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How do you become an independent thinker?

Knowing what it takes to be an independent thinker is essential for becoming an effective individual. Well before entertaining the ambition to become a leader.

“I don’t pay you to think; I pay you to execute.”—Retired CEO of Retail Chain.

From 2007 until 2011, I worked for a retail chain in the United States. The chain flourished during the nineties when it expanded aggressively, growing to over 1200 stores in a few years.

You can only grow with tens of stores per year when your operation is a perfectly oiled machine that executes flawlessly. I’ve heard the stories; I’ve seen the process. It was impressive.

It was beyond impressive! 

Until expansion slowed down. Walmart had started its massive growth. Competition was increasing. The business model got under pressure. Sales were slowing down, margins were narrowing, and customers were getting more options. 

What had worked before no longer worked now.

Rapid construction turned into complacency. People who had been paid for years to execute the business model no longer knew how to solve the issues. 

The so successful CEO quoted above had created an environment where nobody felt safe to think for themselves. Everybody was looking (up) to him for answers. Unfortunately, what had worked before was no longer working. The competition had closed in and often at better prices. Business was getting worse. A few CEO changes didn’t help either.

Ultimately, only one thing worked: invest in the company and change the culture. 

The entire process of upgrading the stores and changing the culture took more than three years. EVERY associate was touched in the process. That’s not how it usually works. Executives go offsite for two days, and frontline employees get a two-hour online watered-down version of the program.

To summarize the entire transformation in a few words, the company went from a command and control culture to a culture of inspiration and empowerment. In this culture, people at all levels are empowered to do what’s right for their customers.

A culture where people were allowed to think and be listened to.

How do you build such a culture?

There’s a straightforward answer to that question and a more complex answer. The straightforward answer is this:

…You decide.

It took one person, in this case, a new CEO, to decide that things would be different and that this transformation was the only priority.

This CEO understood that Culture IS Strategy!!!

Great CEOs understand how transformation works.
You decide, make it your strategy, and then you execute relentlessly. 

As Lao Tzu stated:

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a simple step.”

Lau Tzu

In this case, the first step is the decision.

The process leading to the decision was a journey of many years, different leaders, ups and downs, millions of power points, influencers, doubters, analysis paralysis, data left, right, top, and bottom, consultants, you name it.

Nothing worked long-term and sustainably. Looking back, only one thing worked: a complete overhaul of the culture.

Like many decisions, that decision is not just a matter of ratio. It’s also a matter of emotions and intuition.

As human beings, we’re not wired to decode emotions and decide which are relevant. We often decide to leave emotions and feelings out of the decision-making process.

Let me give you an example.

I’m invited to a company get-together after work. I’m hesitating to go. I’m tired and hungry and would like to go home. How will I decide? I can just follow my intuition, listen to the fact that I’m tired and hungry, and go home.

But what if I sat with my feelings and emotions a little? Is being tired and hungry a relevant feeling? The party will definitely have food, so being hungry is irrelevant.

Also, I know that when I go to a party, I often get a second wind and feel energized. Therefore, tiredness and hunger are less relevant. 

What is relevant is that I like to be in a social setting. Talking to my colleagues gives me energy, and it’s also good for my projects to be visible. 

If I had taken more time to analyze my feelings, I might have decided differently. 

We often analyze certain decisions to death because we don’t decode our emotions and feelings. We want all the data we can find to justify our decision or reject our idea. 

But sometimes, we know deep inside what the right decision is. We’re just scared of the consequences of facing the unknown. Or we don’t trust our feelings because our experience tells us something different.

Knowing what it takes to be an independent thinker is essential for becoming an effective individual. Well before entertaining the ambition to become a leader.

Erikjan Lantink

Being an independent thinker does not mean thinking and deciding without observing your context or listening to your stakeholders.

Being independent is also not the same as being isolated and detached from your surroundings. Narcissists are often the ones who believe only their own thoughts and tend to downplay the input they get from everyone else.

As mentioned above, independence also doesn’t mean there’s no place for feelings and emotions. It’s essential to examine your feelings and emotions and not take them at face value.

Therefore, independent thinking is not silo thinking. There’s always context and influence. It’s what we do with that that makes us independent thinkers.

Independent thinkers have the following qualities:

  • They are self-aware.
  • They are skilled listeners and communicators.
  • They are curious about the input from others.
  • They can observe their context.
  • They check their feelings and emotions and learn how to decode them for relevance.
  • They are not influenced by titles or social status.
  • They know when it’s time to conform and when it’s time to hold their position.
  • They know when it’s time to decide and take action.

Great companies LOVE to hire, grow, and develop independent thinkers. They want people to think for themselves.

Great companies appreciate, and some even encourage, diversity of thought. But, culture can also lead to sameness, leading to the same thinking, which can be dangerous. You want diversity of thought.

Great companies create freedom within a framework. 

That framework is the system of purpose, values, strategy, long-term goals, and the desired culture. The core values are freedom and responsibility.

Within that framework, people are free to be who they are, think for themselves, and decide as they see fit for the company and themselves. They do what’s right and feel free to do so.

Your turn: Are you an independent thinker? Does your company allow you to be one?

Erikjan

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Erikjan Lantink
Business & Leadership Coach

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