Thought Leadership is rare because of ‘The Impossible Barrier’

Dear Lateral Thinkers,

I am often asked, “Can you really teach people to think outside their own box?”

What we are up against, as lateral thinkers, is the very wicked problem of ESCAPE. Edward de Bono used to often say, “The most difficult feat of human thinking is to escape from our own point-of-view”.

Today we call this thought leadership. Thought leadership is not easy and it is not natural. It’s not supernatural, either. It is an acquired skill that can be taught and practised.

This is because the main Darwinian purpose of the triune human brain is to quickly lock-in a point-of-view, as situations arise, so we can react and survive.

If we add our strong judgmental bias, our cultural thinking habit of RIGHT/WRONG then it becomes not just difficult to escape from our set point-of-view but almost impossible, especially if we believe we are RIGHT!

Furthermore, if we are highly intelligent and articulate then we may be so able to defend the rightness of our point-of-view that we see little need to abandon it for something better. So we get trapped into argument and conflict. This can be very dangerous and costly.

A further problem in the Western education system is the ideological (liberal humanism) goal often stated as: we teach students to think for themselves. This is not enough. Students can be taught to think much better than that.

For example, in a ballet school they don’t say: we teach students to dance for themselves. In the air force they don’t say: we teach pilots to fly for themselves. In medical schools they don’t say: we teach doctors to heal for themselves. No. We can do much better than that!

The human brain is not designed to innovate so it has to be trained. The good news is that it CAN be trained to be much better at thinking than when it just thinks for itself. This training is called: metacognition skills.

This is what we specialise in at SOT. For those who are fortunate enough to be SOT students this is what we teach: not just to think for themselves but to think ten times better than that.

These days there are many people who are interested in lateral thinking. They have read books on the subject and may even understand this unique cognitive phenomenon. However, I have found in my work over the years that understanding is good, but not nearly good enough. People tell me they know they should think laterally but they just can’t do it very well.

Lateral thinking is not natural. It is an acquired skill. Like flying a plane. It even goes against our natural way of thinking and it is very often quite hard to escape from the box of our own personal point-of-view. Even if we have read and learned, in theory, how to do it.

Leadership is about action and so it is with thought leadership. The difference between thought and thought leadership is the difference between ideas and deeds.

Over the years I have written about this big gap between KNOWING and DOING. We know people who can sing at the top of their voice but we just can’t do it ourselves. In a group, we might sing a little more quietly so as not to be heard. We know people who can bake a luscious ‘death by chocolate’ cake but we can’t quite do it ourselves. We might cheat and buy a cake-mix box and throw a rather poor substitute together.

This gap between KNOWING and DOING, between knowledge and performance, is everything in business.

Business is all about creating value. On any given day in any given business there are value fountains and value drains. That day the value fountains created value for the shareholders. The value drains depleted shareholder value on that day. Our economy has serious productivity issues today because there are too many value drains and not enough value fountains. I tell my CEO clients that their job, as CEO, is to multiply the number of value fountains on the payroll … by ten!

Knowing all this is one thing. Creating actual measurable value is another. Especially in discerning the difference between theory and reality, knowledge and skill, talk and action and the willingness to have skin in the game

I have written about this many times and have called this talk and action gap, The Impossible Barrier, because so few people are ever able to cross over from one side to the other … from KNOWING to DOING.

What is The Impossible Barrier? It is the barrier that separates an individual from actually doing what s/he already knows how to do. KNOWING is one thing. DOING is another. If I were asked to guess, based on my many years experience of teaching skills to thousands of people of four continents, “What is the ratio of KNOWERS to DOERS?” I would say not better than 250:1.

– from LEARN-TO-THINK: Coursebook and Instructors Manual by Michael Hewitt-Gleeson and Edward de Bono (1982), New York, ISBN 0-88496-199-0

Watching the Australian Open is great but we are only spectators by the many thousands. Only the very few are actually slamming an ace on the line!

I suppose my own original idea in the 80s was software for the brain. At that time I was invited to give the keynote address at a series of IBM conferences in Monte Carlo. The purpose of the conference was the launch of the new “desktop computers” that IBM had recently invented. If we could now have personal desktop computers, I suggested that we could also recognise the fact that we already possessed our own “necktop computers”.

This joke created quite a chuckle amongst the IBM audiences of technocrats and IT executives. So, I continued to develop the metaphor and later wrote it all up in my best-seller, Software For The Brain in Australia in 1989.

When I first coined the meme it caused some controversy. For example, my co-founder, Edward de Bono did not like the idea at all and wrote against it in one of his books. More recently he is in agreement and has said so.

Many cognitive scientists agree that the brain is less like a magic box and more like a digital computing network with algorithms doing information-processing. If this is true then we need better software.

If you google the meme of software for the brain you currently get 300 – 400 million entries and you will likely see my book at the top of google’s list and it has now become common currency around the world. The meme is replicating!

In SOT we also talk about apps for intelligence and emojis for thinking and no-one has a problem with these ideas. They are very powerful cognitive algorithms.

Today, 30 years later, my necktop computer joke is supported by most of the current research in the life sciences which demonstrates the fact that the brain really is a meta-network of digital algorithms doing information-processing with nothing essentially mysterious going on.

However, in a practical way, I first was taught algorithms for perceptual manipulation in the Australian army in the late 60s although they didn’t call it brain software they called it aide memoire.

The method was used to train soldiers new skills like how to react in the event of an ambush or how to teach pilots to eject from a plane. These are both highly counter-intuitive skills that the brain would not normally allow you to do. So it requires PRR – Practice, Repetition and Rehearsal. At that time I was surprised to see how different military training was to what I had experienced at school.


This is partly because the Western education strategy is so focused on knowing. In academic education, where the bottom-line is to pass an exam, lessons are often designed using SLOs (Student Learning Objectives). The evaluating question is asked: What will the student know?

In military education, where the bottom-line is life or death, lessons are often designed using SPOs (Student Performance Objectives). The question is asked: What will the student do?

There is a BIG difference in outcomes between these two methods of instruction. It is all about developing a thorough understanding and conviction of the difference between merely having knowledge on a matter and owning a skill of performance in it. The virtue of virtuosity. Understanding the strategy of practice x10 and repetition x10.

The School of Thinking was founded in New York in 1979 by an Australian soldier and a Maltese doctor who were both interested in promoting and teaching the idea of lateral thinking. The doctor, a Cambridge University Professor of Medicine, had specialized knowledge about cognitive neuroscience and the soldier, a Vietnam War veteran, had specialized knowledge about military train-the-trainer pedagogy.

For five foundational years, from 1979 to 1984. it was the juxtaposition of these two careers that led to the unique design of the School of Thinking. In 1995, it became the first school on the internet. SOT has now given out over half a billion lessons worldwide on lateral thinking.

Edward de Bono and Michael Hewitt-Gleeson in New York in 1980

The two co-founders of the School of Thinking share May birthdays. I turned 71 last month and Edward turned 85. We are able to reflect that lateral thinking is now here to stay.

It can’t unhappen. It’s a unique story.

In 2018, lateral thinking is no longer just an interesting, trendy idea for people to know about, but millions of practitioners are now using either de Bono Global training or SOT lessons so that they are actually able to perform lateral thinking … with skill … at will!



dr michael hewitt-gleeson | co-founder


All rights reserved. Copyright © 2018. School of Thinking

5 thoughts on “Thought Leadership is rare because of ‘The Impossible Barrier’

  1. It is interesting that we cement a pattern (point of view) in our brain in order to use very fast to survive. Probably driven by ancient requirements to react to a threat. We still need this pattern, but not as much as in the past. We have the luxury now to do things a bit slower, and also to search. The funny thought I had was that humans are very good at cementing and holding a pattern and not being able to escape. Their are lots of humans trying to get machines (computers) to do the same thing. But perhaps this is not how we should use machines. Perhaps, given a desire, machines could be better used to help escape, i.e. randomly match two counter points of view to see if it provides a survival advantage. The wicked problem of course is to define, what is the definition of survival advantage in the current environment, who gets it, and what to do when the environment changes. This leads me to the better point of view that humans just need to learn to solve these kinds of problems themselves, because if we don’t, someone/thing else might, and to their own advantage.

  2. Great Michael, make sense and very useful. Thank you for all this work foe years. We are better now to understand and make progress, to innovative and solve our own problems

  3. The reason for the difficulty in escaping from ones point of view is biological. Man in his natural environment seeks predictability. Predictability in where his next meal is coming from and where he will seek shelter for the night. When these problems have been solved, he seeks predictability in other areas. In the man made world predictability was rewarded until relatively recently. Now the emphasis in on the speed of evolution of ideas and by extension technology. In order to speed the evolution of ideas one needs the opposite of predictability . One needs interruption and provocation and any other catalyst that stimulates change.

  4. • We do not think with our brain, which is rather a Co-ordinator /controller, but we think with our whole body, so we can train our brain to be much more powerful.

    • Our brains sometimes lose the sense of the time, that shows a gap between the perception of the flowing of time and the physical time.

    • We seem to be unable to keep in our minds all the facts we have accumulated, and it appears that our limited brains capacities lead us to create new methods and construct new systems.

    •  I cannot leave out of consideration the “negative energy” which sometimes  prevents me from completely expressing myself and becomes  predator of my ‘’positive energy’’ and influences the process of my thinking in order to block the memory and the experience. It is a mechanism from which it is difficult to escape .

    • We should learn to recall the most suitable personality(weakness and strenghts)  to face a situation or to exercise the faculties needed at the moment, If we understand how to recall our personalities we can optimise our learning and skills.

    • If we don’t think, how then can we “act”?.  And if we don’t act, how then can we think?  What is a thing which we cann’t think about? a thing Which is much more different or complex than we think and it isn’t connected with our minds or physical sences as we think.

    • It is necessary for us to be able to get to know experiences which could be very different from our current life.

    • The concept of life itself is not a theoretic concept. It is rather action, experience, behaviour and responsibility. Life is made of actions, events, choices, imperfect things, not of beautiful ideas.

    • The lateral thinking is a technique which has been created to develop our capability of living.  It is a good way to enhance our talents, our creativity and, most of all, to enable us to awake our inside power which is much more complete than the rational and logical means. It is a way of understanding oneself and one’s conditions. It is the Art of applying that understanding in action.

    • I think that Thoughts are not things we produce, but they are things we collect and combine together with each other. Thoughts are not part of us, they don’t belong to us, but we identify ourselves with our thoughts.


  5. Stand up paddle surfing is really quite easy, what people find difficult is the sudden movements of the board with the waves causing panic, the breath catches the joints lock and they fall. If you watch someone new to paddle surfing you will see them constantly falling off the board even experienced prone surfers have a hard time. Experiencing the kinetics by being engaged with the board and the water is needed. Metaphorically from the theory of the triune brain – our human brain will understand the process, the feeling of motion, engage the mammal brain, counter the fear response, direct the reptile brain to keep our breathing stable keeping the joints relaxed and fluid. You can know this but without PRR enjoy getting wet.

Leave your thought

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.