As a parent, my wife and I are exposed to some pretty creative thinking. Our 15- year-old son imaginatively explores ways to convince us to attend EDM shows alone with his friends, our 12-year-old daughter is blossoming into a skilled negotiator who attempts to arrange yet another sleepover, while our 7-yr old son less gracefully asserts his need for the newest must-have toys and apps. While I marvel at their verbal skills and applaud their persuasive abilities to convince us of their needs, we seek to raise children capable of making their own “choices” and understanding their consequences. While much of my professional life has been focused on executive leadership development for adults, critical thinking skills need to be developed early in life.  Understanding the thought process that goes with making choices (or decisions) is critical to developing a sharp mind.

Fast forward to the executive running a large plant who needs to automate a production line with the latest technology to drive greater speed and efficiency, or even to the sales professional who has to drop the price to close the deal and beat the competition while still meeting margins. The cost/benefit ratio in these scenarios is much more complex. The trade-offs and interrelated variables can be mind-boggling when you add in volatile markets, global economies, and emerging and mature market needs. Add a dash of disruptive technology, and it’s not your basic math. Executive leadership development is complex.  Organizations need strong, agile leaders who can be critical thinkers and make sound decisions in any given situation by finding the balance point between short and long-term measures, global and local needs, building infrastructure and reaping results, and so on.

Several years ago an article from NY Times Op-Ed columnist Thomas Friedman titled “The Start-Up of You”, sums up the challenge of finding strong leaders. Organizations “are all looking for the same kind of people—people who not only have the critical thinking skills to do the value-adding jobs that technology can’t, but also people who can invent, adapt and reinvent their jobs every day, in a market that changes faster than ever.” Two things jump off the page from this quotation: (1) If everyone seeks these same “value” leaders, we have to develop more of them; and (2) these leadership skills (invent, adapt, and reinvent) are disruptive.

Having an organization of people who invent, adapt, and reinvent themselves sounds like chaos. The paradox is that for an organization to thrive and grow today, a creative tension or balance between chaos and order must be found. And, it can’t be exercised just in the boardroom. This means organizations need to encourage and build the “muscle” to embrace systems or “both/and” thinking. Achieving what Friedman advises is not an easy task.

During childhood, we start building the muscle through mental models and biases about the way things should work – owning our choices and the consequences. Our perception of the complexity of systems at play and our understanding of how those systems work challenge us to make better decisions later in life as leaders. For my part, I will continue to develop strategies and techniques that consistently build these skills for both my employees and my clients through executive leadership development experiences.  At home, I’ll be working on the leaders of tomorrow.

As vice president of operations at The Regis Company, Kevin Himmel is responsible for supporting and overseeing software development, experience design, global deployment, and support functions. Since joining The Regis Company in 2003, Kevin has contributed to spearheading transformative learning initiatives at some of the world’s largest companies. Kevin remains focused on driving The Regis Company’s operational efficiencies by building intuitive and scalable software, emphasizing human-centered design, and supporting greater value through the use of agile frameworks. Kevin earned a master’s degree in instructional technology and a bachelor’s degree in management and entrepreneurship, both from Northern Illinois University.

Kevin Himmel

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