Real Leaders

From Linear to Circular Thinking

Learn how to sort linear from circular thinking — and choose the ideal one for every situation.

By Kim Hudson

Human thinking has a pattern, but how do we access it? 

Many social scientists and neuroscientists agree that we have two ways of knowing — distinctly opposite mindsets built into the human condition. They give them names like the Master and the Emissary (Iain McGilchrist)  — or right and left brain (Jill Bolte Taylor). Daniel Kahneman calls them fast and slow thinking, Jeremy Bentham and Antonio Damasio call them pleasure and pain states, and Daniel Siegel likes attachment and survival modes. Type A/Type B or S1/S2 — you get the idea. I call them linear (left-brain) and circular (right-brain) thinking. 

Think Better, Lead Better: Mastering the Two Faces of Your Mind

We move between these mindsets through our language choices. It’s like having a low-tech version of the machine in the movie Avatar. Activate one of their operating principles, and you are taken into that world. Each mindset has its optimal moment. Being a mindful leader means pausing to sort linear from circular thinking and choosing the ideal one in any given situation. A good starting point is recognizing their unique sources of power.

Linear Power is best for known situations where we need to do things like combat external, physical dangers, achieve goals, build material security, or win competitions. Weber’s definition for this kind of power is to assert your will, even against resistance. That probably sounds familiar, as it is synonymous with control.

Circular power is less familiar, making it our greatest growth area. Reaching back to ancient wisdom, I describe this power as coming from knowing yourself, being yourself, and supporting others in doing the same. This internally focused mindset is optimal for recognizing what is meaningful, building resilience, resolving conflict, being creative, developing talent, finding happiness, and fostering inclusive environments. It cares about connections, disconnections, and reconnections.

From Competition to Collaboration

Some situations need linear and circular thinking as tag teams. Terri Kelly, former CEO of W. L. Gore and Associates, has identified two kinds of people in its innovation-focused business — rainmakers and implementers. The former dreams up creative ideas, and the latter brings them to life. But control tends to gravitate to the implementers if the rainmakers aren’t protected. Kelly says she spends most of her time emphasizing the difference and preventing people from reverting to conventional wisdom.

Once we determine our optimal worldview, there is a triad of operating principles to help us navigate within and between worlds. Knowing the triad means we can ask some illuminating questions. The linear operating principles are to push back against what I don’t want to happen, focus on the external and objective aspects, and use an either/or filter.

With this mental framework, here are the kinds of questions we could ask:

Am I pushing back against what I don’t want to happen (as regulatory systems and budgets do)? Then, I am in linear thinking mode. Automatically, the other operating systems are also activated. I’m being objective and making either/or evaluations. 

This is ideal when there is a heroic need to right a wrong, secure needed resources, and stop evil efforts from doing us harm. My motivation is to assert my will even against resistance. We should also know that all the benefits of circular thinking are now closed off to us. But if we know the operating principles of circular thinking, we can toggle with ease. 

Circular thinking’s triad is: Pull in more of what I want, reflect on my internal/subjective states, and consider where I can say yes to something the other person is offering, how I can add to what they are saying, and where there is overlap between both of our perspectives.  

The circular thinking questions would be: What do I want more of, and why do I want that (why questions get to what really matters to us)? What do they want more of, and how could I contribute to that? What do we both want more of? Circular thinking is relational and generative. We don’t know where it will take us, and we can be sure it will be collectively meaningful. 

Imagine adding a circular feature to a regulatory process that generates new partnerships and supports innovative circular economies. And what if climate change was addressed by each person connecting to what is deeply meaningful to them before making a purchase? These outcomes become possible when we access our circular and linear potential. Another thing I learned about being human is we can read each other’s linear or circular state of mind, and we tend to follow. Leaders who consciously make these shifts will find the people around them spontaneously following them. 

Top 4 Strategies for Bridging Linear and Circular Thinking

1 Recognize two ways of knowing — and don’t blend them. Toggle from one to the other with purpose.

2 Use linear power when you need to assert your will, even against resistance.

3 Cultivate circular power by knowing yourself, being yourself, and supporting others in doing the same.

4 Ask yourself questions based on linear and circular thinking operating principles. This curious inquiry develops the neutral platform from which we can enter and navigate our optimal mindset.

Kim Hundson, best-selling author, recently released “The Bridge,” a book about bridging linear and circular thinking. Her background includes 25 years as an exploration geologist, as well as consulting First Nation and Yukon governments.

More like this

Most Recent Articles