BCG Henderson Institute

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A famous but possibly apocryphal tale about Albert Einstein is that he dreamed up the theory of relativity when riding his bicycle. Warren Buffett is on record as saying that he reads for six hours per day and has very few scheduled meetings. Both of these examples stand in stark contrast to the ways in which most leaders use their time. Many are slaves to email (one CEO only half-jokingly defines his job as “answering 2,000 emails a day”) and have much of the remainder of their time filled with meetings. But a focus on information processing, reaction, and execution — while it may feel productive — causes the quality of our thoughts to suffer. We believe that corporate leaders in today’s complex world urgently need to recultivate the art of reflection.

In reflective thought, a person examines underlying assumptions, core beliefs, and knowledge, while drawing connections between apparently disparate pieces of information. Brain science, popularized in Daniel Kahneman’s book, has shown that this type of “slow thinking” is negatively correlated with “fast thinking,” as might be employed when driving a car or solving a simple sum. In other words, reflective thinking (slow and deliberative) and reactive thinking (fast and instinctual) effectively exist at opposite ends of a switch. When one is “on,” the other is “off.”

Senior executives are victims of information overload and over-reliance on fast thinking. But some CEOs have managed to resist these tendencies. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, among others, share Warren Buffett’s discipline to read extensively, safeguard time for personal development projects, and constantly seek new stimulus and perspectives. John Young, Group President of Pfizer Essential Health, remarked to us that reflective thinking improves his decision making by grounding it in a more integrated and coherent world view than one can have from acting only in the moment. From such leaders and from our counseling conversations with CEOs, we suggest some simple principles for leaders to rediscover and unlock the art of reflective thought.

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