Saturday, August 25, 2007

The "Secret": More Than Positive Thinking

In that scarcely a week goes by without a product recall, most notably from China these days, risk management continues to be an “in your face” discipline for leaders, best done daily not occasionally. This is fodder for pessimists (“I told you so.”). For those more positively inclined, a “this did not need to happen attitude” may still prevail. Who is right here? Is the cult of positive thinking losing its credibility? How does this relate to the way a leader needs to think?

We had an intense family discussion about the power of positive thinking recently. While we agreed that visualizing a positive future was better than not, we got stuck at how to deal with the present. When today is a long way from the desired future, it doesn’t feel very good and the way forward is not always easy to “see”. Positive thinking alone just doesn’t seem to be enough despite the perpetual popularity of books on the subject, like The Secret.

Taking a wider view provides a clue. What works is the creative tension of the yin and yang, the positive and the negative, the optimism and the pessimism. We do it all the time in strategic planning: envision the future and undertake a reality check on the present to guide strategy. The desired future provides a framework for action.

That’s the theory. In practice, inspiring the hearts and minds of people, and having a smart vision and strategy are huge feats.

But, it’s all in how leaders go about it that counts: good dialogue with the right stakeholders determines the power of the plan. The wisdom of the crowd versus the folly of the potential single mindedness of the few. Tapping into the latent strengths of an organization instead of just dwelling on what’s wrong.

The picture of success becomes imbedded in many minds. Getting there is a constant process of experimentation. Even the vision has to be re-examined frequently, as the complexity of the world does not permit sitting on one’s laurels.

In many ways, the notion of positive thinking is a bit of a mystery because it’s not all logical and concrete. Rather, it is both integrative as well as analytical. The proliferating field of brain research underscores this dynamic to guide smart thinking. For example, this summer’s Journal of Neuroscience reports that “free will” and “free won’t” are located in separate areas of our brains: springing into action (following the vision) or hesitating while considering the situation further play off each other. They each require attention.

Robert Quinn in Building the Bridge as You Walk on It prefers the term “grounded vision”, that is, a positive future grounded in lived experience. It is “constructively optimistic” and, at the same time, “realistic and analytic”. Philosophers such as Thomas Merton explain this as “integrating reflection and contemplation with engagement in the realities of life”. A core skill is to ask the right questions and in so doing enter “a state of active creation”.

The book The Secret, and those before it, appeal to the deeper creative side of ourselves, a must for any leader, manager or individual contributor. The concept of possibility invites the reader to move out of his comfort zone and feel, believe, commit to and take action in the absence of 100% hard data. Positive thinking is a leap of faith but it is incomplete without telling the truth about the lived experience of today. Acceptance of the current reality anchors the vision.

In Quinn’s view, “reality without vision destroys possibility; vision without reality destroys credibility”. That the secret.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Linda,

I am currently reading a book called "Creativity" by Michael Chistimihalnyi. In it are concepts about what makes great, creative people from various disciplines trully great - creative. I wonder if you have read it and if so, how much of it could be adapted and disseminated into work places today. I think that there is a balance between "meeting the quota" mentality of a manufacturing plant and a successful artist's retreat possibilities. I think it would be wonderful if work places recognized that all people need the time, space and setting for creativity and that it's important in all jobs...