Certain ideas are in the air. We are impressionable, … but some more than others. … This explains the curious contemporaneousness of inventions and discoveries. The truth is in the air, and the most impressionable brain will announce it first, but all will announce it a few minutes later.

–Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Conduct of Life,” 1860.

I heard Emerson’s words on my visit to Medtronic a week ago, where I met with COO Bill Hawkins (D’82 and a Trustee of our Foundation Board) and Dan Lemaitre, Medtronic’s Vice President of Corporate Strategy and Development. During the meeting, Lemaitre asked me what Darden is doing to develop impressionable professionals. Initially, the question puzzled me, for it reminded me of the phrase, “impressionable young person,” a put-down used to discount someone who swallows new opinions too easily. So I asked Lemaitre to explain. He said that Medtronic seeks to develop intellectual qualities of its leaders that will help the firm survive in a rapidly-changing medical technology environment. He argued that leadership entails (in part) connecting the dots from disparate facts and opinions to grasp quickly a vision of a problem or opportunity as it is unfolding. Lemaitre said, “You don’t have to be smart to be a leader; you have to be impressionable,” to grasp the important insights from the gusher of information that comes at you. Then Lemaitre quoted Emerson to argue that facts are available to the wide word; the point is to be the first to draw meaning from them. Lemaitre should know: he was a star securities analyst of the health care sector before being hired to do strategy for Medtronic.

Then I noticed the lead article in the latest Harvard Business Review, “How Successful Leaders Think,” by Roger Martin. He is Dean of the Rotman School of Management at University of Toronto. His key point is that the most successful leaders are integrators of ideas. Often they hold two conflicting models in mind at the same time and then often generate a new model that is better than either. Consideration and synthesis are the keys to integrative thinking, and successful leadership. Martin points to Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, and Bob Young, former CEO of Red Hat, as consummate integrative thinkers. Martin said, “Integrative thinkers don’t mind a messy problem. In fact, they welcome complexity, because that’s where the best answers come from.”

Back to Lemaitre’s question: What can business schools do to shape these kinds of leadership qualities? We should teach using messy problems. We should shower the learner with facts from which he or she must derive meaning. We should avoid rote solutions that imply there is always and everywhere a single right answer to a business problem. We should encourage learners to work together to pool their efforts to derive meaning. We should emphasize mindfulness.

Our approach in the Darden MBA and executive education programs is pretty consistent with these “shoulds.” Our mission statement calls for us to “develop leaders in the world of practical affairs.” We develop leadership qualities with messy case studies, simulations, team projects, and role plays. We ask questions. We motivate the student to think things through on his or her own. The frequent questions of instructors include “What do you think are the problems here?” and “What do you recommend should be done about them?” This is not necessarily a comfortable process. But after about 600 case studies in our MBA program, you get the hang of thinking integratively.

I have written about business problems, calamities, and panics. With the benefit of hindsight, I and others have reconstructed what people knew. This research has taught me that Emerson was right: the truth is in the air, for the most impressionable person to see first. Avoiding calamities, seizing opportunities, and surmounting challenges depend fundamentally on open thinking, being impressionable, and thinking integratively.

Posted by Robert Bruner at 06/23/2007 05:09:27 PM