I don’t know about you, but I feel that it is more than a bit tiresome to watch the predictable slicing and dicing of every little word that is uttered by our President and others in positions of leadership. Note that I said predictable. The same panels of pundits. The same talking points. Where is the critical thinking? Where is the context?

In one of my first posts on this blog, I talked about the lack of strategic thinking by company leaders in relation to the current situations of the auto industry and newspapers. So a few months ago when I saw Joshua Cooper Ramo, author of The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It, being interviewed by Charlie Rose, his proposed framework for thinking struck a chord with me.


Once the foreign editor for Time, Ramo is currently managing director for the geostrategic advisory firm, Kissinger Associates. I finished reading the book a few nights ago and I believe it offers valuable insights for us individually in our daily lives, and for us collectively as a nation striving to be secure in a world that becomes continually more complex, connected and yet disconnected.

Ramo talks about how most of us engage in “narrow gazing” – thinking about things in old ways that don’t incorporate the resilience needed today to operate in a new environment that demands not only resilience and empathy, but constant, in-depth, contextual probing. The book sometimes takes on a self-help tone that I didn’t find particularly appealing or relevant. But Ramo redeems himself by citing intriguing and informative real-world examples that include Silicon Valley, Hiz’ballah, ecology, the art of camouflage (influenced by the cubists) and others.

Of particular interest to me, Ramo cited a 2004 University of Michigan study that sought to understand the differences of students raised and educated in the United States and those raised and educated in China. Briefly, when shown a series of pictures with a large object and a complex background, the students raised in the U.S. focused almost entirely on the large object exclusive of the background. In contrast, the Chinese students focused almost entirely on the background. Why is this? The guess was that East Asians live in relatively complex social networks with prescribed role relations and therefore context is important for effective functioning. And Westerners live in less constraining worlds that stress independence so this lets them pay less attention to context. Ramo goes on to extrapolate inferences from this study that relate to how the U.S. operates in the world today.

Here are some other interesting points put forth:
– Today rarely is there a definitive “end” to conflicts or crises, they simply change shape
– Empathy is vital to a new way of thinking
– The more closely the U.S. is bound globally with other countries, the less resilient we may become
– We need to learn to use chaos
– Complexities tend to accumulate

As I read this book, it understandably raised my ire about the war in Iraq and how our leaders demonstrated “locked-in” thinking where their inflexibility and mistakes became ever more costly in ways too far-ranging to enumerate. Today our enemies are clever and adapt quickly in their retaliation, thus Ramo argues that what is needed is an ability to constantly reconceptualize problems, generate a diversity of ideas, communicate with everyone and encourage novelty.

As a positive example, Ramo cites the way artists think and approach their work. Many of us also may be working in other professions where it is necessary to immerse ourselves in complexities and context. Though all of the ideas in the book may not be entirely novel, I think Ramo aptly articulates a framework for thinking that is vital for today’s world. It should be required reading for people in positions of leadership.

You can find additional information about Ramo and the book in an NPR interview, the New York Times book review and on The Age of the Unthinkable Web site. I’d like to hear any comments you may have about the book and the framework for thinking Ramo proposes.