Are Your Brain Cells Aligned and in Working Order?

Henry Ford has been quoted as saying that thinking is the most difficult work there is, which is probably why so few people engage in it.  When I use this quote in my classes, students without fail tend to smile and even giggle.  If it were not such a tragedy, I would have smiled as well!

I think he had some part of the truth! People tend to not think for themselves, as they tend to feel like failures when something goes wrong with a venture/program/project they had used their brain cells on!

I once came across an article, “Teaching Entrepreneurship through the Classics”, that addressed an important part of entrepreneurship, i.e. thinking!  I love the example of Hamlet by Shakespeare. Those of you who dealt with it at school, will remember that Hamlet dated a girl with the name of Ophelia. Her father, Polonius, was the Chief of Staff of the King of Denmark. You will also remember that Hamlet was telling everybody who would listen, and also those that didn’t, that the King had murdered his father, married his mother , and stole his throne. The poor Polonius – this was not just a career-limiting situation! In those days it was somewhat of a life-limiting situation!

One fine day Polonius saw Ophelia chatting to a guy. When he asked her who it was, she replied it was a friend of Hamlet’s. Polonius looked at his daughter and asked her what she thought of Hamlet. She looked at him and probably thought to herself: “Do you really think I am such an idiot that I will tell you the truth?”

Her response was: “I don’t know Daddy. What should I think of Hamlet?” If she really had a mind of her own, she should have told dear daddy that Hamlet was the love of her life and that she was going to marry him and they were going to have 10 kids and grow old together!  However, that was defintley not her response!

If Polonius really had his daughter’s best interests at heart, he would probably have told her the following: “My dear, you’re dating this guy. It is clear he has better taste than you have. But it is you who need to make up your mind!”

But what did he tell her? “Think yourself a babe and I will tell you exactly what to think of Hamlet!” And then he does!

What is the moral of the story?

Managers don’t think for themselves for a reason. It is not just because it is a difficult job. We have also been brainwashed as we grew up. Check out the following:

  • Children at school always want to know what sir/miss wants them to know.  It creates a safe environment.  School children love playing the role of Ophelia.  After all, they need to pass the grade, and giving the teachers what they want is a sure way of succeeding in this.
  • Teachers at school like the power of knowing everything. Or so they think in any case.  It is a power position that is intoxicating!  They love the role of Polonius.
  • Students at varsity are like the children at school.  “Please Professor, tell me what to think, and please do not ask me for my own opinion – just now it might be wrong and then my grades will be screwed!”  They make wonderful Ophelias.
  • Professors at varsity are even more intoxicated by the illusion of power.  They are masters at playing the role of Polonius, and the system actually encourages this narcissistic situation.
  • Junior managers at organisations are only too bloody scared to develop a mind of their own, as here it really becomes career limiting if my thoughts are “wrong” and lead to negative consequences.  The idea that organisations strive towards becoming learning organisations where we encourage risk taking and learn from our mistakes, only manifest in case studies at business schools and are not really the norm.
  • Senior managers are also only comfortable with you using your brains to think outside the box if that box is still within the confines of their own box!  Heaven help you if your outside the box thinking takes your manager to a space outside his/her own box!  My students frequently tell me that it is great for me to tell them to think for themselves, but that it is really their managers  who need to be in class to hear this story.

The bottom line is that we should not find it strange that people/managers do not think.  Our school system, our university system, and our organisational system actually condition us to not think for ourselves.  It is far safer to play the role of Ophelia than to break the shackles of a constraining system and put our brains to some good use.

And to make matters worse, the Ophelias of today become the Polonius’ of tomorrow. The victims of today are the oppressors of tomorrow!

So what do we need to do?

We first need to convert the Polonius’ of the world into people who grow and develop the talent they have.  Jim Collins refers to Level 5 Leaders.  He and Jerry Porras talk of “being clock builders and not time-tellers.”  That is what we need.  People who are comfortable within themselves and have high levels of EQ and SQ.  They tend to be scarce however.

We need to be serious about the need to develop learning organisations and not just pay lip-service to the idea.  We need to be serious about developing what Seth Godin calls “linchpins”.  People who are not afraid to create art by giving of themselves and bringing about change by doing so. As Seth tells us, a cook using a recipe is not an artist.  Someone creating a cullinary masterpiece by digging deep within him/herself, is an artist.  This, however, does require that person to think for him/herself!

And we as individuals need to dig deep within ourselves.  We need to get to know that person who we shave or make up in the morning.  We need to make peace with that person deep within ourselves.  The alternative is a life that is boring and humiliating.  Break out!

Are you an Ophelia?  A Polonius?  It is time you break the mold and starting using your gray matter for the purpose the Good Lord gave it to you.  Start thinking for yourself!  It might just be an experience you like and can get used to!  You really have nothing of lasting value to lose.

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4 Responses

  1. Louw Burger says:

    All true. But make sure you follow the steps. before empowerment comes another e-word – EQUIPPING. Tom Peters includes Controls in his Thriving on Chaos masterpiece after he spells out Customer Focus, Innovation, Leadership etc. A leading SA bank discovered many, many loan lossses after empowering their managers to make loans without equipping them to make sound credit decisions. So, teach your people to think for themselves and blossom but the business baby must not follow the bathwater down the drain. Not easy.

    • johanhburger says:

      Quite true. It never is easy to get your people to think. And it does not mean that you do take out all control measures. It is a long process where you start with growing and training your people. Some things are not negotiable. the German army developed a philosophy called “auftragstaktik” – mission-oriented tactics. The purpose was to get their men – officers and other ranks – to think for themselves and deal with the situation presented to them, within the parameters of the commander’s intent. It also requires you to help your people develop into becoming double and even tripple-loop learners, where you start questioning the paradigm as well.

  2. Abel says:


    I totally agree with you. There is one thing though that is more difficult than thinking. It is to write down what you are thinking in a correct, clear and concise manner. In SA, in particular, we don’t have enough people who share what they are thinking with those around them by writing it down. How many books are being written in SA by those who lead and manage? And yet, we as South Africans need to share our successes and experiences of leading and managing in a complex environment with those in the rest of the world. We don’t do that.

  3. carl says:

    Good reading…I find that “thinking for yourself” is like becoming fit, the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Where I am, people are not accustomed to think for themselves and unfortunately, because one becomes so involved and consumed in… and by, day to day activities, one do not find the time to “train” them to think. This also implies that creativeness is lost, as most “thinking” is focused on reactive thoughts and not really proactive? To cut a long story short, optimised managing is not for sissy’s!