Thinking Like a Leader

Mario Sikora
Jan 15, 2012
Like many symbols, the Enneagram makes convenient scaffolding for intellectual constructs. Attempts to create memorable and useful maps and models are often enhanced by a visual pattern. They help the learning process because easily remembered logical patterns help the concepts to which they are attached take root in the brain.
One of the reasons that the Enneagram is so compelling is because of its striking visual pattern, which comprises simple interlocking patterns that create a robust system. Yes, the descriptions of the Ennea-types is useful and valid, but I believe that one of the reason the Enneagram sticks with people is because of the impact of the logic of the visual patterns.

Over the years of working with leaders I have taken advantage of this scaffolding to create a leadership model that describes a set of attributes related to a leader’s self mastery, relationships with others, and habits of thinking. Mapping these attributes to the Enneagram not only creates memorability, it also helps to highlight the dynamic interrelationships of these attributes. That is, rather than just seeing the qualities as discreet and independent competencies, mapping them to the diagram helps people better understand how they can support (or impede) each other.

It is important to recognize that there is nothing magical about the scaffolding, and that no model placed on top of the scaffolding is complete or perfect. Leadership is a complex endeavor, and no list of leadership qualities or traits will be complete in and of itself. That said, I have found this model to be a useful foundation upon which to build.

As stated above, the model covers three broad areas: self-mastery(which can essentially be understood as self-motivated behavioral change), relationships with others (particularly subordinates), and leadership thinking(habits of mind that improve judgment and decision-making).

This series of blog posts will address the three attributes related to leadership thinking: rigor, curiosity, and creativity, which, in this model, correlate to points 1, 7, and 4 of the Enneagram, respectively. Again, I want to emphasize that there is nothing inherent in these points of the Enneagram diagram that correlate to these attributes, it is simply a useful and sensible heuristic that fits nicely with some general concepts about the Enneagram of personality. It is not to imply that Ones are necessarily more rigorous, Sevens more curious, or Fours more creative that people of other types.

Effective leadership thinking is a big topic, so we’ll break it down into parts. We’ll start off with why it’s important, and then discuss some of the obstacles to effective thinking. In future blog posts I’ll talk about these three attributes in more depth, along with some resources and exercises for developing each of them.

Before I explain why I chose these three attributes to focus on, it would help to explain why effective thinking is so important for leaders.

I’ve coached leaders in a variety of small and large organizations for nearly 15 years and I can comfortably say that they tend to be smarter than average. Management theorist Elliot Jacques1 makes a very compelling case that as you go higher in an organization, the more raw intelligence a leader needs to have because he or she must be able to handle more and more complex sets of variables. That is, you have to be smart to think through the complexity of managing 20 people and a budget of, say, $5 million; but the complexity of running a $3 billion business unit with 10,000 employees requires even more native computing power. However, having the requisite raw intelligence is not enough; the best leaders have good systems for thinking and processes for sorting and analyzing information. These systems vastly improve the quality of their judgment and decision making, which improve their business results. Good business results allow them to progress in their careers.

(It is important to point out that requisite intelligence is not necessarily sufficient for leadership success. A variety of other factors come into play—choosing good talent, for example, and having the self-confidence to empower that talent. Emotional intelligence (EI) is critical to leadership success. EI comprises a variety of competencies ranging from self-awareness and self-management to empathy and political awareness, and a deficiency in this “intelligence” is often the downfall of even the smartest people. However, what much of the literature on emotional intelligence indicates is that EQ is a success factor that separates people with the requisite IQ to do their job. It is not a replacement for requisite thinking skills.)

I’m often bemused by the downplaying of the importance of good critical thinking in some circles, particularly in the postmodern-influenced academic and new-age spiritual circles, which tout “other ways of knowing” and the equivalence of individual “truths.” Likewise, the world of punditry thrives on pushing opinion, rather than critical analysis of facts, through charisma, emotion, and volume. This tendency shouldn’t be a surprise, however; when the consequences of one’s decision-making and analytical skills are insignificant, there is little reason to rigorously challenge your emotionally attractive biases. When the consequences are substantial, the cost of not valuing these skills is much more obvious.

Take for example, the emphasis on Evidence-Based Practice in the medical profession2, the CIA’s emphasis on critical thinking and analysis3, and the US Army’s focus on rigorous after-action reviews4. These are areas where lives are on the line, and I am grateful that people in these fields take the time to develop rigor.

Most businesses are not a matter of life or death, but the stakes are high. The way leaders think influences their decisions, their decisions influence the company’s success, and the company’s success determines whether or not their employees have jobs and their investors have secure retirements.

How leaders think matters.


So why these three attributes: rigor, curiosity, and creativity?

The word rigor has a number of definitions, and in this case I am referring to the “strict precision” of thought. Leaders who think well bring strict precision to their analysis of information. They are constantly inundated with data from a variety of sources, including subordinates, bosses, customers, and vendors, all of whom have their own agendas and may be working on partial or incorrect data. The leader needs to understand how to effectively challenge data because decisions based on poor evidence results in poor decisions.

In essence, effective leaders apply the scientific method:

·       They form a provisional clear and precise hypothesis based on empirical observation;

·       They rigorously test their hypothesis, seeking first to justify the hypothesis and then to try to falsify (disprove) their own hypothesis;

·       They control for variables and retest their hypothesis;

·       They draw a conclusion but always remain open to the significance of new data, revising their conclusion as appropriate.

Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? And one might fear that it leads to rigidity (another definition of rigor is “harsh inflexibility,” which is just as problematic as the lack of rigor). This is a legitimate concern, and the effective leader learns to apportion their rigor to the consequences of the decision. Decisions that have small consequences (such as, what shall I have for lunch?) can be less rigorous and more intuition-based; decisions with great consequences (such as, should we move our manufacturing to a low-cost country?) require more rigor and less reliance on intuition5.

Overdone, rigor can be lifeless and sterile, focused more on why things can’t be done than on what canbe done. Those familiar with the Enneagram can easily see the correlation to Ennea-type One and, as with personality type, it is not the strategy itself that is problem, it is whether one is applying it to much, too little, or just enough. Likewise with rigor; the right amount is important. Too much can unnecessarily slow down the decision making process; too little leads to flawed decisions.

In the illustration that accompanies this post, the vertical arrow represents the need to calibrate the degree of rigor to the situation.

Rigor by itself does not make for effective thinking, however, and rigor must be supported by curiosity and creativity.

Curiosity, which correlates to point Seven of the Enneagram in this model, is inquisitiveness and an eager desire to know. Curiosity is not goal-directed beyond this desire to know, and the most curious minds pursue knowledge and information for the pure pleasure of the pursuit and the knowing. For leaders, this curiosity involves the pursuit of knowledge in areas that may not have a direct impact on business decisions. It is inquisitiveness about other people and how they live, it is the attempt to know things about the world with an understanding that those things may never prove useful in an obvious way. At the same time, the curious leader knows that one never knows what person or piece of information willprove useful one day, and that the broader the scope of one’s knowledge is the more likely he or she will have the a piece of information at the time it becomes useful, or at least a better idea of how to find an answer.

Unchecked curiosity can be a problem, however, because it can lead to a lack of discipline and action. The leader should always work on developing and satisfying their curiosity, but it must exist in a dynamic tension with the attribute at the other corner of the triangle, creativity.

Creativity is the ability to create, and create means “to produce or bring about by a course of action or behavior.” While we tend to think of creativity as imaginative, “outside-the-box” thinking, here it is the desire to act and bring something into being that didn’t exist before. Again, those familiar with the Enneagram can easily see the correlation between creativity and Ennea-type Four.

Creativity and curiosity make rigor alive and vibrant, and they exist in a supportive but dynamically tense yin-and-yang relationship. Too much curiosity and nothing gets done; too much creativity and what gets done is not very interesting. Some situations require us to flex more toward creativity; others require us to flex the other way. The horizontal arrow in the diagram represents this tension.

As the arrows indicate, there are no fixed answers to how a leader must think. He or she must have all three qualities and use them in proportion to the circumstances.

There is more to say on each of these attributes and how one can develop them further, and I will elaborate in future posts.

The next blog, however, will focus on the built in flaws in our cognitive abilities that are the biggest obstacles to effective thinking.


1Jacques, Elliot, and Stephen D Clement, Executive Leadership: A Practical Guide to Managing Complexity.
5Psychologist Gary Klein has done interesting work around the value of intuitive responses in emergency situations that can be applied in some leadership situations. See this article for an interesting discussion between him and Daniel Kahneman, who takes a more analytical approach.

Recent Posts

Ignorance: We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

By Mario Sikora Part of an ongoing series of articles on clear-thinking skills, excerpted from “How to Think Well, and Why: The Awareness to Action Guide to Clear Thinking” by Mario Sikora (available at In the last set of articles, we...