“Great minds think alike.” I remember hearing this saying as a child.
Over time, I’ve come to realise that, interestingly, statements such as this can sit inside our psyche and become our base code. And the results aren’t always helpful.
As a youngster, my desire to be part of a group and belong was incredibly strong. After living in Singapore for a while, my family and I moved back to Australia. I desperately wanted to fit in; I didn’t want to be different. Most kids feel this way. Statements such as “great minds think alike” went deep into my need to belong.
I wanted to be a great mind. I wanted to think alike. I didn’t want to stand apart from everyone else.
Now that I’m older, I think about statements like this in a very different way. While I see and accept the usefulness of thinking alike and gaining consensus at times, I see even more value in thinking differently and having contrarian views.
You see, the ability to think differently allows for a much deeper investigation of the issues at hand. It paves the way for richer, more profound conversations than what we would usually have if our thinking always conformed.
Think about it for a moment. If we always followed the path of “great minds think alike”, wanting to blend in and conform, what would the potential consequences be? What would it mean for our organisations and us as leaders?
My view is that thinking alike often leads to a herd mentality (also known as mob or pack mentality). If you haven’t heard this term before, Wikipedia offers a helpful definition. It says a herd mentality is when people are “influenced by their peers to adopt certain behaviours on a largely emotional, rather than rational, basis. When individuals are affected by mob mentality, they may make different decisions than they would have individually.”
I think this is something to be very mindful of as we lead our teams and, indeed, ourselves. This desire for great minds to think alike, for great organisations to think alike, can be extremely damaging when not managed carefully. It doesn’t allow for diversity and, in my view, it doesn’t allow or encourage creativity and genius to appear and flourish.
So, why do we continue to try to live up to this statement? Either unconsciously or consciously. “Great minds think alike” may seem like something worth striving for. It makes us feel safe, worthy, like we belong. Because surely, if we think and act like everyone else, we must be great, too?
But believing great minds thinking alike can cast a shadow over our teams and people. It means we encourage them to behave in a way that constricts their thinking, limiting it to an extent that the outcome is less than it could or should have been. The bias to conformance allows no fresh or raw thing to occur. Certainly no dangerous thinking toward the leading or bleeding edge where our organisation may need to head. The place where useful tension manifests creative and innovative ideas.
Great minds think alike” also has an interesting connection to the rise of the tribe inside our business communities. In recent years, we’ve seen what I believe is an overuse of the idea of the “tribe” – as defined by Seth Godin in his book, Tribes – that is not necessarily useful or helpful.
A tribe is a group of people with connection at its core. They are connected to each other, they are connected to their leader, and – here’s the kicker – they are connected, even anchored to an idea, often blindly.
For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group only needs two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a shared way of communicating.
Even today, in this modern world, our desire for connection, identification and belonging persists, such that we herd or tribe together in our organisations and communities.
Now, please, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying our desire to belong is a bad thing. What I’m suggesting is that we need to think through what is useful inside this idea of belonging, and what might not be useful.
In the tribal or herd sense, the risk of “great minds think alike” is that we revert to a group think approach. If the chief says one thing, we all must follow. As mentioned, this does not allow for creativity or the genius of the individual to appear, be recognised and worked with. The sacrifice of individual thought can be problematic for teams and organisations wanting to reach their potential, innovate and thrive.
As leaders, we need to embrace the differences that add strength and colour to our organisations, to our teams, and to ourselves. How often do we push aside our differing thoughts or perspectives, our contrarian views for fear of not fitting in, becoming like others in our thinking?
At the heart of this challenge, the ‘real work’ rests in our thinking: permitting ourselves to think in a way that may be different from the group.
Pause for a minute and reflect….. Do you give yourself the time and space to effectively process your thoughts, enabling them to become meaningful and useful?
Too often, we don’t allow ourselves the freedom to invest our time in plain, good old-fashioned thinking.
Why? There are many reasons. Our lives are full, hectic, consumed by busy-ness. We all have a range of excuses.
I would offer, though, that at the heart of our reluctance to think differently is that it is simply hard work. To step outside the norm and hold a different view, in a way that allows us to create something new or fresh, is not easy. Thinking it can be a grind.
Thinking also makes us go a little deeper inside ourselves and question long-held beliefs and assumptions. This can be very uncomfortable. Base coding, as I mentioned at the start, is well-rooted in our opinions, our psyche, and ourselves.
Good solid thinking makes us wrestle with those depths and lift our eyes upwards. Requiring us to shift and lift our base code. As Elie Wiesel said, “Think higher, feel deeper.”
As leaders, is it time we enabled our people to step outside the paradigm of “great minds think alike”? To enable them to think higher, feel deeper, and explore the creativity, and the great power that goes beyond thinking alike?
Is it time we allowed ourselves to challenge the status quo and do our own thinking?
As leaders, managers, and even as individuals, we need to be mindful that this process requires openness and that we do not hold this lightly. We must encourage contrarian thinking with curiosity, without judgement or force. Remember, there is significant value in allowing this to happen – for the individual, for teams, for the business, and for you as a leader.
I’ll let you in on a little known truth, there is a second part to the headline quote that’s often forgotten and rarely discussed. And that is, “great minds think alike and fools seldom differ.” The actual quote is usually only half said, so we miss its warning: while great minds may think alike, fools may not think differently from each other, either. Interesting tension there!
A final thought I’d like to give you to work with is this: Is it that great minds think alike, or is it the great minds like a think?
Maybe it’s worth investing some time each day, for you as an individual and for the people in your team, to find the space to think, to generate ideas that are different, to explore, to query, to take the walls down and allow yourself to roam a little more freely. It’s time to free-range our thinking.
And remember, be kind to yourself and others throughout this process.