Holistic vs Linear Thinking

Understanding this is more than a theory, it’s critical for the 21st Century Leader

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of bringing my Leading Multiple Generations in the 21st Century to the Atlanta area where we had more than 100 eager-to-learn law enforcement leaders. Most of the leaders were in the two “older” generations in the workforce: Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. However, we did have a few Millennials. Most iGens (under 24) are just now entering the workforce. More on this later.

This ½-day seminar focuses on the general characteristics and differences of each generation, what motivates them, how to recruit them and how to train and retain them. One of key elemental differences (besides the differences in technology use, how they view the workforce, etc.) is how the generations think so differently.  Boomers and Xers were raised in an environment where they were taught to think linearly while Millennials and iGens were raised in an age where they naturally think holistically.

So, what exactly does this mean?

Author Daniel Pink talks about the differences in his book A Whole New Mind. A great read for any leader wanting to understand this further.  Pink explains that everyone’s brain has two parts: the left hemisphere for details and the right hemisphere for more holistic or big-picture concepts.  He goes further into the details of how as we leave the Information Age and enter the Conceptual Age, right-brain thinking will become critical.

Interestingly, it is the technology developments of the information age that have created the right-brain, holistic-thinking generations of Millennials and iGens. For these two younger generations, the availability of information literally at our fingertips since they were very young (iGens are those born mostly 1995 and later and have never known a world without cell phones) has rewired the brain. Even for us old timers (Boomers and Xers) the availability of information in a moment’s notice or by the touch of a button is also rewiring ours.


The difference for today’s leaders, especially in professions such as law enforcement, is that traditionally, we think very linearly or left-brain. Mainly for survival and efficiency, but also out of tradition of the profession. When you think of a routine traffic stop where you ask for driver’s license and registration you are separating the action (speeding) from the person. A linear thinker separates the parts of the action while a holistic thinker will consider the entire scenario. A younger officer might know to ask these ‘traditional” questions, but will also maybe ask why were they in such a hurry? Was someone ill? Was there an emergency? The Millennial and the iGen are driven much more by seeing the person and the Big Picture.

This is why it is so VERY, VERY important for recruiters, trainers, and leaders to understand the importance of explaining the WHY of their organization and their leadership philosophy to their younger workers. Because they view the world holistically and sees everything and everyone as interconnected, many Millennials and iGens want to understand what and, more importantly, why they are being asked to do what they do. Going back to the traffic stop scenario. It may seem simple enough to a linear thinker that speeding equates law breaking, but when a holistic thinker has the “why” explained to them as to the importance to the entire community of enforcing speeding laws, then they can embrace their duties as being part of a bigger picture of creating a safe community. 

I know this seems very simplistic, but because of the sheer amount of information available to everyone, every day, it has shrunk the world and made all of us think more conceptually and holistically.  When it comes to recruiting a new generation of law enforcement officers and future leaders, understanding the difference between how many of the leaders of today think “linearly” and how the two younger generations think more “holistically” will actually simplify your leadership. It will allow you as a leader to have empathy with them in how they are understanding their role within the organization and help them grow into the leaders we will need tomorrow.

I challenge you to take a look at yourself and how you think and to read up on both these two younger generations and the concept of linear vs holistic thinking.



“This is why it is so VERY, VERY important for recruiters, trainers, and leaders to understand the importance of explaining the WHY of their organization and their leadership philosophy to their younger workers.”

Dean Crisp

Author, Instructor, Mentor


Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>