The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking

by Roger L. Martin, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, Mass., 2007, 224 pp., $26.95 hardcover

Reading the latest how-to books in business leadership is a strategy that many education leaders employ to stay abreast of new approaches. Included on many of our reading lists are those autobiographical books from successful corporate executives who share their secrets.



In The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking, Roger Martin contends that simply replicating these CEOs’ techniques may not have the same positive outcomes, as each situation is different. Martin proposes we instead focus on how these successful leaders think rather than what they do. The premise of his book focuses on instituting integrative thinking — the ability to hold two opposing ideas in your mind at once and reach a synthesis that includes components of both, thereby improving each position.

His book includes interviews and cases from successful business leaders, including Meg Whitman from eBay and Bob Young of Red Hat Software, to articulate his call for a different kind of thinking in leadership. From these, Martin promotes a model for developing integrative thinking by adopting the right stance (assumptions and behaviors), using integrative tools (generative reasoning, causal modeling and assertive inquiry) and drawing on your own experiences.

In Martin’s model, integrative thinking involves four steps: salience (What features do I see as important?), causality (How do I make sense of what I see?), architecture (What tasks will I do in what order?) and resolution (How will I know when I am done?). Compared to conventional thinking, which he defines as the art of settling for second best, the practice of integrative thinking helps us to identify more features of the problem as salient, consider multidirectional and nonlinear causality, visualize the whole while working on individual parts, and search for creative resolutions of tension.

Education leaders will be particularly interested in the chapters on how integrative thinkers move beyond trade-offs and come to resolution.

Reviewed by Lane B. Mills, associate professor of educational leadership, East Carolina University, Greenville, N.C.