Book Review: The Objective Leader

How to Leverage the Power of Seeing Things as They Are by Elizabeth R. Thornton

When Elizabeth Thornton lost a million dollars in an international fruit juice business in the late 1990s, she took a hard look at herself and what drove her decisions. What she came to realize, after studying psychology, neuroscience and entrepreneurship, was that her subjective, emotional approach was her undoing.

In “The Objective Leader,” Thornton, who works as a professor of management practice at Babson College, explores how human beings are hardwired to shape their perceptions of the world around them rather than, as the book’s subtitle states, “seeing things as they are.” She follows these observations with a process for recognizing these inherent biases and overcoming them to make rational decisions firmly grounded in the real world.

Thornton begins her attack on irrationality by making the unseen visible. She offers five common “mental models” that inhibit clear thinking, and says that these models are like movies we project onto reality, blocking our view of it. They include:

  • External validation – Needing others to like us and think we are smart
  • Competition – Constantly comparing ourselves with others to determine our value
  • Perfectionism – Feeling the need to be perfect in everything we do
  • Control – Basing our self-worth on how well we can control people and outcomes
  • Insecurity – Being unable to accept ourselves as we are

By simply recognizing these models in ourselves, Thornton says, we are taking the first step toward objectivity. Scattered throughout the book are practical exercises to identify which models influence one’s own decision-making, including these four crucial steps:

  1. Reflect on a situation in which you responded less than objectively. Why did you feel the way you did? What underlying assumptions did you make?
  2. Consider what you think about yourself and what you think others think of you. Do you agree with others’ assessment?
  3. What are your recurrent thoughts? What are you constantly thinking about or coming back to? What is the tone of these thoughts?
  4. Write down what you are afraid of.      

It’s significant that Thornton’s exercises consist of thoughtful, open-ended questions rather than something more formulaic. They reflect the depth and intellectual rigor of the book as a whole, which doesn’t offer pat solutions but rather a process for becoming more self-aware, understanding oneself better and making decisions that lead to innovation, clear communication and successful collaboration.

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