Thinking in the Gray: A 2024 Leadership Challenge

Every year when the calendar rolls over into the new year, leaders are presented with a fresh set of challenges. That is certainly the case here at IC Catholic Prep. No matter what calendar your organization uses (academic, recruitment, fiscal, non-traditional), the fact remains that our personal calendars all start anew January 1st. Often times we use arbitrary dates such as January 1st as mile markers on our journey to success. We see the calendar as a very black and white, finite example of change. Even before the end of the year, we are confronted with ideas such as “We can cross that bridge after the first of the year,” or “Let’s see what the new year brings,” or my personal favorite: “That’s a next year problem!”

Joking aside, these sayings are the pitfalls of binary, or black-and-white thinking. This year, I am challenging you to change. This year, I am asking you to think differently about leadership. This year, I am asking you to think… GRAY!

In my previous article, I highlighted some of the pitfalls of binary thinking, and was even fortunate enough to speak on the topic at bbcon 2023. Yet, as the calendar moves into a new year, what better way to kick off 2024 than with learning to think in the gray, and to challenge yourself as a leader.

What is Gray Thinking?

When I’m asked to explain gray thinking to colleagues, I often tell them there’s no black and white definition (bad um tss). Yes, that is a clear dorky dad joke, but it’s true. Gray thinking avoids oversimplification and focuses on recognizing the complexity of decision making. As leaders, we often find ourselves having to come to finite decisions, and often very quickly. The contrarian in me would tell you that if this regularly happens to you, gray thinking will be of great benefit to you and your team. Let us look at some of the key components of gray thinking to help you in the new year:

  1. Avoid Extremes: As a leader, it can be easy to think that your opinion in a room full of others is the most accurate or the most important. Understand that when leaders speak, most people by default will listen to you as the arbiter of what should occur. Gray thinkers recognize this and avoid extreme positions or absolute statements. Rarely are decisions, especially major ones, as clear cut as we would like them. Most often there is middle, and that middle is the gray area that will help recognize the context needed to make a reasonable decision. In 2024, let us not go to extremes.
  2. Embrace Ambiguity: This is often the most uncomfortable aspect for seasoned leaders. Contrary to the new leader who is making decisions for the first time, seasoned leaders tend to avoid ambiguity. This is due to our desire as leaders to have clear and easily understood directions broadcast out to our organizations. While this is an admirable goal, as leaders we need to focus on the initial decision, not the result of the made decision. This is where we embrace ambiguity.  As leaders we need to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Often, we must consider the varying perspectives within the organizational footprint to come to a clear decision, especially one we are putting our name behind. In 2024, let us be ok with being uncertain.
  3. Avoid Confirmation Bias: The beauty of gray thinking is that this mindset, if leveraged appropriately, works against confirmation bias. Because gray thinking promotes a balanced decision-making style, leaders can move away from recall tendencies and preconception interpretations. In gray thinking we strive to understand where others are coming from in potential consequences of different choices, even if we do not agree. In doing this, leaders can move away from their own personal bias, and into a grayer, more open thought process. In 2024, let us avoid confirming our own opinions.

Overall, every leader is charged with making their organization more of a success from where they found it. No leader should want to maintain the status quo just for the sake of continuity, but rather strive to open their organization to varied and future success. In 2024, I’m asking you to think gray using the ideas above and see how you progress throughout the year. Maybe this new way of thinking will be a huge win for you and your team.  If not, don’t worry, our calendars will still begin anew next January 1st.