, assumes his face must be sooty as well. The clean face is washed.”

The rabbi turned to leave, but the young man pleaded for another chance until the Rabbi finally agreed.

“Two men slide down a chimney together. One face is covered with soot while the other is clean. Who washes?”

“The one with a clean face.”

“How can you be so slow witted?” shouted the Rabbi. “The man covered in soot can see it on his hands, smell it in his nose, and taste it on his lips. Of course he goes to wash.”

Again the Rabbi turned, again the young man pleaded, and the Rabbi recounted the exact same riddle one last time.

“They both wash,” the young man cried triumphantly.

“Your taste for stupidity is bottomless,” said the Rabbi, sadly shaking his head. “Where is the chimney perched on a peasant’s hut large enough to accommodate two grown men? On the face of it, the whole problem is clearly non-existent. It is that face as well as your own that must be cleaned.”

And with that he walked away.

*        *        *

Such paradoxical stories permeate the mystical literature of all the great religious traditions, from the enigmatic koans of Zen to Plato’s dialogue the Parmenides, and the first time I read one back in college I was hooked. On one level they don’t make sense, but on another they make so much sense that my head hurts. They suggest an infuriating insight into thinking itself: an insight that is just as profound as it is confounding.

My own “Rabbi,” Louis R. Mobley, the founder of IBM’s fabled executive school, insisted that successful leaders don’t know different things. They think in utterly different ways. Success is not a function of what we think but how we think. Mobley used to say, for example, that the problem with lawyers is that they are only good for one thing: telling leaders why they shouldn’t do it.

Setting aside the validity of this preemptory indictment, it does make the point that all thinking is not alike. All the skills and knowledge in the world will not make a successful entrepreneur of a man who thinks the future is perpetually half empty.

Very few of us stop to consider that thinking itself has been through a long evolutionary process. As the Rabbi points out, there are actually four kinds of thinking, and every great leader must master all four.

I: Magical Thinking

Magical thinking reigned supreme before the dawn of science, and is usually associated with a superstitious reliance on the stars, luck, grace, signs, coincidence, karma, omens, destiny, or God’s will.

But magical thinking is more than superstition.

In business magical thinking survives and thrives in every nascent entrepreneur who just knows that it is his destiny to succeed, and uses this self-confidence to magically enthrall a room full of cold-blooded venture capitalists. If you are on a roll at blackjack and the casino swaps out dealers or shuts down the table, you are the victim of a business decision precipitated by the magical thinking of people who don’t believe in magic. Magical thinking believes that great leaders and even great companies are somehow magically born not made. It argues that business is art not science, and that the Harvard Business School is merely a well-endowed monument to the fact that those who can’t do teach. The management philosophy of magical thinking is “gut feel” and Nike’s “Just do it.”

When the Rabbi reminds the young man that his riddle relies on an impossible premise he is warning against an over-reliance on magical thinking.

 II: Modern Thinking

Modern thinking is the enlightenment thinking that ended the Dark Ages and ushered in Newtonian science. Modern thinking thinks that the truth is objective and knowable. Modern thinkers look at the world through the lens of either/or, right/wrong, good/bad.

Modern thinking is macro, top-down, and outside-in. In politics, modern thinking assumes that if we want to change people we must first change the environment. Every attempt at macro “social engineering” is an example of modern thinking.

In business, Modern thinking generates every management “system” based on “scientific” laws, policies, and procedures. Every time an employee punches a time clock he is experiencing modern thinking, and every A/B split marketing test relies on modern thinking as well. Many people (myself included) are attracted to business because of its clean-cut either/or aspects. After all, you either hit your sales target or you don’t.

When the young man jumps to the conclusion that either the sooty face or the clean face will exclusively be washed he is betraying an overreliance on modern thinking.

III: Postmodern

Postmodern thinking insists that truth is “relative,” and owes its genesis to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. If modern thinking emphasizes either/or objectivity, postmodern thinking argues for the both/and of subjectivity.

Postmodern thinking privileges opinion over principle and in extreme cases may question the very existence of things like “truth” and “facts.” Hamlet’s remark that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” is a prototypical example of postmodern thinking.

Postmodern business thinking emphasizes culture rather than impersonal, bureaucratic, and scientifically inspired management systems. We see it in the transition away from rules and policies toward a reliance on the bottom-up, inside-out, unifying power of mission and purpose. Postmodern thinking values people, customers, and corporate responsibility over the impersonal metrics of the bottom line.

When the young man thinks that by having both the clean man and the sooty man wash he will finally satisfy the Rabbi, he is thinking in a postmodern way.


IV: Paradoxical Thinking

The fourth type of thinking is the ancient yet emergent Paradoxical Thinking. Paradoxical thinking is found in ancient philosophical and religious texts like Zen Buddhism or Plato’s Parmenides.

Recently paradoxical thinking has trickled from science into business through buzz phrases like creative destruction, controlled chaos, coopetition, getting outside the box, fuzzy logic, breaking the frame, and the Zen of business. These self-contradictory concepts try to capture the fact that even business may be stranger than we can imagine, and that the old models are no longer adequate.

Paradoxical thinkers hold apparent contradictions in tension by moving among magical, modern, and postmodern thinking as the situation requires while still being able to act decisively. This means paradoxical thinkers are open-minded and close-minded at the same time. The paradox underlying paradoxical thinking is that its openness is anything but indecisive, passionless, or lacking in principled convictions.

All four types of thinking are essential. When the Rabbi reminds his would-be student that the man with the clean face will objectively see a dirty face and therefore wash, he is reminding the young man of the importance of modern objective thinking.

When he argues that the sooty man will eventually figure it out on his own, he is doing the same for postmodern subjectivity.

When he tells the young man that the whole riddle relies on an impossible situation, he is warning him against the danger of magical thinking.

But since riddles and thought experiments rely on imagining impossible realities, by choosing a riddle in the first place, the Rabbi is paradoxically introducing the young man to the value of magical thinking as well.

But when he finally admonishes the young man to first clean his own face, he is pointing the real answer to his riddle and the riddle of life. Paradoxically, the only way the young man can gain the wisdom he seeks is by ridding himself of the selfish motivations that inspired him to arrogantly approach the Rabbi in the first place, loudly proclaiming his qualifications. Humility and a spirit of service is an answer to the Rabbi’s riddle that never occurred to the young man.

For more great leadership strategies read my book:Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO’s Quest for Meaning and Authenticity(Columbia Business School Publishing; July 2013). Follow me on Twitter @augustturak,Facebook http://facebook.com/aturak, or check out my website http://www.augustturak.com/


Author Spotlight

August Turak


August Turak is an award winning author, executive, entrepreneur and leadership contributor for Forbes.com.

August has integrated his life-long passion for personal and organizational transformation with a highly successful career and experience with a variety of companies like MTV Networks, A&E Networks, United Press International, and Bell Atlantic

His book, Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks, from Columbia Business School Press will be coming out in June 2013.

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