In his book The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership
, Steven Sample, former president of the University of Southern California, introduces the concept of “thinking gray” and defines it as the following:
“… don’t form an opinion about an important matter until you’ve heard all the relevant facts and arguments, or until circumstances force you to form an opinion without recourse to all the facts …”
Sample notes that thinking gray stands in contrast to conventional wisdom, which prizes quick and decisive judgements between opposing options. Such binary thinking may be useful for those dealing with “fight-or-flight situations,” but it comes with three risks:
- Forming an opinion too quickly can shut out additional information and arguments that may subsequently come up.
- Flip-flopping: committing to one perspective and then needing to change it later can lead to the impression that the leader is confused or opportunistic.
- Because there is a natural tendency for people to “believe what they sense is strongly believed by others,” there is a risk of succumbing to a herd mentality.
According to Sample, a “truly effective leader, however, needs to be able to see the shades of gray inherent in a situation in order to make wise decisions as to how to proceed.”
In the world of literature, the value of suspending judgement was famously captured by nineteenth century poet John Keats, with his concept of “Negative Capability.”
For Keats, Negative Capability represents the quality that forms “a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously.”