The Inner Life: How to Think Like Barack Obama (Yes You Can!)

You change the oil in your car every 3,000 miles and call it maintenance. But how many miles has your mind clocked? Don't you think maybe it's time for a tune-up?
03/21/2009 05:12am ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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As a teacher of critical thinking skills in the workplace, I can't help noticing a distinct shift from the Ready-Fire-Aim approach of President Bush to President Obama's ability to describe his thinking process. Like the gentle reverberations of a Tibetan bell that is rung at the start of a period of meditation, the sounds of two words -- "thinking" and "education" -- cascades, like a waterfall of ideas, through the world of concepts and ideas where I prefer to hang out most of the time.

A preference for one's "inner world of concepts and ideas" over "the external world of people, activities, and things" makes me an introvert, according to Carl Jung. Introverts prefer to think about something, choose to act, then think about it again. The downside of a preference for introversion is that we can get lost in our own thoughts and not take action. On the other hand, extroverts tend to do something, think about it, and do something else. The downside of highly extroverted individuals is that they often skip over the thinking part, leading to that "Ready-Fire-Aim" pattern with which we are, sadly familiar.

This is not to say that extroverts don't know how to think or that introverts don't know how to function well in large groups. According to Jung, successful extroverts have the ability to shift their attention to the inner world of concepts and ideas when they need to think. A successful introvert is someone who can navigate successfully in the external world of people, activities and things. He or she may enjoy giving speeches, attending conferences, or partying. But there is a key difference: Under stress, an extrovert likes to get lost in a crowd. An introvert tends to surround himself with a small group of loved ones and trusted friends.

After 25 years of working with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the most widely used personality inventory in the world, I can sense that President Obama is almost equally balanced on the scale that measures Extroversion and Introversion. My hunch is that if he were to answer the questions in the MBTI as if he and he alone were going to read them, he would report out with a slight preference for introversion.

Introverts have gotten bad press over the years, partly because our society has more extroverts. In general, extroverts believe that if everyone was extroverted, the world would be a better place. Introverted children are often criticized for "reading too much," "thinking too much," "not playing with the other kids," and "not being like the other kids." It is not a fact that introverts become serial killers. Healthy introverts readily become scientists, inventors, architects, writers, and mathematicians. Introverted thinkers often grow up to be lawyers. According to a study conducted several years ago by the American Bar Association, more than 60% of lawyers report a preference for the introvert's favored "Think-Act-Think" pattern rather than the "Act-Think-Act" style favored by extroverts.

All of which helps to explain why I smile whenever the President uses the "T" word. It's a radical move on his part. America loves extroverts and tends to be somewhat suspicious of those who are, well, "different." But today's crises demand that we take a new look at thinkers. After all, they are the ones who are going to get us out of this mess. And by thinkers, I mean you.

We, the people, are in danger if we believe that it is the President's job to think for us and to solve all our problems. In truth, we cannot be of service if we don't know how to think. I believe that the first step in creating a new era of personal responsibility and service must begin with strengthening how we think.

Writing in the Washington Post, Stephen Pearlstein noted the following about the President's thinking process:

"The reason we keep getting the wrong answers, he says, is that we keep asking the wrong questions, talking about them with the wrong language and limiting ourselves with false choices. In solving our problems, the essential first step is to redefine them."

You might be wondering what this has to do with you. Sure, President Obama has a brilliant mind. You know that he knows what he does when he thinks.

Do you? Do you know how you think? Do you know what you do when you have to think something through?

Try this exercise:
Take a few minutes to write what you are thinking.

When you are done, take a look at what you have written.
Keep the following questions in mind:
Is your thinking organized? Methodical?
Do you use a charting or mapping process to keep track of the flow of your ideas?
How do you know where one stage or type of thinking ends and another one begins?

If your page of thoughts and ideas looks like random words that don't form a recognizable pattern, you are not alone. Most of us haven't the foggiest notion of what we do when we think.

Consider the following questions:
If you don't know what you do when you think, then what do you do when you solve problems?
Do you solve them without thinking?
Do you think without coming up with effective solutions?
Do you come up with solutions that temporarily fix the symptoms, only to have the same problem recur?
Are you satisfied with your thinking process? The results?

Here's the good news: You can improve how you think. There are tools and skills that you can learn. Like learning a new language or improving your golf swing, your thinking skills can improve over time. This has nothing to do with your I.Q. or how smart or 'not-smart' you think you are.

It has everything in the world to do with your beliefs and your willingness to learn.

From 1995 to 2002, I taught on the corporate circuit. My clients included The American Management Association, Bristol Myers-Squibb, Eli Lilly and Company, United Way, the Federal Reserve Bank, and The Rockefeller Foundation. My students came from all over the world: Kuwait Oil Company, Varig Airlines, a Turkish bank, and Mitsubishi. I designed and delivered hundreds of hours of management training in such subjects as critical thinking, whole-brain thinking, intuitive leadership, proactive thinking, managing change in a team environment, and thinking ahead of the curve. One of my clients, a pharmaceutical company, reported that implementing new thinking models in data management allowed them to save $43-million in 43 days, the amount of time they were able to trim off their data cleaning process.

My A.M.A. colleague Ed Caldwell of and I designed ice-breakers to jump-start our students' thinking about how the pace of change was accelerating so quickly that businesses could no longer predict what was going to happen using their old models. For their businesses and organizations to survive, their thinking cultures were going to have to change dramatically. Instead of measuring change using precedents, executives and managers would need a combination of critical and whole-brain thinking models in order to anticipate new trends and be ready to meet them.

Resilient models of thinking may not have prevented today's economic disasters, but I can't help but wonder if the Big Three automakers would be solvent today if they had implemented new models of thinking.

Before you click off this page and onto the next one, take one more look at your page of thoughts and ideas. Random? Cluttered? All over the place?

Each of us has something to learn from President Obama: Personal responsibility and service begins with clear thinking.

Consider this: You change the oil in your car every 3,000 miles and call it maintenance. But how many miles has your mind clocked? Don't you think maybe it's time for a tune-up?