Developing Leaders: The Key is in Teaching Them How to Think

Fourth of five parts

By David Goldsmith with Lorrie Goldsmith

With each passing year, the number of job candidates who are qualified for leadership positions decreases. That means eventually you’ll have to educate the leaders of the future, if you’re not doing so already.

Countless numbers of leaders gain much of their education from on-the-job training, where they watch and mimic the behaviors of others. This has its merits, but the serious downside is that the leaders in the making aren’t necessarily learning how their mentoring leader thinks.

You could watch a master gardener plant a rose bush and duplicate the behavior but still not understand the gardener’s reasoning for selecting where that bush was planted, how it will be affected by other plants around it, and how to care for the plant in different seasons. This example shows how on the surface, actions can seem simple to duplicate, but when you try to act on your own without the rationale behind the actions, you can easily find yourself at a loss.

Teach thought rather than action

The necessity of transferring thinking skills to new recruits is a big part of what makes being the teacher so challenging.

When you teach leadership, talking about what you do isn’t always as important as teaching people how you think. Therefore, it may be more important to explain the series of thoughts that have led to a decision rather than the series of actions that have resulted in an outcome when you’re grooming decision makers.

From my work around the globe, I consistently see a vast majority of decision-makers who miss this distinction between teaching thought versus teaching action.

Consider this “teaching moment” — Imagine that you have to fire an employee. Members of your management team watch him enter your office, emerge a few minutes later, clean out his desk, and leave. Everyone knows he missed an important deadline, but he’s only weeks away from his wedding, and this is a lousy time to lose his job.

To some members of your leadership team, you look like an ogre. To others, this situation is interpreted as a normal occurrence when employees don’t work out. However, you know that there is an entire back story to this situation that your management staff doesn’t know.

Insights into why you do what you do

So what do you do next? If your true desire is to build leaders, your next move is to explain to your team the thinking behind your actions. If you share your thoughts, others learn that this layoff wasn’t your angry response to one missed deadline. Instead, they understand how your decision came about after months of careful consideration and planning.

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You can divulge the following

You may have seen that he rarely shows up for work on time. But there is more you might not know. For the last year, we’ve had two complaints about him regarding serious misconduct, and this is the third time he’s missed an important deadline. His performance numbers have fallen off, and though I’ve worked in direct contact with him for months now to improve his performance, it’s been to no avail. Considering the new objectives for the company, I realized that he has not and will not work out. So I have let him go, but I have come up with a plan for picking up the slack until we replace him.”

If you don’t explain how you think, the next generation of leaders could mistakenly believe that leadership is about making snap decisions rather than about the mental preparedness to recognize opportunities when they come along.

Seeing inside the windows of thought

By taking the time to explain your rationale and strategy, you strengthen the leadership of your organization and your up-and-coming leaders see that seemingly quick decisions actually can take days, months, or years to generate. As you learn Enterprise Thinking, you will acquire tools and instruction on how to develop a structured thinking process for yourself to use and that you can teach to others with success.

Invaluable to the growth and development of any organization is leadership’s ability to transfer to other decision makers how and what they think. General Electric’s Jack Welch has been a prime example of this strategy. During his tenure at GE, Welch regularly used his firm’s Crotonville facility on the Hudson River to educate his team of leaders about how they can think better as leaders and managers.

In moments like these, leaders are developed. They need to see inside all the windows of thought, not just the one you remember to reveal to them on rare occasions. When you teach people how to think, you empower them to make better decisions than they would have otherwise.

Excerpted with permission from Paid to THINK: A Leaders Toolkit for Redefining Your Future, by David Goldsmith with Lorrie Goldsmith. Copyright (c) 2012, BenBella Books.

Miss the first three parts? See Paid to Think: The Benefits of Winning by a Nose, Want to be Wildly Successful? Then Make Change a Welcome Friend, and Rethink Your Concerns About Doing More With Less.

David Goldsmith is a consultant, advisor, speaker, telecast host and author. He is the President of the New York-based Goldsmith Organization , holds an MBA from Syracuse University, and served on the faculty of New York University for 12 years. Lorrie Goldsmith is co-founder of the Goldsmith Organization. You can download all the graphics associated with their book "Paid to THINK" for your organization for no charge at, and they can be reached at and


1 Comment on “Developing Leaders: The Key is in Teaching Them How to Think

  1. This piece offers an interesting point of view to leadership. I agree—while mentoring, it might be more important to teach the series of thoughts leading to a decision versus the series of actions. The WHY in leaders’ actions is often more telling then the action itself. In order to educate the upcoming leaders of the future, we must empower them with mental awareness…how to think, not what to think. – Randy Hain, Managing Partner, Bell Oaks Executive Search

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