The Evolution of Why
Great leaders have a common trait: They’re also great thinkers.
That goes along with the adage: The person who knows how may always have a job, but the person who knows why will always be his boss. Great thinkers know why, or they know how to find out. They have the ability to find solutions regardless of the challenge. Great thinkers in the brokerage world are always moving their firms forward while creating opportunities and rewards for all.
I’ve wondered what makes a person a great thinker. Are you just born with it? Is it gut instinct, or do you actually learn to be a great thinker? The reality is that it could be any of these. I believe it’s not entirely innate. Many people can become great thinkers by consciously trying to change how they think.
In How Successful People Think, John C. Maxwell (Center Street, 2009) writes that what separates successful people from unsuccessful people is how they think. He explores how successful thinking can be taught and learned.
You often hear someone say, “That person is smart.” What they are really saying is that the person is a good thinker. But what does that actually mean? Is it having a high IQ, a great memory, or some other tangible or intangible quality that separates them from others? In reality, great thinkers have a number of qualities that collectively make them stand above the rest. Maxwell has identified 11 traits of great thinkers:
- Seeing the Wisdom of Big-Picture Thinking
- Unleashing the Potential of Focused Thinking
- Discovering the Joy of Creative Thinking
- Recognizing the Importance of Realistic Thinking
- Releasing the Power of Strategic Thinking
- Feeling the Energy of Possibility Thinking
- Embracing the Lessons of Reflective Thinking
- Questioning the Acceptance of Popular Thinking
- Encouraging the Participation of Shared Thinking
- Experiencing the Satisfaction of Unselfish Thinking
- Enjoying the Return of Bottom-Line Thinking.
Maxwell’s book goes into detail on unleashing, embracing and experiencing these 11 types of thinking. I will touch on these traits as I have seen them displayed in the insurance world. It’s important to realize that to become a great thinker you do not need to be proficient in each area. Rather, you will find that you are probably good in some areas and not so great in others. To become a great thinker, use your strengths and work on improving areas where you are weak. Learn how to apply each of these types of thinking in various situations. For each one, I’ve listed a situation where I think it can be most useful.
Cultivate Big-Picture Thinking
This seems so logical, but the reality is that many people, including leaders, struggle to see the forest through the trees. Pull back and take your focus off of the small, immediate situation. To truly be a big-picture thinker, realize there is a world out there besides your own, and make an effort to get outside of yourself and see other people’s worlds through your own eyes.
Four key items to focus on to improve big-picture thinking include:
- Don’t strive for certainty. Become comfortable with ambiguity.
- Learn from every experience. Don’t rest on successes, but learn from them just like you always need to learn from failures.
- Gain insight from a variety of people. Move outside your four walls. Constantly talk and gain insight from clients, employees, colleagues and other leaders.
- Give yourself permission to expand your world. Sometimes you need to be able to go against the flow. Most businesses want to keep their leaders in a box.
Don’t be married mentally to the status quo. Give yourself the freedom to think and explore differently than you were taught or told.
In my 25-plus years of consulting, I have been amazed at how often I am able to solve complex issues for clients with little effort. It’s because I can present the problem and solution in a different light than my client is used to seeing. In the end, their response is often the same: “Wow, that was not so complicated.”
Best use of big-picture thinking: Shake off the daily grind.
Engage in Focused Thinking
Focus can bring energy and power to almost anything. No one achieves greatness by becoming a generalist. The only way to get to the next level is to focus. However, realize that every issue or problem does not require this trait. You need to apply your focused thinking selectively. It is critical to determine on what issues you can have the greatest impact and focus on them.
Best use: Drill into a tough issue.
Harness Creative Thinking
Creative thinkers thrive when presented with multiple options. Options require imagination, which is crucial to creativity. The byproduct of creativity is that it requires you to explore different paths and go against the grain. To be creative you must not be afraid of bad choices or failures. Finally, if you want to be creative, you need to ask good questions and challenge the norm. A truly creative thinker ultimately encourages creativity for all and develops a culture of creative thinking within the organization.
Best use: Fire up your team.
Employ Realistic Thinking
Reality is different from what we wish for; it is an actual fact or situation. Realistic thinking is required to solve problems and learn from mistakes. At a minimum, realistic thinking minimizes downside risk because it makes you evaluate the consequences of actions and plan for the worst-case scenario. While this may all sound very simple, I cannot tell you the number of business people I have met who are not realistic thinkers. How do I know? Well, the good news is that they are very positive people and have a high degree of hope for their business. The bad news is that hope is not a strategy.
Best use: Face up to problems.
Invoke Strategic Thinking
General George S. Patton once said, “Successful generals make plans to fit circumstances but do not try to create circumstances to fit plans.” All good strategic thinkers are precise in their thinking and try to match the strategy to the problem because strategy is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Strategic thinking requires you to break down an issue into smaller, more manageable parts so that you can focus more effectively. Probably most importantly, strategic thinkers ask the question “why” before asking the question “how.” You can jump right into solving a problem without understanding why you need to solve it, but it’s not an effective response.
Best use: Tackle a big problem.
Explore Possibility Thinking
People who embrace possibility thinking are capable of accomplishing tasks that seem impossible to the average person. There is a direct correlation between possibility thinking and the level of energy you put into an idea. It creates excitement and the belief that you can succeed. However, a pessimistic thinker believes that possibility thinkers are naïve or foolish. With that said, how many successful people do you know who are continually negative or pessimistic? If you believe that the status quo leads to failure, then you must embrace change and challenge the status quo. If you want growth in revenue and profits, you need to explore possibilities and incorporate possibility thinking into your everyday actions.
Best use: Enact a big idea.
Learn from Reflective Thinking
Impatience is a common trait—most people would rather act than think. Society as a whole is impatient and does not encourage reflective thinking. People who are successful in reflective thinking are able to distance themselves from the emotions of particularly good or bad experiences. If you are like most people, you probably don’t spend much time reflecting. Carve time out. Whether it is in the car, at work or at home, set aside the time to reflect.
Best use: Gain perspective.
Question Popular Thinking
If you value popularity over good thinking, you will never reach your full potential. The bottom line is that popular thinking brings mediocre results. Popular equals normal or average. Great thinkers embrace unpopular thinking and make decisions based on what works best and what is right rather than what is commonly accepted
Best use: Find a different path.
Benefit from Shared Thinking
We live in a fast-paced world, where it is tough to find time to collaborate. However, good leaders understand the power of shared thinking. They know that, when you value the thoughts and ideas of others, you receive compounding results. The adage “One plus one equals three” rings true in this situation. Innovation and change does not occur in a vacuum but results from collaboration. Successful leaders and organizations practice shared thinking. They constantly recruit and look for people who are good thinkers and have experience in collaboration. Shared thinkers challenge others to use their thinking skills and share ideas. It is how an organization of individuals becomes a team.
Best use: Develop other thinkers.
Practice Unselfish Thinking
As simple as it may sound, unselfish thinking makes you part of something greater. The challenge is checking your ego at the door and realizing that not everything is about you. Most people would concur with this idea, but for most leaders it requires a certain degree of humility.
Best use: Let others lead.
Rely on Bottom-Line Thinking
Most people in business automatically assume bottom-line thinking is only about profits. I can’t argue against the idea that profitability is critical and needs to be part of the success equation for great thinkers. But I also believe that bottom-line thinking can be about creating a culture, providing clarity, making the best decisions, building positive morale, encouraging teamwork and fostering the intangible attributes that contribute to a successful firm. Bottom-line thinking helps ensure your future, one that you create and is not handed to you.
Best use: Add structure.
Now take a few moments to think about how you think. These 11 techniques can enable you to look differently at day-to-day situations, big problems or possible initiatives.
When you can put on not just one thinking cap but 11, your chances at a successful outcome will increase. The likelihood that you will remain challenged and thus stay interested in your work will also increase. If you share these techniques with your staff, you can expect these outcomes from them as well. A team that is perpetually challenged and invigorated by ideas can trigger a continual loop of improvement and profitability.