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I’ve been pondering synthesis as an important management skill. It doesn’t appear on the lists we usually see about qualities of a leader. But leadership coach Matt Plummer mentioned it in a Harvard Business Review article on building critical thinking skills for your team.

I want to contrast that with another managerial skill that has similarities but is different: Getting to the nub of an issue or problem. Often subordinates become overexcited and confused by their information when briefing bosses. Those leaders must get to the crux of the matter. Similarly, in meetings leaders need to crystallize discussion.

But we’ve all seen leaders who get to the nub of the matter and make decisions in a blink, missing important factors. Blinkered leadership, if you will – often one-dimensional. Synthesis is multi-dimensional, combining many factors, some that seem contrary or tangential, into a coherent, insightful course of action. It’s vital.

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In the 2007 book The Opposable Mind, Roger Martin, then dean at Rotman School of Management, celebrated integrative thinking. Instead of picking between two less-than-perfect, or even dismal, options, the best leaders patch together a new path that combines those two alternatives into a stirring new vision. An example he used was hotelier Isadore Sharp’s refusal to accept that only two types of lodging could be built: Small motels with intimacy and comfort, or large hotels with excellent location and amenities. Instead, he decided to create hotels with the intimacy of his original small motor hotel and the amenities of a large convention hotel.

Leaders are often encouraged to learn from improv, when an actor is presented with a scenario concocted by a colleague and responds automatically, “Yes, and …” In this case, the actor may have no idea where he or she is headed as those words are uttered but plunges ahead, improvising. At work, in the moment, we need to avoid “but,” which just stops everything in its tracks. Enlarge the possibilities with “yes … and.” Synthesis can follow.

Much is made these days of seeing around corners in strategy implementation – being sensitive to weak signals today that are pointing to powerful disruptive forces of the future. This requires not just being wedded to the exigencies of the moment but also being alert to the exigencies of the future. And that can involve for an organization the contradictory strategy of testing the future while maintaining the present, a delicate synthesis.

I used to worry that my mind was too easily distracted (if not enticed) by alternate possibilities, leading to paralysis by analysis. True leaders seemed to have a black-and-white approach – excluding a lot, for one gem, and moving ahead, firmly. I yearned for that knack. Recently I have become a fan of yin-yang thinking, based on a black-and-white symbol where opposites intermingle to develop a greater possibility. Again, synthesis.

Jim Collins in Good to Great revealed the leaders of the companies he had followed that went from mediocre to astounding results were, surprisingly, humble – but also very willful and determined. That yin yang – humble and willful – may be the essential leadership formula.

Meetings have a critical yin and yang to consider. For effectiveness, our minds must roam, grappling with possibilities. But we hate to waste time and usually rush to close down such divergent thinking in favour of convergence, coming to a conclusion. We need to understand the need for a blend of convergence and divergence in meetings, and use them wisely. Yes, synthesis.

Ethics expert Linda Fisher Thornton argued on her blog that good and evil are not mutually exclusive. Someone is not all good or all evil. That’s important to understand about people we deal with.

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It used to be intelligence was determined by IQ. Then along came EQ – emotional intelligence – and we realized to be effective leaders needed both, again a yin yang. There are also other types of intelligence, as education professor Howard Gardner has pointed out. A slew of books over the years for managers have included calls for social intelligence, cultural intelligence, executive intelligence (critical thinking), innovative intelligence and appreciative intelligence. So a synthesis of intelligence is needed.

If you’re wondering if I’ll ever get to the nub of my wandering, it’s synthesis. Yes, it’s important to get to the nub of an issue. But at times that may be too narrow. Managers need an ability, as exemplified by the yin-yang symbol, to create new, fruitful combinations. Being of two minds is not a bad thing.


  • Consultant Jan Purdue says dare to be a leader who both takes charge and takes care, nurturing others.
  • Many firms subscribe to the “hire slowly, fire quickly” philosophy. Consultant Micah Solomon in his book Ignore Your Customers says that just means throwing away human potential. Adopt a different approach: Hire slowly and coach quickly, amping up the training until they succeed.
  • Organizations are told these days to seek a purpose, which sounds soothing. But a BCG Henderson Institute report by three consultants suggests you should get uncomfortable on purpose. Your purpose should be discomforting, creating a gap between aspiration and reality. It should also lead you in unusual directions rather than just summarizing and preserving the status quo.

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