To Lead You Need Thought. This is How it’s Made.


Aerodynamics are for people who cannot build engines

“Thought leadership” is a common expression we use with varying definitions. How we define a term says a lot about culture. When I wrote about the topic, I boiled it down to:

The simplest definition of leadership is the ability or capacity to lead. If thought lends credibility to the expression, this part gives it direction and coherence. Can we separate the big ideas from other kinds of thoughts?

Definitions help us navigate thought. At the atomic level, words are the smallest meaningful unit we use to form thoughts and actions. I'm not forgetting sounds, which are inside words and especially useful as we transition to voice commands.

But we're not yet reduced to grunts in our communication. Accents and cadence matter to the rhythm of conversation to convey meaning. Our command and range of words is changing.

Change is part of life, the people we meet and experiences we have change us. We change in response to our environment. But technology has escalated the demand that we adapt to change rapidly.

Each phase of change comes with great benefits in our thinking and our ability to create new worlds — as well as costs.

The birth and development of thinking

When we're children, we connect more readily with things that are physical and human. Because we're experimenting with what it feels like to be alive, and learning is part of our survival strategy. Our environment provides enough stimuli — in good and bad — from which we can draw and learn.

On balance, if we're lucky we're able to invest of our natural curiosity to soak up life's lessons, rather than coat our senses with impermeable defenses because of difficult circumstances. We paint, talk our thoughts out loud, and ask a thousand “why” questions all day long. That's how we find the words to put into writing and populate our dreams and imagination.

As we get older, we refine our technique with practice and the influence of the people and situations we experience. We start collecting the things of others in an attempt to make sense of what we're thinking.

Then our drawings, writing, and talking start reflecting what we're experiencing. This is a new threshold of awareness. We sing ourselves into existence in more than one way.

We may not have the ability to tell who's doing the editing or where the motivation is coming from, but we get words out of the process. We latch onto expressions and terms from culture and social experiences. That's how we try on thoughts and drive our actions.

But these words and thoughts might be fleeting, and thus fragile over time.

A corollary to this phase is that we may discover data and associate it with more durable properties. We begin to seek evidence and data as a means of gaining insights. We're currently experiencing the human version of adolescence in business, for example. The insights we can gain from data are still pretty limited and insufficient, they don't teach us anything new. Nor they tell us where we want to go.

Maybe we can focus the lens enough as we look at the data to see better and learn more. It's an argument we're considering with artificial intelligence (AI). However, many commercial applications are still tracking and measuring the stuff that is easy to track and measure, rather than what we want to know about the future.

It's hard to get life out of data.

Like a painting or an infographic becomes interesting and long-lasting when it contains a deep insight as the organizing principle, so do our thoughts, words, and actions. If you're just adding aesthetics to something, you're not making it meaningful.

Life is in real world situations. When we get out of our office and our heads and observe what's going on around us. This is a step that is becoming rare. When we do step out, we can learn to see a lot. Yet young people are not leaving their apartments anymore#. Going out is too much effort, researchers found.

Digital life is a performative stage — the thinking goes that online we're both safe and comfortable. Online we have the illusion that something is happening, without putting actual skin in the game. Online, our solitude can mimic the solitude of others.

But thinking needs both words and action to flourish, that's how we get feedback. Conversation is thought in action, for example.

How we scale thought

As individuals we have limited scale. You and I can do, process, and think about only so many things at once. In the haste to do and think about as many things are possible, we limit depth. Our words become more efficient. But we trade off meaning.

We also cannot access what other people are thinking. As you're reading this, there's an inner conversation you have that is off limits to me. The good news is that parts of inner conversations download into relationships over time and parts spill into physical things. When we talk and make things together, we enrich our thinking vocabulary.

At some point, we turn our search for meaning from the outside world to our inner world. We explore our thoughts and actions. Sometimes it's easier to borrow the words someone else thought about and apply them to our context. Like I did above with Ferrari. We reference the insight behind what someone else says because of what they make us feel.

The time and energy limitations force us to close doors on some experiences in favor of others. Editing in this stage may be a tool of necessity. We need to stop adding new words to operate in a specific place. To climb faster, we discard or park thoughts as we would things.

Memories are our storage space for parked thoughts. We used to put the words into diaries and entrust them to the care of friends, now we put them online, spreading them widely, often forgetting what we said the minute we write it. Worse, we forget to think through what we want to say. A thoughtless comment is a waste.

What kinds of thought are we scaling in a wasteland?

Building engines

A blog is an example of evolving thinking through words over time. Social media, not so much. Evolution comes from conversation — with thoughts and also through the act of building something.

Likes and traffic give us ego boosts engineered to build cash reserves for a certain business model. We end up watching them, instead of observing and feeling the person and situation on the other side of the conversation. A learning opportunity missed.

I'm an idea person, and I've always gravitated toward activities that would allow me to build tools. When I was little, I used to convert the boxes my sisters gifts came with into environments for them to play. Once I built an entire apartment building with rooms their dolls could use to do things together.

I look at conversation the same way. Conversations create spaces to put words to work. They in turn build our thinking. After we build thought through experiences and encounters, this is how we scale.

Enrico Fermi was the last physicist who could embrace the whole of his science.  He excelled in both theoretical and experimental physics. As a person he was simplicity embodied. He liked a good game, and disliked complicated theories. hence why our quick back-of-the-envelope calculations became the “Fermi method.”

His scientific work has stood the test of time.

Toward the end of his life, Fermi questioned his faith in society at large to make wise choices about nuclear technology. He said:

Some of you may ask, what is the good of working so hard merely to collect a few facts which will bring no pleasure except to a few long-haired professors who love to collect such things and will be of no use to anybody because only few specialists at best will be able to understand them? In answer to such question[s] I may venture a fairly safe prediction.

History of science and technology has consistently taught us that scientific advances in basic understanding have sooner or later led to technical and industrial applications that have revolutionized our way of life. It seems to me improbable that this effort to get at the structure of matter should be an exception to this rule. What is less certain, and what we all fervently hope, is that man will soon grow sufficiently adult to make good use of the powers that he acquires over nature.

To lead we need thought. This is how we make it.

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