Would Barack make a good president? How about McCain? Are Bishop Schofield and the local Episcopal diocese taking a needed moral stand, or contributing to religious intolerance and divisiveness? Will Britney Spears ever display stability and good parenting skills? Is High School Musical a gift to society or one more example of mindless entertainment? With regard to all of these questions, serious and trivial, for most people the natural response is to quickly form an opinion in one direction or another. This response is an example of binary thinking—the tendency to make snap judgments about good/bad, like/dislike, or right/wrong. Society, in general, reinforces and even rewards such quick decision-making, especially with our leaders. Donald Trump translates business success into reality show fame by being able to declare “You’re fired” in a five-minute board room meeting. Conversely, the presidential candidate who can’t state his or her definitive position on important positions is criticized for fuzzy thinking. But could it be that such decisiveness, for leaders and the populace, actually creates more problems than it solves?
University of Southern California president Steven B. Sample, in his book The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, claims that effective leaders practice “artful procrastination” and “thinking gray.” The leader who practices artful procrastination waits as long as possible to make important decisions, realizing that he or she doesn’t have all the needed information and that the problem may resolve itself over time. Thinking gray means that the leader suspends judgment about an issue, recognizing that not everything needs his/her definitive opinion. Both of these practices require individuals to suspend their natural tendencies toward binary thinking and wait, even for many days, to take positions on important matters. Such caution is often seen as weakness or indecision, not the hallmark of effective leaders. But, Sample argues, these practices actually help leaders, and all of us, to navigate our way through the complex issues of life, including presidential campaigns, local politics and church controversies, not to mention difficult societal issues like immigration reform. While examples of the bold, intuitive leader abound, most real issues are too complex for such an approach to succeed consistently.
When we fail to think gray we open ourselves to several temptations. First, the loudest and latest voice we hear often carries the most weight. A charismatic, convincing peer or leader shapes our opinion, at least until someone more convincing comes along, leading us to flip-flop on important issues. A similar temptation comes when we are influenced by what we think the majority of people around us believe. Sample refers to sociological studies demonstrating that nearly three-fourths of people intentionally gave a wrong answer to a question asked of a group if the rest of the group answered it wrongly as well. Most importantly, we make decisions without the benefit of all the relevant facts. When we take a position too quickly it is easy to become closed to later important arguments. While it is true that we are sometimes required to make decisions with insufficient information, it is a much rarer occurrence than we think.
Thinking gray is not a retreat to relativism or pure skepticism. We still acknowledge that there are decisions that are better than others. That some candidates will make better presidents than others. And that there are standards of right and wrong that need to govern our individual and corporate behavior. Thinking gray is also not a sign of weak-mindedness or unwillingness to decide. Rather, the person who thinks gray acknowledges that arriving at judgments regarding effectiveness, goodness and social welfare is a much more complex process than we readily admit. She or he recognizes that the issues are too important and the impact of those issues too far-reaching to shortchange the decision-making process. The one who thinks gray is trying to take the decision-making process more seriously, not less. It seems that in a year that will bring a new president to our country, a new mayor to our city, new pastors and denominational transitions to many of our churches, not to mention a host of important ballot issues, that conscientious people are required to resist our binary, polarizing impulses so we can make the best decisions possible.
Rod Reed was campus pastor and dean of spiritual formation at Fresno Pacific University. In June he took a similar position at John Brown University.