Think Free… Think Gray

This past week I’ve been reading a new book, The Contrarian’s Guide To Leadership, by Steven Sample. After reading a few chapters I posted the think free think gray phrases on my white board. These were a personal reminder. Yesterday when a respected peer asked about what these phrases meant I told him that they were reminders to me to not jump to a conclusion or make a quick decision. Now that is so unlike me, that he just smiled and shook his head. Well one can hope that as I have read, leaders are made not just born, and that I can learn a few new habits. The habit I am working on first is “artful listening.”

More along the lines of thinking gray, artful listening, is listening attentively without rushing to judgement. This allows gathering a fresh perspective and not being bound by pre-conceived notions. I have been praised for being able to think and act quickly. While there is a place for that in “fight or flight” situations these are not often present in the software development world– while it might seem like it is when a customer calls with an urgent issue, it is still better to gather all of the facts before racing to make a decision.

However, thinking gray and thinking free are much more than just artful listening, but I’ve got to start somewhere. Given  my proclivity for rushing to resolve problems I think artful listening is enough for me to tackle initially.   Then after I think I have somewhat mastered this art I will move on to the next learning opportunity.

I am finding this book a wealth of thought-provoking information and encourage anyone in a leadership position or who wants to move into a leadership role to read this book and start to practice some of the principles prescribed by Mr. Sample. I’ve included an excerpt from a particularly well written summary of the book below.

“…If nothing else, Sample’s gift in this book is the notion that there is no tried and true formula for good leadership or for becoming an effective, let alone good, leader. Should we aspire to doing leader, as opposed to being leader (in which we like the trappings of office but don’t want to dirty our hands with the day-to-day, not-always-pleasant requirements of actually doing the job), we are encouraged to break out of conventional thinking, cultivate some tendencies that diverge from what we may have learned, and take responsibility for our own and others’ actions. As Sample says, if you’re not willing to do what it takes, stay out of the leadership business altogether.

A few Contrarian principles suggested in this book include:

  • Think gray: try not to form opinions about ideas or people unless and until you have to. Sample calls this “seeing double,” and “the ability to simultaneously view things from two or more perspectives.”
  • Think free: train yourself to move several steps beyond traditional brainstorming by considering really outrageous solutions and approaches. Too often we rush to judgment or give in to the naysayers who only focus on how or why something cannot or should not be done.
  • Listen first, talk later; and when you listen, do so artfully.
  • Experts can be helpful, but they’re no substitute for your own critical thinking and discernment.
  • Never make a decision yourself that can reasonably be delegated to a lieutenant; and never make a decision today that can be reasonably put off to tomorrow. But then, Sample also says…
  • Shoot your own horse. Don’t make others do your dirty work.
  • Ignore sunk costs and yesterday’s mistakes. You can only influence the future.
  • Reading Machiavelli can help make you a more moral leader.
  • Work for those who work for you. Hire people who are better than you and help them succeed.
  • You can’t really run your organization; you can only lead individual followers, who then collectively give motion and substance to the organization you nominally head.
  • You can’t copy your way to the top; true excellence can only be achieved through original thinking and unconventional approaches….”

Sample is also a huge proponent of something he calls “open communication with structured decision-making,” which allows the freedom to talk informally with anyone in the organization but doesn’t undercut the authority and responsibility of line administrators and managers.  I particularly like the example he has in the book that deals with a successful business leader who stopped by and had a chat with one of his engineers and asked a few questions. A few days later the engineers manager complained to the leader that he had redirected the work of the engineer. The leader felt terrible because all he did was ask a few questions. However, it wasn’t clear to the engineer that while there was open communication the decision-making really needed to follow the structure already in place.

If you really want to avoid micro-managing and if you truly want to empower those who work with and for you, this type of approach is critical. You might say it’s contrarian leadership at its best!


3 thoughts on “Think Free… Think Gray

  1. I like the idea of “Free/Gray Thinking”, but this is quite challenging when you find yourself in a room full of Type A individuals trying to prove they belong in the position that they occupy. These types tend to jump in with their opinions as soon as the current talker takes a breath without digesting the topic at all.

    I completely agree in learning to listen and then allowing yourself to understand what is being said before responding or making any decisions, but this approach tends to be viewed as not being connected to the discussion when in the above group. I would rather be seen as being disconnected (which I’m not) than to just blurt out flawed reactions or poor decision choices.

    Thanks for sharing….this helps to give some affirmation to the thought that it’s best to take the time to listen before speaking.

    • Something to consider to combat being seen as disconnected is what is called active listening where you “engage” the speaker by eye contact a smile a nod of the head or a thoughtful look so that they do know you are listening but just are contemplating your response. Yes, I do empathize with you and can relate also to the type A’s being one myself I have a bit to learn from the contemplative types like you. Thanks for the comment.

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