A few years ago I read an excellent book called Opposable Mind. The book asks “What distinguishes a brilliant leader from a conventional one?” And the answer of the book is: “Brilliant leaders are skilled at integrative thinking — the ability to hold two opposing ideas in their minds at once, and then reach a synthesis that contains elements of both but improves on each.”
What are “Integrative Thinking” and “The Opposable Mind”?
Central to integrative thinking is the subject of the book’s title, what the author calls “the opposable mind.” He argues that, just as having an opposable thumb enables us to do more (for example, it would be much harder to pick things up without an opposable thumb), so also being able to hold two opposing ideas in our minds at once enables us to see more and understand more.
These two “opposing” ideas, further, are not ultimately in contradiction. They are in tension — and many people end up concluding that they contradict and you can’t do both — but in reality the “either/or” is the easy way out. As one example: As a manager, do you give people lots of freedom and thus risk that they might do things that aren’t in alignment with the aims of the organization, or do you give people more direction and risk undermining their freedom? The answer is that you can do both. Give direction by making sure expectations and ultimate outcomes are clear, but allow the employee freedom in figuring out the best way to accomplish those outcomes (and a role in helping to identify what those outcomes should be). And as a result of affirming both, you gain a greater understanding of both freedom and direction. You learn that freedom actually thrives most in a framework, but that the framework needs to be relatively loose and at a high level, or else the framework itself will come apart because by squelching freedom, it will also squelch initiative and engagement.
As another example: Do you pursue the long-term growth of a company or do you pursue the short-term profitability that provides your cash flow? The company that built my house chose the later — short-term profitability. As a result, they cut a bunch of corners, got everyone ticked off at them, and eventually went out of business. They pursued the short-term at the expense of the long-term, not realizing they could do both.
The examples I’ve given here are pretty easy. The actual examples that he gives in the book from specific real-life situations that effective leaders have encountered are much more challenging. But the point is that there are many things in leadership and management where people typically take an either/or approach. But the best leaders refuse to give in to easy trade-offs, and instead leverage the tension to uncover greater understanding and take a more effective path.
How Does this Relate to Alleged Contradictions in the Bible?
What The Opposable Mind tells us about how effective leaders think is relevant to far more things than just leadership — as important as that is. It tells us something about thinking in general and, in fact, it tells us something about the recent discussion on alleged contradictions in the Bible.
As I discussed in my original post on the issue, tension and an initial appearance of contradiction will exist in any profound text because it’s part of what stimulates thought and because it is simply a feature of looking at any sophisticated subject from many angles. These tensions, however, are not real contradictions, but rather lead to greater insight as we seek to uncover how things fit together.
What we see from The Opposable Mind now, interestingly, is an example of the same thing from the discipline of leadership. The most effective leaders refuse to settle for simplistic stage-one trade-offs when they come across tensions in various decisions and among multiple priorities, and instead probe the tensions for greater insight that goes beyond what you would have discovered if you quit too soon and said “we cannot reconcile these things.”
In the same way, when reading the Bible, a great wealth of insight lies before us when we look at tensions as an opportunity for probing deeper and learning the subject from a deeper angle. And, when we do this, we aren’t giving special pleading to the Bible. We are acting just like we do — or ought to — in every area of life.
It is for this reason, in part, that the tensions are there on purpose — both in the Bible (by God’s inspiration) and in life (by God’s providence).
“And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand . . . ” (2 Peter 3:15-17).