July 2004 Insight Newsletter

Ability to See Contrasting Views Defines Intelligence

‘The companies that succeed will be those that find ways
to meet contradictory pressures…’
– Angel Cabrera,
International Business Professor

Intelligence can be a touchy subject due to early
experience. Now research shows many more forms of it as
experts try to capture a truer meaning. A term with great
currency today – Emotional Intelligence – springs from
studies showing 5 to 25 elements that go beyond old
definitions. Yet at its base the biting description by an
author noted for brilliant intellect, F. Scott Fitzgerald,
remains accurate: “the ability to hold two opposed ideas
in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to
function.” Newer definitions simply add that it isn’t just
ideas, but emotions and views of the world for which
opposing approaches must be kept in mind.

1. Seeing “Opposing Ideas”

On the way to learning leadership skill, the readings that
brought this together for me all came from Zen. People
admire the calm that results from its principles. A great
deal of that depends on being able to hold opposed ideas
in mind comfortably, to find ways of reconciling them.
More than just intelligence, this takes practice in
creative thinking.

I was lucky to experience a flash of what Zen masters
call “Satori” or instant enlightenment early in adult life
while facing contradictory problems that made me want to
give up. Years later I heard personal growth guru Tony
Robbins say it another way, “Frustration means you’re
about to break through.”

Applying Zen readings I realized how my opposing
challenges could both be true, could work together and
would actually be the source of a lot of new ideas. The
internal struggle to pick one route or the other
evaporated. What relief. I wasn’t sure what it meant I
would eventually do, but as Zen masters claim, at the
moment of Satori I laughed out loud. I saw a route that
would work – to keep both in balance. This path toward
that insight – embracing intense contradictions – stayed
with me and forms the basis of every solution and every
comment I make about leadership.

This appears in common slang when we ask “can he walk and
chew gum at the same time?” It’s amazing how often I asked
this silently about people who were a struggle to deal
with. Most often they lack not the ability, but the
practice or willingness to see two sides of a question,
something that always helps. Helping them find a sample
contradiction in their own lives could often help them see
through whatever roadblock we were facing.

I found and promoted the strongest executives I ever
worked with based on key one premise – that they could
learn the new job because they had tremendous common sense
and problem-solving ability – insight into how to get
around conflicts and contradictions to find something
workable in any situation. Common sense is the form of
intelligence I came to value most.

Practicing to see several sides of any question is
amazingly easy. It’s a skill that transfers. It works
across many problems. All that’s required is to catch
yourself asking, “WHICH is it” and substitute “HOW can
BOTH work together?” ‘Which is it’ immediately requires a
choice of “either/or.” It means leaping to a conclusion
right away with a single answer. There’s no exploration or
investigation required. It says, “you know the answer,
choose it and let’s get on with it… now.” Why are we
always in such a rush?

Job hunters, for example, often ask me, “Should I tell the
truth on my resume or make it sound really good?” (Which
is it?) Of course the answer is: Both! Tell the truth AND
make it sound really good. It may take a bit of time to
figure out how, but it’s a better answer in the long run.

Problems, by definition, are things we don’t currently
know the answer to. Practice changing the question to “how
might both work” takes us toward “win-win” solutions.
That’s where both you AND I get our needs met.
This “both/and” approach to questions appears in every
analysis of leadership skill because the entire point of
leadership is bringing people together, aligning future
goals and objectives. It getting there so everyone
participates as much as possible. Searching for these
solutions demonstrates a level of curiosity and
willingness to explore better alternatives that
exceeds “either/or” questions.

Top notch executive recruiters say the most distinctive
skill they seek in the most senior executives is
curiosity – a practice of seeking solutions to questions
that haven’t been asked. That’s a pretty good definition
of leadership incidentally if you include following
through on the answers.

In future newsletters we’ll explore how this “both/and”
question can resolve problems at every level within
individuals and organizations. It’s an inexhaustible
supply of solutions to our inexhaustible supply of

2. Useful Resources

As always, Google and other handy search engines will
churn up lots of interesting stuff. Today, I’d try
Emotional Intelligence to get to the mother load of
material being collected on what makes for smart
management. Books by Daniel Goleman or Stephen Stein are
the core readings, but there’s now lots of stuff including
sites like this which even offers a “free” online test (with other purchases).

3. Humor is also a Creative Antidote

As with every other area, if you can keep your sense of
humor you not only stay in balance, you likely find better
solutions. The essence of humor is the surprise ending,
the twist you didn’t expect that matches up “two opposing
ideas” in a practical sense, like the ancient Vaudeville
jokes my grandfather told: “I didn’t know your mother was
a magician….. till I saw her coming down the street…
and she turned into a grocery store.” Developing a sense
of playfulness at seeking opposing ideas can certainly
help and also eases the sense of struggle with challenging