Mandela’s 7th rule and “thinking gray”

Recently I wrote a blog entry about a Time article that outlined 8 lessons on leadership from Nelson Mandela.  Besides the 3rd lesson, “Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front,” another key lesson was his 7th, “Nothing is black or white.”  The author astutely explains, “life is never either/or.”  He continued, “Mandela is comfortable with contradiction… Every problem has many causes.” There is rarely one cause to a problem and only one way to look at things.

This reminds me of a principle that Steven Samples, former President of University of Southern California, in his book “The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership.” Samples coins a mantra he calls, thinking gray.  To summarize, he professes that people spend a great deal of energy classifying things and determining their opinion on various matters, figuring out what the “right” answer is in their mind.  What is your favorite color? How do you feel about abortion? What is the best way to complete a certain task? Endless questions… As Samples states, there is no need to come up with all of these opinions until it is absolutely necessary. This can (1) free up energy to do other things and (2) keeps you more open to different possibilities.

Tying this in to Mandela’s leadership principle, you don’t have to rush into simplifying decisions and classify something as the one root cause.  A problem, like almost any decision is “not as straightforward as it appears.” All this said, we are forced at different times (in our careers and otherwise) to determine the cause of problems. But we must remember that it is important to remember that there are often numerous (and conflicting) answers to the question at hand. When we view things this way, we are less likely to alienate someone and make them feel like they are wrong. On the contrary, when there are multiple people with multiple ideas on the cause to a problem there is a possibility everyone is right. Recognizing this expands the pie and brings the group together.

So be like Mandela, be comfortable with ambiguity, complexity and contradiction. Be open to the fact that there may be more than one answer. In return you will be a better leader, and will most likely have more people that will follow.

Mr. Biz, OUT.

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About Young Professional's Edge (YP Edge)

Aaron McDaniel is a corporate manager, entrepreneur, author, public speaker and community leader. Aaron has held numerous management roles at a Fortune 500 company, being appointed Regional Vice President at the age of 27, and is the founder of multiple entrepreneurial ventures. He is also the author of the book, The Young Professional's Guide to the Working World ( Aaron instructed a highly rated student-led course on leadership at UC Berkeley’s Haas Undergraduate School of Business and has a book, The Young Professional's Guide to the Working World: Savvy Strategies to Get In, Get Ahead, and Rise to the Top, due to be out later this year. Aaron offers advice that helps young professionals build the foundation for a successful career. Visit his blog, to learn more.

Posted on November 22, 2011, in Lessons Learned, Solid Advice and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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