Common Voice: Howard Gardner


Renowned worldwide for his theory of multiple intelligences, Howard Gardner was ranked #39 in the latest Thinkers 50 ranking of global business thinkers.

Gardner is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and adjunct professor of psychology at Harvard University.

Moving on from his multiple intelligence work, Gardner is now focusing on the future and "the cognitive abilities that will command a premium in the years ahead." In the new technological and information age, he offers an insight into the qualities of thinking that will allow people to survive and prosper in the 21st century, both in work and life generally.

Des Dearlove talked to Gardner about his new book Five Minds for the Future.

There is a different approach to your subject material in the new book?

Yes, in the book Five Minds for the Future I'm writing less as a psychologist and more as a policy maker. All of these minds would have been important at other times, but I argue that these five are particularly important going forward.

You say these five ways of thinking will be even more important in the future. What's changed?

There are three significant trends in the modern world which establish the background for these kinds of minds.

Number one: the importance of technology, particularly computers. Computers can do almost everything that human beings can, so the things we are going to value human beings for will be very different.

The second thing is globalisation. It is about understanding the interconnectivity of the world and the kinds of things that you need in order to be able to function in a world that was not nearly so interconnected 50 years ago.

And the third big change?

The third change has to do with diversity. We evolved as a species having contact with about 150 people, most of whom looked like us and were probably related to us.

Today, diversity stares you in the face in a way that was inconceivable when I was growing up. I hardly need to say this in a place like London, where you have millions of people, many from non-English backgrounds, and many with different religious and cultural backgrounds.

So there is a sense that we can be in contact with, and have influence on, everybody around the world and vice-versa.

And the five minds in the book are the ways of thinking that are best suited to this new world you are describing. What are the five minds?

Well the first three are the kinds of things that I have been talking about for a very long time: the disciplined mind, the synthesising mind and the creating mind.

The last two, though, have more to do with the human sphere: the respectful mind and the ethical mind. Over the last decade a lot of my research has focused on these two.

Could you explain a little more about each mind?

The disciplined mind is knowing something very well, being an expert in an art, or craft, or profession and keeping it up. That means being disciplined. If you don't have a disciplined mind, you really don't have a job at all, or you end up working for somebody who does.

The synthesising mind stems from the fact that we all are deluged with information. How do you decide what to pay attention to, what to ignore, how to put it together in a way that makes sense to you? How do you communicate your synthesis to other people? That's probably the most distinctive mind, because I've given a label to something that people haven't really talked about much before.

And the creative mind?

The third kind of mind, the creating mind, is basically coming up with something new that eventually affects how other people are and think. If it is "thinking outside the box" then the disciplined and synthesising minds provide the box and, for many people, that's enough and you wouldn't want everybody to be creative or the world would be too chaotic.

But for some cutting edge or eccentric few, it's thinking and doing stuff that really ends up affecting a lot of other people.

And what of the remaining two minds, which your recent work has focused on more closely?

The respectful mind is very simple, and certainly goes back to pre-biblical, pre-literate times. Basically it means giving other people the benefit of the doubt, trying to know them, trying to understand them, not being too judgemental and being capable of forgiveness.

It begins at birth. Infants notice how other people treat one another and how they treat themselves. The reason it's so acutely important nowadays is because of the diverse society we live in. My belief in the importance of the respectful mind has caused me to change my views about issues like whether women students in France should be allowed to wear the hijab.

Which leaves the ethical mind.

The last mind, the ethical mind, is one that I've been working on intensively for a decade plus, and it's a little bit more technical to define.

The ethical mind is a mind that is capable of abstraction. And the ethical mind basically can think about oneself abstracting. So I'm not just Howard Gardner, but I'm Howard Gardner who is a journalist, an author, a lawyer, an engineer, whatever. I have a role occupationally and I'm also a citizen; I'm a citizen of my community, my city, my state, my region, my nation, the world.

The ethical mind asks, what are my responsibilities as a journalist, what are my responsibilities as a citizen of London, the UK, of the planet?

What relevance does the five minds concept have for organisations in the future Ė and does it apply more broadly than business?

My work has an 'is' aspect- what are the minds that will be at a premium in the future? It also has an 'ought' aspect - what sorts of minds should be cultivated?

Individuals involved in management need to think about their own minds, and the extent to which those minds embody discipline, synthesising capacity, creativity, respect and ethics. If they are lacking on these dimensions, what might they do to enhance them? How should they assemble teams, and can one person's strength compensate for the weaknesses of others?

Could you give some examples with reference to some of the individual minds Ė and how they relate to a non-business organisation such as the UK's National Health Service, for instance?

Respect and ethics are good examples. The NHS needs to understand and know how to deal with its diverse populations. Here, both respect and ethics become vital. Unless there is an atmosphere of respect, individuals will not trust one another and relations will deteriorate.

Ethics entails an understanding of responsibilities attendant to a specific role. It is vital for members of the NHS to behave in an ethical way, and to be able to assume that their peers will also behave ethically. And in those cases where ethical norms are clearly violated, the question of consequences looms large.

One cannot guarantee, of course, that patients will be respectful and/or ethical. But, to the extent that the NHS embodies these virtues in its own interactions with patients, the chances are enhanced that the patients will reciprocate.

You also talk about the concept of "good work."

I define good work as work that is technically Excellent; personally Engaging; and carried out in an Ethical manner. When pressures are too great, any of the three "Es" can suffer.

So, for example, when physicians or nurses are asked to do too much, they become stressed, and risk burnout; the factor of engagement is undermined. Excellence can also be at risk.

Threats to ethics come from the overall ambience of a community. When a community comes to value money, power, or success, over all other priorities, then individuals have little incentive to be honest, responsible, or treat others with integrity.

And again, that also applies to non-business organisations?

Yes, a public sector or voluntary organisation should embrace a contrasting set of values, having to do with pride in services well rendered and in top results. But the spectre of monetary success is often very powerful, and unless it is counteracted by strong contrasting norms, it is likely to prevail.

What about the synthesising mind?

Nowadays, we are all inundated with information. The premium is to figure out what to pay attention to, what to ignore, how to organise it so that it makes sense to oneself, and then how to convey it so that it makes sense to others.

A fortunate few can figure out how to synthesise well, with little help from others. Most of us, however, need all the help we can get in synthesising. I think this is a particularly acute need in highly innovative fields such as IT and medical science - where information compounds at a feverish pace and lives may be at stake.

In a future world where the five minds are valued, nurtured and prevalent, how do you see work changing?

I would love to live in a world characterised by good work - work that is excellent, engaging, and carried out ethically. In such a world, one could count on service being delivered reliably, with care, and with expertise.

Obviously respect and ethics are essential for good work to be carried out. But only when practitioners have mastered their disciplines well, know how to synthesise, and can, when appropriate, come up with creative solutions to problems, will this become a reality for most organisations.

About The Author

Des Dearlove & Stuart Crainer
Des Dearlove & Stuart Crainer

Des Dearlove is a long-term contributor and columnist for The Times and a contributing editor to Strategy+Business. Stuart Crainer is a contributing editor to Strategy+Business and executive editor of Business Strategy Review.