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Is this going to be on the test? Strategic Thinking in a fill-in-the-blank culture

Thoughts on the Model

I remember staring at my computer amazed. It was my third year in seminary and I was taking a test in an online class. I opened the document and on my monitor was a multiple-choice exam. That’s right, my third year as a Master of Divinity student and rather than a critical examination of the issues regarding Christological Methodology I was going to complete my degree by choosing the best of four possible answers.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the first or last time that happened. A few years later I went back to school to complete a MBA. Again, I was amazed at the number of times I would “fill in the blank.” Now don’t get me wrong. I like an easy-A just as much as anyone. But in a graduate degree program I expected to get challenged a little more than that.

I recognize that we continue to live in a world that prefers standardization—standardized testing, standardized behaviors, even standardized thinking. Many of us have become so conditioned to thinking that there is one simple answer to every question that we have forgotten how to think. We no longer wrestle with issues. We just want to know what the answer is. However, if we are going to truly put into practice the tenets of The Leadership Challenge®—especially Challenge the Process—we must first learn to think differently.

Back to school
In The Leadership Challenge, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner write that exemplary leaders are like pioneers: they want to experiment and try new things. They are willing to take risks to make things better. When exemplary leaders take risks, they do it one step at a time, learning from their mistakes as they grow.

Putting that advice into practice then, to become an exemplary leader means that we must become insatiably curious…always asking “why?” And we must lead others to do the same. We must always be actively looking for the fuzziest signs and intently listening to the weakest signals to anticipate the emergence of something new over the horizon: new ideas, new innovations, potential improvements as well as potential challenges. This means honing our “outsight”— the capacity to perceive external things— and helping our constituents develop that ability as well.

More like an essay question than multiple choice
Challenging the Process also involves innovation and strategic thinking. However, the process of strategic thinking and innovation takes time. Time is something that many of us don’t have near enough of. But to really engage in valuable strategic thinking, we are going to have to set aside time to do so. As noted researcher and author of the best-seller Good to Great Jim Collins writes, high-quality work requires long stretches of high-quality thinking. "White space," as he calls it, is the prerequisite for fresh, creative thought.

For any level of innovation to be effective, the entire process must be permeated with a culture of creative thinking that begins with senior leaders and is both modeled and valued throughout the organization. Challenging the Process must become a constant activity where everything is examined and evaluated. It must also include large chunks of time where teams of people simply discuss possibilities, dream of what could be, and continually watch for new possibilities.

In college, my main objective was to never have to take a class again. Learning was optional. But as I strive on my own journey to become an exemplary leader, I know I must never stop learning, never stop asking questions, never stop scanning the horizon, and that I must involve as many people in the process as possible.


Steve Lawson,
DSL, is a Certified Master-in-Training of The Leadership Challenge®. A former small business owner and pastor, he currently is founder and principal of Leadership Transformation International, a leadership training and consulting company. Steve can be reached at steve@leadershiptransformation.net.

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