Dialectic Thinking: The Secret to Exceptional Mindful Leadership
By Mo Edjlali
I always thought that I needed to go for what I considered the middle path, the “gray” but I was wrong. We, humans, are biologically wired for binary thinking, naturally leaning towards 'either-or' perspectives, thinking black or white. So I came up with a mantra to “think gray”. The problem is when you think gray you lose the power of what is in the white and what is in the black and end up with passionless mediocrity. Worse yet you might oscillate between the two and feel at constant odds.
In the last couple of years, I have been fascinated by the idea of paradox and what it means in my own development, and what it means to leadership. In this article, we delve into the idea of dialectic, thinking. Dialectic thinking is a method of reasoning and analysis that involves examining and reconciling opposing or contradictory ideas or perspectives. It is rooted in the philosophical tradition of dialectics, which dates back to ancient Greece and has been developed by various philosophers throughout history.
At its core, dialectic thinking recognizes that reality is complex and multifaceted and that many phenomena or concepts can contain inherent contradictions or tensions. Instead of seeing contradictions as mere conflicts to be resolved or ignored, dialectic thinking seeks to understand and integrate these opposing elements to arrive at a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of a given subject.
A wonderful visual example that I came across that I thought best illustrated this was a checkered plaid pattern like a chess board. In the context of dialectic thinking, something isn't just black, white, or gray; it is both black AND white. Every square, be it black or white, retains its individuality, each possessing its unique value. These squares coexist, maintaining their distinct color while cohabiting with their antithesis. This is the essence of dialectic thinking - juxtaposing opposites, recognizing and valuing each for its distinctive worth. The concept may be simple, but it's extraordinarily challenging to put to practice. Why is that so?
We are primitively wired to think in black and white. And it's not just about our natural inclinations. The socio-political environment we live in also plays a significant role. Consider the current state of politics. Polarization seems to be at an all-time high, with contrasting views becoming more rigid and less open to constructive dialogue. Similarly, social media and technology platforms, through their algorithms, tend to strengthen our biases, narrowing our viewpoints and dividing us further. Our capitalist system, too, often rewards stark positions and competition, intensifying the drift toward polarization and away from dialectic thinking.
However, the pressing question is, can we resist these influences? How can we epitomize the antithesis of polarization in our being, our thinking, and our leadership? Can we navigate through these intricacies and embrace dialectic thinking for a more nuanced understanding of the world? It's not easy, almost like counteracting a gravitational pull, but the most exceptional leaders have mastered this and I believe it’s worth the effort. By adopting dialectic thinking, we can transcend our limitations and achieve more than we ever thought we could. In some sense, it's the secret sauce of leadership that goes unspoken.
Neuroscience of Dialectic Thinking
Binary thinking is like our brain's autopilot mode. It stems from the most primitive part of our brain, the basal ganglia, which keeps us safe by categorizing things simply: safe or risky, friend or enemy, right or wrong. This is the same part of our brain that triggers our fight-or-flight responses. And thanks to neuroplasticity - the brain's ability to form and reinforce neural pathways based on our thoughts and behaviors - the more we use binary thinking, the more we're likely to keep using it.
But, our brains are also capable of nuanced thinking. The prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for our complex decision-making and problem-solving abilities, can help us override our tendency for binary thinking. This allows us to approach situations with more complexity and subtlety. It does require a bit more mental energy and conscious effort, but with practice, we can become more comfortable with this kind of dialectic thinking. In essence, our brains may be wired for binary thinking, but they also have the capacity for much more. It is possible to overcome a polarized way of being and thinking, however, it will take practice.
The most difficult Paradox
The paradox of acceptance and change may very well be the toughest one we grapple with. Whether this is in our own meditation practice and self-development, or leading an organization it’s vital to take a dialectic approach. For genuine change to occur, there must first be acceptance of the current state. This acceptance forms the bedrock of reality, a foundation that is crucial for creating meaningful change. It's a truth that can't be obscured or sugarcoated. With acceptance, there's an opportunity to see things as they are and then to envisage something different.
However, we can often misconstrue acceptance as passivity or complacency. It can be seen as an excuse to “do nothing”, to shy away from bold action, or to remain comfortably entrenched in the status quo. On the flip side, a relentless push for change can create a sense of perpetual dissatisfaction, hindering our ability to appreciate what already is. This can also foster a short-term, transactional mindset, particularly in relationships.
I recall an insightful interview with Microsoft's CEO, Satya Nadella, where he reflected on his initial years succeeding the previous CEO Steve Ballmer. At the time, Microsoft was trailing in innovation and had hit a plateau, while competitors like Google were surging forward. Nadella was charged with the formidable task of transforming the deeply ingrained culture of one of the world's largest and most successful organizations. The intricacies he must have faced are beyond my comprehension. However, one thing he shared in the interview resonated deeply with me. He acknowledged the tension between Microsoft's present state and his vision for its future. Embracing this tension and working with it in a positive way became a pivotal part of his leadership approach and his extraordinary success.
To give it a more personal tone - In essence, you are good enough (acceptance), AND, you can also be better. (action/change)
This paradox manifests in various forms which we might explore in further articles:
- Being vs. Doing/ Striving
- Progressive vs. Conservative
- Traditional vs. Innovative
Recognizing and embracing these opposites with dialectic thinking can amplify your leadership skills, and your comprehension of the world, imbue you with internal peace, and equip you to effectively take on challenges and guide others.
5 Tips on Navigating this Paradox with a Dialectic Approach
In navigating the paradox of acceptance and change as a mindful leader, it's important to have practical strategies in your toolkit. These tips, grounded in the principles of dialectic thinking, are designed to help you balance the delicate dance between embracing the current reality and driving meaningful change. By applying them in your leadership journey, you can foster an environment that respects the present while eagerly shaping the future. Remember, it's not about choosing one over the other; it's about harmoniously integrating both. Let's explore how to put this into practice.
- Embrace the Paradox: Understand that change and acceptance aren't mutually exclusive but are, in reality, essential counterparts in the leadership process. By acknowledging this paradox, you're accepting the current reality while simultaneously recognizing the necessity for enhancement or evolution
- Envision the Present and the Future: Formulate a precise mental picture of your organization's current state – this constitutes the acceptance component. Concurrently, visualize the future you aspire to manifest – this represents the change. Maintain both images in your mind as you lead, recognizing that one cannot exist without the other.
- Promote Transparent Communication: Effectively convey your acceptance of the current state and your ambition for change. This involves recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of the present and outlining your blueprint for improvement. Such an approach maintains equilibrium between the 'here and now' and the 'potential future,' reinforcing the dialectic perspective within your team.
- Foster Inclusive Participation: Allow your team the latitude to articulate their comprehension and acceptance of the present situation alongside their proposals for change. This inclusive method empowers them to contribute to the process and acknowledges the equilibrium between acceptance and change.
- Celebrate the Present and the Prospective: Along your journey, make a point to commend current achievements, which stem from accepting and operating within your present reality. Similarly, celebrate strides towards your future vision, representing the aspect of change. This dual celebration underscores the co-existence of acceptance and change and keeps your team inspired.
By embedding the dialectic of acceptance and change into your leadership approach, you're nurturing a more mindful, resilient, and dynamic team culture. This equilibrium aids in circumnavigating obstacles and spurs growth, resulting in a more harmonious and efficient workspace.
Embarking on the journey to master dialectic thinking is a rewarding venture. As we've seen, this approach offers significant benefits. It can amplify our leadership capabilities, deepen our comprehension of the world, and arm us with the tools to gracefully and wisely navigate challenges. It's not a straightforward path, requiring consistent practice and a conscious shift against our innate tendencies, societal pulls, and technological influences pushing toward polarization. Yet, it's necessary for us as individuals, for the teams and organizations we influence, and for the broader benefit of humanity.
We've only just begun to uncover the many layers of this captivating topic. The domains of dialectic thinking and mindful leadership hold a plethora of insights yet to be explored. In the meantime, I encourage you to reflect on your personal encounters with the paradox of acceptance and change. How have you maneuvered these intricacies in your personal or professional life? How do you handle paradoxes and utilize dialectical thinking?
Keep an eye out for more explorations into the world of dialectic thinking and mindful leadership. Collectively, we can challenge our binary predispositions, embrace the multifaceted nature of paradox, and evolve into more effective, thoughtful leaders. Our journey is far from over, and I'm excited to continue it with you!