Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


“Bad Muslims” and Other Manifestations of a Simple Mindset

Bert A. Spector

In the hours and days following the June 3 rampage on London Bridge and Borough Market – a number of political leaders issued calls for travel bans and internment camps for Muslims. Predictable, maybe, but nonetheless disturbing.

Any number of commentators, not to mention federal judges, have suggested the serious shortcomings of such “solutions.”  My goal here is not to recap those arguments, but rather to make a point about the mindset of those leaders who offer simplistic responses as if they offered a solution to the complex matter of how to best deal with the threat of terror and violence across the globe.

In Discourse on Leadership, I analyzed the concept of a “mindset” and the role it plays in helping to shape leadership response to crisis situations.  Business leaders, like politicians, face the daily challenge of navigating complex organizations through a complex world.  The challenge of identifying and developing leaders capable of complexity of thought and action is of vital importance to corporations. Leaders with complex mindsets are far better equipped to meet that challenge.


What is a Mindset?

Nobody can process the impossible breadth and depth of information available in the world.  Why do some people and not others commit acts of savage violence?  What can be done to contain them?  The answer to these and other complex problems are not simple or easy.

To help guide a response to the challenges posed by the world,  people develop assumptions; rules-of-thumb to help guide them. How do we think about an attack by individuals apparently associated with ISIS in London.   What about a savage workplace attack such as the one that occurred two days later in Orlando, Florida?

This is where mindset comes into play.

Mindset refers to a way of thinking, an orientation that shapes how an individual selects, processes, and formulates a response to what is going on in the world. They are not just specific responses to particular situations.  Rather, they are “sticky”; that is, once formulated, they create a readiness to respond in a particular way” to a wide variety of situations.

Solutions such as Muslim travel bans and internment camp rests on simple rather than complex mindsets.  Their advocates assume that “bad Muslims” or “radical Islamists” are the cause of the problem.  Therefore, the solution is equally straight forward: ban them or lock them up.   And when commentators and courts suggest that both the underlying causes and potential responses are far more complex, they can be denounced for “political correctness” and obstructionism.


Two Approaches

Of course, not all leaders react in the same way.  When faced with a situation of, wicked problems for which there were no definitive, objective solutions, leaders face, broadly, one of two choices:

  1. They can engage in simplification or,
  2. They can recognize and embrace complexity.

A “simple” mindset looks for either/or choices and discourages open and candid debate.  Pre-existing assumptions go unchallenged and only information supporting those assumptions is considered.  Leaders with a simple mindset hold onto categorical right-wrong perceptions and follow relatively few but rigid rules of how to understand the world.

Conversely, leaders with a complex mindset will avoid either/or choices, surrounding themselves with a diverse group of advisors who feel free to offer conflicting advice, and seeing the ensuing tensions generated by complexity as an opportunity to develop more effective solutions.  They recognize the many factors at play in their environment and are comfortable with contradictions, paradox, disagreements, and even conflicts.


Where Does a Complex Mindset Come from?

A complex mindset is not the same as, and in fact, has no apparent relationship to, what we think of as traditional measures of intelligence.  High intelligence (at least as measured by our most popular intelligence tests) and high cognitive complexity are simply not the same.

But how and where do individuals acquire greater mindset complexity?   There are the traditional nature / nurture arguments, and the answer is most likely some combination of the two.  There is some argument to be made, for instance, that there exists a biologically-based capacity for cognitive complexity.  On the nurture side, it is undoubtedly true that experience plays a role as well.  In business organizations, for example, individuals who have been placed in a wide variety of settings with exposure to different, unfamiliar cultures are likely to be more open and flexible themselves.

A complex mindset should not be thought of as an impediment to taking action.  Far from it.  F. Scott Fitzgerald famously observed that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”  A “first-rate intelligence” implies a capacity to integrate thinking and doing.  Leaders with both “simple” and “complex” mindsets can and do take action.  The question is: which mindset is likely to lead to more effective action?


The Key is Selection

Inborn traits matter; so does experience.  Organizations desirous of leaders with a complex mindset can create a set of experiences that help develop complexity and then. select leaders based on the behaviors they have displayed in their various assignments. Selecting political leaders with a complex mindset presents a different set of challenges.

A simple mindset has real appeal.  Problems are easily articulated, solutions clearly stated.  If the simple solution meshes with the assumptions and biases of a significant portion of the electorate, individuals with a simple mindset may sweep into office.  The media plays a supporting role for focusing on sound bites and convenient labels when covering complex events.  A specialist who argues for a wide array and variety of interventions – cross-national partnerships, community outreach, greater resources devoted to counterintelligence and policing, and so forth – are given little time to lay out a complex response.

The media could do better.  So could the rest of us.  Business organizations can seek to develop and promote leaders who avoid simplistic solutions.  Voters can dig deeper and look broader before pulling the lever.  Simple solutions will not solve complex problems.  If they did, the problems would be solved by now.

About The Author

Bert A. Spector

Bert A. Spector (PhD, American History) is Associate Professor of International Business and Management at Northeastern University's D'Amore-McKim School of Business. His research ...

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