How do great leaders make the most of this trait? Here is some insight.


Can you dance through complexity? Yes, you can, assures F.C. Kohli: “Any situation has a certain number of alternatives, but if you are doing system thinking, even for a complex problem, and you realise what is the system, what are the subsystems, what are the sub-subsystems, and you define their interrelationship as well as you can, you will start seeing some daylight, how to get out of it. The complexity — if you have some logical inputs and also have a system structure — I don’t think it looks that bad.”

Citing this thought, Roger Martin writes in The Opposable Mind ( that complexity doesn’t have to be overwhelming if we can master our initial panic reaction and look for patterns, connections, and causal relationships. “Our capacity to handle complexity, Kohli suggests, is greater than we give ourselves credit for.”

Great leaders, aside from their talent for innovation and long-term business success, share a trait, finds Martin. “They have the predisposition and capacity to hold two diametrically opposing ideas in their heads. And then, without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other, they’re able to produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea.”

This process, Martin calls ‘integrative thinking’ or the discipline of consideration and synthesis. “When we set out to learn or write or to sew, paint, or golf, we practise using our opposable thumbs, training both the key muscles involved and the brain that controls them,” he reasons. Similarly, we have ‘an opposable mind’ that can be used for holding ‘two conflicting ideas in constructive tension.’

The author finds support to his view in F. Scott Fitzgerald, according to whom the sign of ‘first-rate intelligence’ is ‘the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’ Another authority Martin refers to is Thomas C. Chamberlain who, in 1890, proposed the idea of multiple working hypotheses.

Integrative thinking shows us a way past the binary limits of either-or, explains the book. For instance, Red Hat Inc, when faced with the choice between open source and proprietary, decided to ride both the horses. “Bob Young incorporated aspects of each: as a loyal soldier in the open-source movement, he decided that Red Hat’s software would continue to be free. But like the proprietary software giants, Red Hat would profit by establishing an ongoing service relationship with its customers.”

A smart move by the company was to reengineer Red Hat’s software to make it available as a free download over the Internet. Red Hat vaulted ahead of all its Linux rivals and established it as the only Linux provider of sufficient scale to gain the trust of big corporations, recounts Martin.

He decodes how Young functioned as an integrative thinker. One, Young recognised that the existing proprietary software and free software models weren’t reality; they were simply the accepted models for coping with dynamics of the software business.

“Second, he didn’t rest until he found a new business model that was clearly better than the existing alternatives. Third, he took personal responsibility for figuring out a new way to compete, instead of accepting the choices offered him. Fourth, he read the existence of unpleasant trade-offs as a signal to rethink the problem from the ground up.”

A book that would explain all those ‘voices’ in your head that had thus far remained a puzzle!

Time management is not enough

Know your HPOs, urges Dan Coughlin in Corporate Catalysts ( The abbreviation is not about any ‘process outsourcing,’ but the ‘highest priority business outcomes,’ explains the author.

“These are not activities. These are specific outcomes for the organisation to achieve,” he elaborates. “Work with your boss, peers, direct reports, and staff members to clarify the three most important outcomes. You can’t provide effective management and leadership unless you know the most important desired business outcomes for your organisation.”

Managing your time is not a panacea for improving your HPOs, cautions Coughlin. “You can have a clear checklist of what needs to be done today and tomorrow and next week, you can execute everything on your checklist flawlessly, and you can still get terrible results.” Reason? “Good time management does improve efficiency, but it doesn’t necessarily improve effectiveness.”

Useful lessons.

Intelligent transport

When you can think of ‘clever clothes’ with wearable computers, or ‘smart buildings’ that are energy efficient the e-way, why not intelligent roads?

“Traffic on a modern road system is driven by many human intelligences that selfishly compete with each other to optimise the use of the road for the individual benefit of each vehicle. The result is an inefficient system prone to accidents,” rue John Tiffin and Chris Kissling in Transport Communications: Understanding global networks enabling transport services (

Road infrastructure can be managed with AI (artificial intelligence), they argue. “Traffic control AI would link to road infrastructure AI to control the interval between vehicles and how they switched lanes and got on and off the system across the whole network.

The overall intelligence of the system would have the computing capability to perceive from digital data where there were traffic build-ups and to adjust flows across the entire system to draw them down before they became critical.” There would then be no need for cars to drive with sufficient distance between them for the driver to react, explain Tiffin and Kissling.

“Cars would be able to drive with only a few centimetres between them because the system would know what was happening across the whole network and the same intelligence would be driving all the vehicles.”

Making traffic intelligent involves the ‘conjunction of RFID, sensors and observation cameras linked by telecommunications to computer hubs.’ What is made possible, in the process, as the authors note, is the quantification of ‘the status of traffic, cargo, and passengers at a global level so that interventions can be made at every level of a supply chain.’


“Our new attendance system is so smart…”

“It sends spammish-SMS alerts to staff who are yet to check in for the day?

“Also, it doesn’t allow exits before closing hours!”

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated February 18, 2008)
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