When it comes to understanding the balance between theory and practice, look no further than your own home. There are many parenting theories, ranging from authoritarian (telling their children exactly what to do) to indulgent (allowing their children to do whatever they wish) and everything in between. As a relatively new grand-parent, I have watched with amusement as the parents-in-waiting espouse their unique theory of how they will raise their child. In most cases, these theories experience dramatic change as reality hits over the first 4 – 5 years.
Theory is an excellent starting point for understanding something complex. It can also be dangerous if we think we can master something by putting a label on it. In our solution oriented society, one perspective or theory can be adopted as the silver bullet to solve a mystery. If a person has trouble focusing, we explain it by labeling them ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). If they are fastidious, they are OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). And if they are wildly unpredictable, they are Bipolar. But these labels or theories never describe the whole person. They can at best only lead us to a better understanding if we apply them correctly.
New leaders usually adopt some theory of leadership, only to refine their perspective as the years of experience temper their initial position. Great leaders hold views lightly, and are open to assessing alternate and even conflicting theories as they develop their world view. I recently was struggling with my view of strategic planning. I read a book by Mintzberg, Ahlstrand and Lampel called “Strategy Safari”. The authors discussed ten theoretical approaches to strategic thinking, and concluded that there is a place for each method. Only after understanding all of the different techniques, could I come to my own understanding of what will work for me.
Robert Ornstein wrote in “The Psychology of Consciousness” about how an elephant is made of many unique parts. We do not obtain an elephant by adding separate observations of trunk, legs and tail together in conceivable proportion; he concludes that understanding “does not arise out of a linear sum of independent observations.” In other words, understanding requires both science and art.
As leaders, we gather independent data, and then form our images in the mysterious reaches of our minds. So, study business theory, then practice until you have looked at the elephant from all sides. Theory and practice must work in concert to create real understanding.