Learning to “dance through complexity”

Opposable MindAdmittedly, I’m finding it a bit of a stretch to include The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking (2007, Harvard Business School Press) in a blog dedicated to recent literature in student affairs. But author Roger Martin is one of the keynote speakers at this year’s CACUSS Conference so I thought it fitting that I give his book a read in anticipation of the wisdom he might share with us in Waterloo in June.

The book is about how great leaders think – the ways in which they approach decisions and what sets them apart from the rest of us conventional types. The focus is on business leadership. I know what you’re thinking: the business leadership model (based largely on competition) does not work in higher education (based on warm fuzzies.) But to dismiss what Martin has to share on that basis would be to prove his point. Successful leaders open their minds to opposing views; how we see the world around us – our stance – is a construction of our own experiences. There are other ways of looking at problems, other models, and successful leaders don’t fear them, they leverage them.

The first half of The Opposable Mind is dedicated to case studies of successful leaders – CEOs and business “rock stars” mostly, with a couple of really interesting (from my perspective) figures – Piers Handling of the Toronto International Film Festival, and Victoria Hale, who pioneered not-for-profit drug development to address global health issues. The creativity and innovation of some of these leaders is truly inspiring but that’s not what Martin wants us to leave with. His point – and what he spends the second half of the book explaining – is that this stuff is not necessarily innate. It can be learned. We can train our minds to hold opposing concepts in tandem, to keep our options open, to resist simplification.

For me, the most salient lessons revolve around the tensions between simplicity and complexity. I work in a very complex institutional environment (the same one as Martin) and am constantly challenged by colleagues to find simple solutions to what are really very complicated problems. But Martin confirms for me that simplification, though comforting, impairs integrative thinking and can lead to poor decisions.

By page 91 of this short book, we’re in Martin’s classroom of MBA students at the Rotman School of Management, where he is the Dean, witnessing how he teaches them to think like a Moses Znaimer or Isadore Sharp. The concepts are laid out clearly enough, though without the benefit of the experiences an MBA student participates in, they remain somewhat elusive and abstract.

The Opposable Mind is a gift to those of us who tend to heterodogmatize. Though it has no direct relevance to student affairs or higher education, the book cautions us to be wary of conventionality and cookie-cutter approaches – a healthy reminder in any context.

I eagerly await his address to the CACUSS delegates in June.

— Deanne Fisher

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One thought on “Learning to “dance through complexity”

  1. Roger Martin says:

    Deanne: Thanks for the gracious review. Given your interest and involvement in higher ed, you might want to pick up my subsequent book (with co-author Mihnea Moldoveanu) called The Future of the MBA. While it is notionally about MBA education per se, the readers of it in higher ed generally have commented favorably on it relevance to education generally. Cheers. R.

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