Linear thinkers’ brains are wired differently than non-linear thinkers.As engineers (software, chemical, mechanical or electrical), information technology specialists, accountants and other research-based professionals, their linear style of thinking — which is based on logic and sequential order — generally serves them well in their chosen professions.
Take the case of Jon (not his real name): An engineering superstar, lauded for the superior results he continuously delivered, Jon climbed the ranks of his company, only to flounder when placed in a leadership role.
He didn’t communicate eloquently. He lacked the capacity to impact and influence others. He didn’t appreciate dealing with interpersonal challenges or problems.
Leadership to Jon was essentially measurement and execution; “people” strategy didn’t factor into the equation. He didn’t understand team dynamics, and was perplexed to see productivity take a dive.When he saw the results of his 360 evaluation, he was hurt. He became frustrated, and began doubting his ability to lead effectively.
While Jon’s predicament is a common one among linear thinkers, it doesn’t mean they can’t be effective leaders — in fact, linear thinkers have great potential at the helm.
The Strengths — and Challenges — of a Linear Thinker
Linear thinkers like Jon are analytical and process-driven, focused on results. Their logical thinking renders them highly capable when it comes to executing tasks, streamlining processes and delivering products and solutions.
At the same time, they often lack — or choose not to tap into — an ability to see the big picture, which is essential to effective leadership. Because linear thinkers have a difficult time with ideation, they can get stuck “in the weeds.”Creativity and vision are not part of their natural repertoire. Often times, neither is the ability to dance effectively in communication.
As leaders, they make sure team members are held accountable and complete their work, but in the absence of context. They also often fail to achieve alignment with their teams, lacking the ability to inspire and influence.
It starts with something as basic as a walk down the hall. A linear thinker like Jon is likely focused on the destination (“Maria’s office”) for a specific purpose (“to review the new product specs”). With tunnel-like vision, Jon goes straight from Point A to Point B, sits down, and gets to work — interacting with as few people as possible along the way. A walk down the same hall would look very different for a leader who embodies a high level of emotional intelligence.The priorities and assumptions of a linear thinker are driven by an underlying operating system — and by what has worked in the past. Thoughts are usually driven by the task at hand. They can be iterative and agile in their thinking, but only as it relates to the appropriate lifecycle of building the product or process.
Linear thinkers are likely to avoid relationships and communication, minimizing their importance because it detracts from their core driver: efficiency.
Herein lies the problem: These people are already at the top of their respective corporate ladders. There is no higher rung for them to climb — as an engineer, accountant or analyst. They may only be in their 30s, but they’ve reached the top of their career game, except to move into the ranks of executive leadership.
While their linear way of thinking has undoubtedly served them well in creating elegant, efficient software, for example, they need to develop their non-linear thinking skills in order to become strong leaders who make an impact on their teams, departments and companies.
Overcoming Leadership Obstacles Associated with Linear Thinking
How can linear thinkers learn to “rebuild” their brain so that the primary lens through which they see the world allows them to become strong leaders?
The following strategies can help linear thinkers overcome their challenges in leadership roles:
- Increase flexibility — One of the core leadership challenges issues among linear thinkers is a tendency toward rigidity. Because of the way their brains process information, they view things as black or white. Their thoughts are not unlike the binary code upon which many of their products are based, things are either “on” or “off.” Right or wrong. Adopting a more flexible approach allows leaders to better adapt when situations veer off course, to become more resilience in the face of challenges and to welcome innovation.
- Cultivate emotional intelligence — Linear thinkers often have difficulty connecting with and relating to others. Jon, for example, didn’t understand why he needed to forge any type of relationship with his team members. “We’re here to work, aren’t we?” he would say. In time, Jon learned that in order to work well together, developing healthy relationships with and among team members was essential. Effective leaders focus on impact and engagement, with the emotional bandwidth to understand the context and nuances of each situation in order to positively affect the organization, its employees and its customers. The first place to start is by developing empathy, which allows them to see a situation from another’s perspective.
- Master somatic communication — Like many new leaders, Jon quickly learned that the majority of communication is non-verbal, transcending words. By walking down the hall averting eye contact, his message was clear: “I don’t really want to interact with you.” When Jon adopted a more open posture in meetings — arms uncrossed, leaning in rather than away from — the table, he found that it encouraged his team members to speak up, offering their opinions and ideas, which sparked productive dialogue.
- Seek opportunities for growth — Effective leaders seek personal and professional growth, and are constantly evolving and developing in their leadership capacity. They read, attend workshops, take classes and are involved in organizations (professional, community and/or social). In their quest for growth, they are committed to creating new and/or modifying existing habits through repeated actions and thought patterns that form new neuropathways. Linear thinkers can use their skills — planning, executing, organizing, for example — to prioritize their development objectives and schedule them accordingly.
- Recognize blind spots — What skills are they lacking, or do they need to refine? As a result of the increased self-awareness they gain through executive coaching and/or 360 reviews, linear thinkers can make prudent decisions about what they need to do to increase their leadership effectiveness, including choosing the right partners to help them achieve their personal and professional goals.