The Synthesizers

by Apr 24, 2024Leadership

Leonardo DaVinci is revered as an artist for good reason. He also succeeded greatly in physiology, architecture, and physics, fueled by curiosity and a fearless approach to learning.[1] DaVinci is a beautiful example of a Renaissance man, an archetype that inspires awe and admiration but can seem impossible to emulate, but this isn’t true.

We admire DaVinci and his work but don’t often consider that he has something to teach us about leadership. Is that possible? The simple answer is yes, and this article attempts to explain why and how.

An enduring challenge facing leaders is using what they know and, simultaneously, widening their field of vision to incorporate what is less familiar. As a leader’s scope of responsibility grows, they need to be informed about and conversant in aspects of an organization where they lack deep expertise. This is more than a mind shift; it requires letting go of habits that will no longer be effective, some of which are unconscious.

Failure to do the hard work of changing oneself makes it unlikely that a leader will fulfill the evergreen need to innovate, inject meaning and enthusiasm into work, and motivate the right actions in themselves and others. Many ambitions crash on the shores of the inability, or unwillingness, to make the critical shift from expert to synthesizer.

Some leaders seem to evolve naturally, but when we look behind the scenes, we see the importance of advisors, role models, and consciousness of habits and beliefs. This is why lessons from DaVinci, Richard Feynman, Anne Lamott, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Margaret Atwood, among others, can help us improve insights, see connections where we haven’t, and use what we know in new ways.

Beyond growing their own abilities, leaders need an antidote to a common problem: people taking on more significant roles while remaining cognitively, emotionally, and habitually in their former roles. In my decades of advising CEOs, I can confidently predict that this issue will rear its head (either with the CEO or a key member of their team.)

CEOs despair when they promote a talented person to a senior role, and the person fails to shift their perspective, learn, forge peer relationships, and make decisions based on an accurate view of the organization’s best interests. However, wise leaders know that ascending to a larger role is precisely the type of change that reveals whether or not an individual engages in changing themselves.

Leadership Synthesis™ is a framework to help senior leaders (or anyone interested in growth) grow and guide others to develop their ability to be a Meta-Leader, one who sees above and beyond, notices what others don’t, and makes great decisions.

Synthesis Is Creative, Not Complicated  

First, a brief description of synthesis. We often think of synthesis as combining elements to create something new, H2O being a widely recognized example. We don’t need to think about chemical agents too much, but juggling information from different sources requires consciousness.

Great leaders know how to synthesize. They may do so consciously or unconsciously, and both work. However, the many CEOs I know often despair at helping others learn how to lead when they lack subject matter expertise.

Leadership Synthesis™ is a framework that helps leaders grow and teach others how to develop the ability to incorporate information, use emotion and motivation, and avoid recklessness in risk-taking. The model incorporates three concepts, none requiring us to gin up more passion or acquire new skills.

First, wondering, wandering, and thinking; second, unfettered curiosity; and third, bold experimentation.

Once you have these ideas, you’ll see one or two and, sometimes,  all three in others. I hope you will recognize one, two, or all three in yourself. When you experiment with the three elements, you’ll see how each is uniquely valuable and how each affects the others. One or two may be most attractive to you, but we need all three to reap the benefits of synthesis.

While few will become experts at all three, people can practice each, recognize when something is missing, and seek help from others with more developed abilities in one or more areas.


Wondering, Wandering, and Thinking

Managers and CEOs often say, “I don’t have time to think.” Writers say, “I don’t know what to write about.” Busy parents lament a lack of time merged with extreme pressure not to “mess up my kids.”

These comments usually elicit advice, much of which is tactical, sometimes irritating, and not always on the mark. Even when the advice is good, it might not be well suited for the circumstance.

The antidote to no time is paradoxical and often disregarded as impossible to implement. What is it? Create a space where mindless “doing” is replaced by “doing nothing” or “doing something irrelevant.”

Of course, leaping into action with little information is necessary in an emergency. Still, modern life, with all its benefits, has created a sense of urgency for matters that aren’t urgent. People often feel relentless time pressure and are, or fear being judged for being lazy or self-indulgent if they don’t act with urgency. But most people can recall when, after stepping away from a situation or problem, an insight comes to them like a bolt of lightning.

Some, like Mark, a Fortune 500 company marketing executive, are regarded as odd, even though his ideas and insights were of extraordinary value. He solved his “no time to think” problem by leaving his office routinely. Mark spent time in different, often historic, locations, wandering without any agenda except to pay attention.

When he started his practice, Mark realized that most of his thoughts were random and had little value to his work. He also knew that if he stayed in the office, his calendar would be full of urgent meetings laced with anxiety. He understood that inspiring ideas could not be commanded to appear; they had to be revealed. Fortunately, Mark developed a process that helped him see what he hadn’t seen before and generate valuable insights.

Mark’s boss, the president of his company, often said Mark was the most creative, original thinker in the company, and his ideas were central to its stellar success.

Of course, insight becomes generative when married with knowledge, experience, and experimentation, and we’ll see that wondering, wandering, and thinking are not necessarily the starting point.

Unfettered Curiosity

Nobel-prize-winning physicist Richard R. Feynman spoke extensively about the “joy of finding out.” He seemed to retain an ability to follow his curiosity and allow himself to experience unbridled joy for his entire life. Other than physics, his interests included bongo drums and a campaign to get permission to travel to Tuva.

Feynman shows us that curiosity is far more than entertainment; it is a source of energy and enthusiasm, which are contagious. Adam, an executive whose expertise spans finance and operations, uses curiosity about people to create high-performance cultures. His ability to connect with people, no matter their position, is central to his leadership. While others admire Adam’s skill, they often assume he has a unique and mysterious ability that cannot be deconstructed or copied. This is completely untrue. While copying Adam’s behavior mechanically will likely fall flat, magic happens when following his example with genuine curiosity. That’s it, the big secret.

Adam’s curiosity is as palpable as Feynman’s and as natural as DaVinci’s, though it is revealed in very different circumstances.

Curiosity is an enduring source of fuel for innovation and has the beautiful side effect of sparking connections among people. Sadly, curiosity can be quashed quickly by subtle or overt cynicism. Merely ignoring curiosity can kill creative energy, especially when leaders reward knowledge and being right while ignoring learning and exploration.

Bold Experimentation

The word experiment conjures up images of Bunsen burners and test tubes, and sometimes that is precisely where experiments do, and should, happen. Alongside the image of a lab, we might think about “failed experiments” in business. Though we don’t usually use the word experiment in business, we cringe just as much when our ideas or attempts to implement them fail.

In science, failing to produce evidence that your idea is correct advances understanding. It may be extremely discouraging while still advancing understanding. Important discoveries don’t usually come from the first experiment, but people can be impatient with experimentation; we want success.

Even though business decisions are best guesses (not wild guesses, but reasoned) and organizations swimming in uncertainty, boards of directors and leaders expect good results. Leaders sometimes look for blame before understanding the cause when things go wrong. Of course, sometimes a person is to blame. However, when only good results are rewarded, and people are punished for honest mistakes, taking risks necessary for growth will be rare.

One way people manage discomfort with uncertainty is by engaging in planning exercises. Unfortunately, “strategic planning” can kill good strategic thinking in favor of operational planning. This happens because plans are more concrete and seem less risky. However, risk-taking is the essence of growing a company; without it, failure is inevitable, even if it is not swift.

Roger Martin, former Dean of the Rotman School at McGill University, offers a way to synthesize strategy and planning. He defines strategy as a theory that guides an integrated set of choices. What? A theory? Yes.

A theory is a plausible idea that needs to be tested. It is not wild-eyed conjecture; it is logical, and experiments tell us if our theory is valid. Relevant data will tell leaders if their decisions about where and how to invest resources were good choices; if so, great, and if not, what must change?

Bold experimentation forces leaders to make decisions and give a framework that requires valid data to test their hypotheses. Leaders don’t like to be wrong, but when they call upon the framework of experimentation, it reduces the need to defend or rationalize and allows for easier, faster changes, less influenced by opinion.

Leadership Synthesis™

I mentioned earlier that developing Leadership Synthesis requires adopting all three elements. But don’t despair if one seems most natural. Forge ahead with one, but as you do, ask yourself what that one has to do with the others. For example, my most natural way to expand my thinking is Unfettered Curiosity. I love digging into a topic that captures my interest, and I’m sure you can correctly predict the problem in doing that too much! Curiosity is fun but, without action, produces nothing beyond an expanded vocabulary and many ideas.

Wandering, Wondering, and Thinking are similarly limited. They provide rich experiences and valuable insight, especially when curiosity isn’t short-circuited. Some insights are exciting but not important, while others are pivotal. But, to create value, action is required.

Similarly, Bold Experimentation, when untempered by breadth of knowledge and curiosity, can result in a lot of activity and investment but also many failures.

Exponential Value from Leadership Synthesis

Inevitably, people want to dichotomize or rank elements and sometimes think of them as linear. However, the aspects of leadership synthesis are equally important, mutually dependent, and interactive. None of the three elements are the right or wrong starting place.

Another way to think about combining different elements is to think of a kaleidoscope; every change we make changes the entire image as the parts assume new relationships. Organizations, families, teams, and cultures are like this, though the effects might take time to see.

For example, Unfettered Curiosity fuels Wonder, Wandering, and Thinking, which, in turn, becomes a breeding ground for Bold Experimentation. But Bold Experimentation can ignite Unfettered Curiosity and Wondering, Wandering, and Thinking.

There is no right way to embrace these ideas, nor does a single person need to embody all three, and certainly not all three all the time. Great leaders are skilled at spotting people who are different, like Mark in the previous example. He had marvelous skill and patience to Wonder, Wander, and Think, and his Unfettered Curiosity kept him going for years. Mark wasn’t interested in Bold Experimentation, but his colleagues were thrilled to have Mark feed them ideas they could evaluate and test.

Unprecedented results at the company Mark worked for happened because the president, Sarah, was exceptionally skilled at synthesis. She understood that while she was not an expert in all the areas of the business, putting the right people together and creating a culture of innovation would lead to success, and it did.

Target’s Foray Into Canada

What if Target had done more wandering, wondering, and thinking before it attempted to expand into Canada? Would they have detected the differences between the US and the Canadian market?

How many companies attempt to take a playbook from one circumstance and use it in another before they realize what is different? We know that judgments falter when we apply what we learned in one circumstance to a situation that isn’t as similar as we thought. This happens partly due to the demand for speed, which can short-circuit deliberate (but slower) thinking and decision-making.

When an organization moves to expand, it may have done a lot of exploration and be ready for a Bold Experiment. Without curiosity, companies might believe they are experimenting, but they might be transplanting tactics. Without the rigor of metrics relevant to the specific situation, leaders might not detect the need for changes until late in the game. That is a shame because it may lead to abandoning something that could work if modified.

Frito-Lay®

Companies like Frito-Lay have a prominent product offering – snacks. In Martin’s language, this is where they play. They expand by providing different groups of people with snack flavors that resonate with them. For example, Dragon chips, flavored with kelp and chicken, are available in Japan, and caramelized onion chips are sold in France. It takes a lot of wandering, wondering, thinking, and bold experimentation, but curiosity provides the energy to explore different markets in depth. Without curiosity, the company wouldn’t develop as many varieties as they do and sell them in the right places to meet the demand of hungry snackers and grow sales.

Reckitt-Benckiser

When Reckitt & Colman and Benckiser agreed to merge in 1999, Bart Becht, then CEO of Benckiser, was named to lead the new company. Becht is a synthesizer, a stellar quality that allowed him to sidestep a common decision trap in mergers: indecision.

Mergers are ideal breeding grounds for indecision because they invite additive thinking despite being touted as having valuable synergies.

Becht led the newly formed company in creating a leadership team and culture designed to deliver on the investment thesis. He and his top team defined the culture and leadership needs of the newly formed Reckitt-Benckiser (RB) and took swift action to choose the best people. Two years later, the share price of RB doubled – an accomplishment rarely seen.

Leadership Synthesis™ At The Speed of Decisions

Leadership Synthesis is an active process—Wondering, Wandering, and Thinking may sound like a slow crawl. Still, with the fire of Unfettered Curiosity and the courage of Bold Experimentation, the speed of decisions is often accelerated by Leadership Synthesis because leaders are more confident, and rightly so.

[1] It is impossible to capture how vast DaVinci’s knowledge was and how varied his achievements were. Walter Isaacson’s beautiful biography of him is magnificent and worth reading every one of the more than 500 pages.

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