Leader's guide to mental rebooting

Strategy & Leadership

ISSN: 1087-8572

Article publication date: 1 October 2004


Henry, C. (2004), "Leader's guide to mental rebooting", Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 32 No. 5. https://doi.org/10.1108/sl.2004.26132eae.001



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Leader's guide to mental rebooting

Craig Henrya long-time reviewer for Strategy & Leadership, is a marketing consultant in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He has held marketing management positions with First Chicago, First Union, and John Deere.

Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People's Minds

Howard GardnerPublished by Harvard Business School Press, 2004, 256 pp.

When a book carries a title like Changing Minds, we brace ourselves for a prescriptive pitch (how to sell, how to negotiate, how to influence) or a screed focused only on a narrow slice of the subject (presidential leadership or one-on-one interactions). With Howard Gardner's book, such anxieties are unwarranted. Changing Minds surveys a broad range of experience and promotes an understanding of the limits to change before it provides a model for instigating fresh thinking. The author is Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is one of the leading researchers in cognitive science. This is not a superficial treatment.

While "changing minds" is a common enough phrase, the underlying dynamic is rarely treated in business literature at length or in depth. As the author puts it, "The phenomenon of changing minds is one of the least examined and, I would claim, the least understood of familiar human experiences".

Gardner first defines what he means by "changing minds": "I shall reserve the phrase 'changing minds' for the situation where individuals or groups abandon the way in which they have customarily thought about an issue of importance and henceforth conceive of it in a new way".

Further, he is only interested in significant changes. Switching political parties counts, shifting one's lunch break from noon to 1.00 pm does not. Finally, he is only concerned with changes that also produce a change in behavior.

The author surveys the "realms" in which people try to change minds. These range from large entities like nations to small groups of friends or a family. In addition, he points out that the degree of homogeneity in the group is a critical factor in deciding how to change its mind. Moreover, the methods used can be either direct as in political leadership, or indirect as with path-breaking scientists and artists such as Darwin or Picasso. Finally, he looks at the special case of changing one's own mind.

As he explores these realms, Gardner draws on theoretical work in psychology and numerous mini-case studies. The latter includes both successful and unsuccessful attempts to change minds. Such comparisons are particularly useful. It is easy to understate the difficulty involved if we only consider those who succeed. We can better appreciate Bill Clinton's talents when we also study Newt Gingrich's failure.

Gardner identifies seven factors that come into play when we attempt to convince others to change their thinking. Like a good teacher, he makes these factors easy to remember by defining them so that each term begins with "re":

  1. 1.

    reason – logical analysis;

  2. 2.

    research – collecting and presenting data;

  3. 3.

    resonances – the affective component, "emotional fit", intuition;

  4. 4.

    redescription – the degree to which the new ideas can be portrayed in multiple ways;

  5. 5.

    resources and rewards – the benefits of changing;

  6. 6.

    real world events – which really is new data that doesn't need to be collected because it forces itself into our consciousness; and

  7. 7.

    resistances – the costs of changing.

The author points out that the more the first six work together the greater the chances that minds will be changed. But the interaction of these factors is complex and highly dependent on the realm where persuasion takes place.

For example, if resistances are high, then reason and research are usually insufficient. If a leader cannot tap into the emotional component (resonance), few minds will be changed. Similarly, when the audience is large and diverse, both resonance and redescription becomes critical.

Gardner uses Margaret Thatcher, a former UK prime minister and a conservative, as one of his most detailed and revealing examples. Thatcher's goal was to reorient Great Britain's domestic and foreign policy. It could be stated as a simple story: Britain, once great, had lost its way and needed to find it again. Thatcher could tell her story at length in Parliament (reason and research). But it could also be compressed into campaign posters and sound bites (redescription). The call for a return to greatness had emotional resonance. There is also no doubt that real-world events helped make her case; the stagflation of the 1970s seemed to underline the failure of the prevailing economic policy.

Gardner also shows that there was more to Thatcher's leadership than rhetoric and opportunism. Her own rise from modest beginnings showed that individuals could do great things, and therefore, the nation could as well. Her personal and political courage provided further inspiration and helped overcome resistances. Thatcher "embodied" her story and that made it more powerful.

This part of Changing Minds is useful for any manager or executive who operates in a group setting. Gardner's seven "re-factors" make us aware of the complex and multifaceted nature of leading change. All too often we approach such efforts only through reason and research and, thus, reduce the odds of success. By identifying the crucial role of resonance, redescription, and resistances, Gardner shows a more rounded picture of what is involved in change management.

This reviewer found Gardner's discussion of changing one's own mind to be one of the most valuable and insightful sections in the book. It is easy to assume that a stubborn refusal to change one's thinking is a sign of lower intelligence or anti-intellectualism. Gardner shows, however, that a high IQ and education do not automatically yield a greater willingness to rethink one's beliefs. He writes: "Intellectuals are particularly susceptible to the tensions of cognitive dissonance. When an occurrence runs counter to their theory, they are highly motivated to reinterpret events to eliminate the inconsistency". Unfortunately, intelligence can make it easier to formulate clever reinterpretations that eliminate the dissonance and preserve the flawed theory.

Changing Minds will not make an executive persuasive 100 percent of the time. Nor will it ensure that a leader's own mind will always be flexible. But it does pack a career's worth of insight into a very readable book. It is far more serious in its approach than the typical "how-to" manual. No book can provide a detailed road map to changing minds in every organization. What Gardner has done, however, is show us how to read the lay of the land and how to prepare for the trip. That is more than enough to make this book highly recommended.