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Thought Thursdays
Empires of the mind

Winston Churchill once said: “The empires of the future are the empires of the mind." 

Just by observing the rise of the knowledge worker and the battle for talent, Churchill’s comment intuitively resonates with me. For the moment, I won’t focus on the physicality of the brain. My interest, rather, lies in how we can responsibly cultivate this piece of problem-solving ‘equipment’, not merely to respond creatively to the condition of life for our own sake, but more especially so as to contribute to a better and more peaceful world for all. 

For now I wish to focus on the development of leadership minds in Africa. Consider for a moment the fact that we have the richest continent on the globe, given our natural resources, land mass, young population, etc. Now juxtapose all these wonderful assets with the state of our sociopolitical arena: our unsatisfactory rate of turning our resources into wealth for all, the mediocre quality of our institutional life, the poor quality of governance, etc. The leadership behaviours that engineered some of these unattractive results are clearly not governed by the kinds of minds and mind-sets we need to design and sculpt our future.

Consider the role of the empires of the mind when Peter Drucker states:

No century in recorded history has experienced so many social transformations and such radical ones as the twentieth century. They, I submit, may turn out to be the most significant events of this, our century, and its lasting legacy.​

With the world therefore becoming all the more VUCA, the leader-managers in our organisations are under pressure to keep shaping their minds, to keep their paradigms porous. How can we assist these leaders to discharge their leadership duties in the most responsible and sustainable way?

Henry Mintzberg, management development guru, acknowledges this challenge and suggests a way forward when he describes management as “a complex and challenging practice where art, science and craft meet”. In response to this insight and in an effort to influence and shape the empire of the mind, Jonathan Gosling and Henry Mintzberg developed an international programme focusing on five different managerial mind-sets, namely thereflective mind-set, the analytical mind-set, the worldly mind-set, the collaborative mind-set, and the action mind-set.

Taking a page from Gosling and Mintzberg, let’s also note some substantive research done by Howard Gardner, captured in his book Five Minds for the Future and appreciate what practical value it has for those who take the development of their minds seriously. Firstly, the development of the managerial mind will go nowhere in the absence of the first form of thought, i.e. discipline. It is imperative for managers to be able to think in a distinctive way, which in turn is a result of proper dedicated development and experience, the mastering of the things that make up the central theme of their profession as leader-managers. This surpasses having theoretical knowledge of management and leadership or even knowing “… seven steps to …”. Allow me to give an example: You may be able to play me a tune on a guitar, but this does not make you a guitarist. If you can communicate that you are a guitarist in only one way, playing one tune, very little of the discipline under discussion is at work. The moment you have mastered the guitar, you will be able to play any tune, and you will be able to communicate the essence of your guitarist profession in different ways and in different modes. You will be able to create novel sounds, use various techniques, tell stories with your instrument, play before an audience, etc. So it is with the disciplined managerial mind.

Our complex world actually requires more than that which Gosling and Mintzberg offers regarding the analytical mind. It needs a complementary form of thought that Gardner names the synthesising mind. Analysis has been a dominant form of thought in the Western world for centuries – the notion being that if we take anything apart and understand its parts, we understand the whole. This ‘ain’t gonna work’ in a VUCA world, which demands a systemic view of things. It requires not only knowing how a system works, but why it works and why it produces the results that it does. 

The relationships between the parts demands understanding. Russell Ackoff states:

The performance of the whole is never the performance of the parts taken separately, but is the product of the interactions, and therefore the main managerial idea introduced by systems thinking is that to manage a system successfully you must focus on the interactions of the parts rather than their behaviour taken separately.​​​

Many times we observe effective leaders synthesising by telling stories, or using metaphors of all kinds. 

 A third form of thought is to have the ability to express your discipline in more than one way. Consider Howard’s creative mind: The nature of the challenges our leaders face can never be tackled by the stock or standard thinking and methodologies of the past.  Elisabeth Dostal, for instance, points out: “[T]he logic of the problem is not the logic of the solution.” The creative mind emerges where Mintzberg’s assertion (where art, science and craft meet) happens. In this part of the empire there is dissatisfaction with how things are done, and the creative mind artfully crafts the same scene with a different medium and presents it in a new form in the hope for continuous progress. Such a mind is as disciplined and dedicated as that of a master artist.

I think that relationships resemble a continuous battle between cathexis (the bringing down of the walls of my identity and allowing the flowing in of another identity almost to the point of losing my own) and xenophobia (where the walls of my identity are so strong and impenetrable that they allow me to think and act as if others don’t have the right to exist, and that only I and my own have that right). This is where Gardner’s fourth form of thought resonates: the respectful mind. There is a case for us to discipline our minds and to acknowledge that others in their ‘otherness’, in their differentness, are not less than me and my own. To develop the empire of our mind, we seriously have to expose our minds to experiencing different forms of diversity in order to embrace the fact that being different is not equal to being flawed. This cuts far deeper than race and gender.

Peter Koestenbaum describes ethics as “being of service to others”. For this to happen, Gardner formulates the fifth form of thought needed for the future, the ethical mind. The manager with an ethically cultivated mind accepts excellence in work as a logical consequence of being of service to others. This completes the loop with the first form of thought, namely discipline, which is largely the motivation behind the ethical mind.

The development of the empire is a continuous imperative for those choosing to lead.


Frik Landman is the CEO of USB Executive Development (USB-ED)​. He is passionate about developing leaders who can make a meaningful contribution to the greater African community. His sentiments echo USB-ED's 2020 Vision: to develop managers who lead with wisdom and courage.

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