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Break out of Self-Limiting Thinking

Effective leadership requires creative freedom

(Thinking Grey, Part 1)

Li #212 Break out of Self-Limiting Think
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A QUALITY OFTEN associated with leadership is decisiveness: The person who can size up an issue quickly and make a firm decision on what to do.

Agreed, that often is exactly what you need. If it were only that easy!

There are countless situations in life and business which are cloudy and ambiguous. There are times of great uncertainty and risk, issues for which there seems to be no good answer. Leaders must lead, nonetheless. What then?

Your strengths can become weaknesses

One of the maxims of coaching is, “Your greatest strengths are also the source of your greatest weaknesses.” While this may seem counterintuitive, it proves true in people’s lives over and over. Why?

First, we become so comfortable with our strengths that they go on autopilot. We continue to use them thoughtlessly in situations where they are not appropriate or helpful. It’s like the old saying: “A carpenter who only has a hammer in his tool belt will treat every problem like a nail.” We continue to hammer away with our strengths and fail to realize that another approach might be called for.

Second, we become so reliant on our strengths that thinking creatively outside them takes too much effort, and, we believe, too much time. But how much time is wasted as we continue doing what has proven not to work? Like the popular definition of insanity, it’s “continuing to do the same thing over and over while expecting a different result.”

That’s why another set of eyes can be so helpful. As a coach, it is often my role to suggest options people can’t see and help them think beyond their mental boxes.

One of the most common and limiting mental boxes is Binary Thinking.

The strength of Binary Thinking

First, let’s define it. Binary Thinking means approaching issues as Either-Or:

Good OR Bad

Black OR White

Right OR Wrong

True OR False

All OR Nothing

Friend OR Foe

There are times and situations when Binary Thinking is a strength and clearly called for: Medicine, aviation, engineering, and computers come to mind.

If a nurse is coming toward me with a long needle, or a surgeon is preparing to cut me open, I want them to know what they are doing. The same is true for the person piloting my plane, building a bridge for me to drive over, or working on my computer.

These are all spheres where there are right and wrong answers, and we rely on the expert to know what he or she is doing, and to be sure they are doing the right thing.

I have run into binary thinkers everywhere, but they seem to predominate in certain professions. “All or Nothing” thinking seems to be common among physicians in my experience. Whether it is because they are drawn to medicine because of their inclination, or if it is because of their training, it’s hard to prove (I’m inclined to say, both).

After coaching several doctors, I inserted a “Thinking Grey” section for the leadership development process I created and led for physicians at a previous company. Talking about this subject in class, one of them recited a saying he had been taught in residency: “A surgeon may be wrong, but never in doubt.” They must decide and bear the consequences of their actions, so they had better be right.

The weakness of Binary Thinking

What’s the problem? There are times and situations where Binary Thinking is not helpful, and, in fact, counterproductive to success. Here are a few examples of when Binary Thinking can be a drawback.


For much of life ─ and this includes many leadership and management situations ─ there is no clear right or wrong answer: It’s about making a judgment call. Sometimes your options are between good, better, and best; unfortunately, sometimes between bad, worse, and disastrous. Then it can be about choosing the “least bad” option.

I got a big kick out of a scene in 2012’s Oscar-winning film, Argo. The plot revolves around a CIA agent (Ben Affleck) and his bizarre plan to rescue some people from revolutionary Iran in 1979. Affleck and his associate (Bryan Cranston) are meeting with the CIA Director going over lame proposals when he floats his idea of creating a fake movie company to retrieve them. The dialogue goes like this:

AFFLECK: “There are only bad options. It’s about finding the best one.”

CIA DIRECTOR: “You don’t have a better bad idea than this?”

CRANSTON: “This is the best bad idea we have, sir … by far.”

We can sometimes find ourselves in a situation where we can only try our “best bad idea,” but that’s at least better than doing nothing. Binary thinkers can refuse to face this, which leads to another problem.


“All or Nothing” thinking leads to a fixation on the perfect solution. It says, “Unless I can come up with a solution that perfectly solves the problem, it’s not worth doing anything.” The paralysis of analysis follows, leading to complete inaction. Nothing changes.

I often remind my coaching clients, “Incremental improvement is good!” Let’s say the problem is their management of time. I don’t know how to completely solve someone’s time management issues in the work world. “But,” I say, “what if you could get three hours of your time back to devote to your most important things? Wouldn’t that be worth doing?” Of course, it would, so long as they aren’t fixated on the perfect solution.


No one can read minds, but it’s amazing how many managers try. They will not only criticize an employee’s behavior or performance. They will proceed to pass judgment on why they did so (reading minds):

Evaluation: “He just doesn’t care about his work! He has no work ethic!”

Translation:EITHER he’s willing to work as many hours as I do OR he has no work ethic.”

Evaluation: “She does that because she’s completely insensitive to others! She has no empathy!”

Translation:EITHER she says like I would, OR she doesn’t care about people’s feelings.”

My reply to comments like these is to suggest that I know six-to-eight reasons why someone might behave that way, so slow down about assuming you know why they do what they do. It’s not Either-Or.

The value of “Thinking Grey”

I’ve adopted the term Thinking Grey from The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership by Steven B. Sample. Written during his tenure as President of the University of Southern California, it is on my short list of favorite leadership books. Sample writes:

“Contrarian leaders think differently from the people around them. In particular, such leaders are able to maintain their intellectual independence by thinking grey, and enhance their intellectual creativity by thinking free.”

It’s not always easy, he says:

“Really thinking free is hard work, and it usually requires a good deal of effort and determination.”

The reason it can be so difficult is because it means going against our natural inclinations. Learning to think grey and free, however, is definitely worth the effort! In a world of lemmings following one another and “conventional wisdom” that proves untrue upon examination, leaders who maintain their intellectual independence have a decided competitive and strategic advantage.

Sharpen your awareness by noticing how Binary Thinking creeps into your everyday life. Note some examples. We will continue looking at this subject and what you can do about it in two more articles. Li


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