Leadership Lessons: Thinking Gray

A friend recently introduced me to the wisdom of Steven B. Sample and his book The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. I have been pondering his lesson about how effective leaders need to train themselves to think. His model also provides some helpful insights about recent US political events (relax – this will not be another political rant!).

Sample teaches that we all have a choice of approaching complex matters with one of two mindsets:

Binary Thinking: Being bold, decisive and making decisions quickly. Approaching issues as black or white.

Gray Thinking: Not forming an opinion about an important matter until you have heard all the relevant facts and arguments, or until circumstances force you to form an opinion without access to all the facts.

As we assess these definitions we learn that binary thinking is much easier than gray thinking. However, when we use binary thinking as we contemplate complex matters we are prone to make these leadership errors:

  1. Close mindedness: Closing our mind to facts and arguments that will come to our attention later.
  2. Flip-flopping: We flip-flop on issues because we made premature decisions with inadequate information.
  3. False Security: We believe that which we sense is strongly believed by others (Sample).

In psychological terms, point number three is labelled “false-consensus bias”. If we continually listen to only one point of view, our minds begin to subconsciously believe that this view is right (“I keep hearing the same thing, therefore it must be true”). This binary approach limits our ability to think gray on matters we often know very little about. The 2016 US election is full of examples of false-consensus bias (as evidenced by the shock of many about the presidential election results).

Author F. Scott Fitzgerald once stated, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”. Every issue does not need to be approached with gray thinking. However, most of us default to binary thinking more than we should.

As I age, I am finding that I know less than I ever had. I suppose that technically, my repository of knowledge is growing. However, to quote an old adage, ‘the more I know, the more I know that I don’t know’. Perhaps this is what gray thinking looks like in day-to-day life. As a result, I believe we all have a few matters where we need to shift from binary to gray thinking. So what are they? Find your journal and write down two or three things that need to move from your binary column to the gray column.

Thinking gray is a characteristic of great leaders. How gray is your world?


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Jeff Suderman is a futurist, consultant, and professor who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman Email: jeff@jeffsuderman.com

Sean Blanda – The other side is not dumb