Urgent message: While developing “leaders” seek to emulate the behaviors of other strong leaders, such may be misguided because behavior is often the result of situational factors. Instead, we should seek to emulate how strong leaders think, as thought processes can be applied to any number of situations.

Alan A. Ayers, MBA, MAcc is Chief Executive Officer of Velocity Urgent Care and is Practice Management Editor of The Journal of Urgent Care Medicine.

Leaders come in all forms. Some blend with the crowd, quietly guiding a group toward success. Others unashamedly voice their opinions and boldly carry others forward with them. In an instant, we think we can spot a strong leader by seeing how they behave. It turns out that it might not be as simple as watching how leaders act. Rather, it is more advantageous to examine how a leader thinks. But what does this look like?


Mind Over Manners

When it comes to how leaders display their influence, a pure image of their leadership is almost impossible to witness. After all, leadership styles are altered by situational factors like social and political constraints. Financial limitations often force leaders to behave in ways apart from their “ideal.” Thus, it’s important to look past the behaviors that leaders exhibit and instead toward the thought processes they use when solving problems.

  1. Scott Fitzgerald once said that the sign of an innately brilliant individual is “the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” This trend, unsurprisingly, is evident in the minds of great business leaders across all industries. When presented with a problem, they do not fixate on a zero-sum, winner-takes-all solution. Rather, a strong leader blends many ideas together and formulates a new plan to address a problem.


Conventional vs Integrative Thinking

There are two general schools of thought—literally—on this matter: conventional and integrative thinking. Which method a leader uses to approach problem-solving greatly influences the strength of their leadership and their overall success at handling challenges. Before knowing how to identify, and then emulate, the better pattern of thinking, one must know the differences between the two.

Conventional thinkers do exactly as the name suggests: they think in a one-way, linear fashion. More of A equals more of B and so on. They make either-or choices after breaking problems into pieces and working through them in a separated fashion. As you may assume, this is hardly the most efficient way to approach challenges, let alone come up with actionable solutions for them.

On the other side of the spectrum are integrative thinkers. These individuals welcome a scattered, seemingly “messy” problem. They look at situations as a whole rather than breaking them apart, allowing for a clearer big picture. Integrative thinkers are leaders who come up with outside-the-box solutions for complex challenges. These are the people developing life-changing products, launching start-ups from dust to riches, and the ones you read about in the news. So, it makes a lot of sense to emulate this method of thinking.


Table 1: Conventional vs Integrative Thinking
Conventional thinkers:

·         Consider only obvious factors and solutions

·         See “linear” relationships between situations

·         Break problems into pieces and analyze them separately

·         Make either-or choices

·         Aren’t changing the world


Integrative thinkers:

·         See the big-picture of a situation

·         Dream up unique, abstract solutions

·         Consider fluid relationships that can change and are multidirectional

·         Blend multiple ideas together into the best possible answer

·         Change the world


Adapted from: Margin R. How successful leaders think. Harvard Business Review OnPoint. Summer 2018.


How to Be an Integrative Thinker

Learning to be an integrative thinker takes practice. It certainly won’t happen overnight. That is why it’s crucial to observe strong leaders who think in this way. With these strong “role models” in view, it becomes slightly easier to emulate their techniques and thought processes in your own life.

To start thinking like a better leader, consider trying the following:

  • When presented with a challenge, take a step back and see it as a whole rather than parts to break down
  • Consider the obvious solutions, then identify the best aspects of them. Can you put the best pieces together?
  • Don’t fixate on one solution. A better one might just be waiting for you to change your mind
  • Remember that no solution is too out-of-the-box



Humans are limited by what we can see, so our natural tendency is to observe and emulate human behavior. Behavior isn’t what distinguishes a leader; rather, it’s the thought processes that cause the leader to act. Therefore, to become a better leader, we should seek to align our thinking with other great leaders—in effect, asking not What would a leader do in this situation?” but rather, “How would a leader think about this situation?


Think You Can Spot Strong Leadership? Think Again!
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