Philomathia Group | Building Learning Corporations

Learning >>Breakthrough Performance Depends on Mindful Leadership Choices

What if I told you that leadership today requires you to not act? That leadership can no longer be about demanding execution? That instead, leadership requires deep reflection about “acting” as a leader. Would you call me crazy? Maybe. A few months ago I might have thought I was crazy too —but, as I discuss with my peers leadership in the new world of work, I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that leadership now requires a “Bias for Reflection” rather than a bias for action.

I am happy to announce that yesterday we successfully launched our first performance roundtable in Baltimore. The purpose and focus for the day revolved around embracing the new operating reality we are facing: a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. This volatility, which is persistent and highly variable in its intensity, combines with high degrees of uncertainty, Black Swan-type unpredictability that cannot be modeled, to generate profoundly difficult business conditions. And given the way we work right now — in contexts of dramatic complexity marked by highly inter-dependent workflows that weave into and among each other with concomitant intervening variables injecting multiple threads of causation and impact — we find ourselves adrift. We must act, right? We must lead. But how?

As I contemplated these conditions, and considered driving a discussion of executives on the issue, I kept returning to a story I have told many times. It’s the story of the great ship Vasa…built in 1628 for King Gustavus Adolphus in Sweden.

The Vasa was built as the flagship for Sweden’s adventuring navy and meant to symbolize the power of Gustavus as well as mythologize Sweden’s maritime might in the age of discovery. It’s most direct use, of course, would be at war, and Gustavus intended it to be used immediately against Poland-Lithuania. Stockholm’s master builders went to work and built a massive ship, with multitudes of bronze cannons, and, as Gustavus intervened with more demands, ever more accoutrements and design embellishments. The ship soon became so unwieldy that, in fact, when it was finally and hastily launched, it tipped over and sank at once. It rolled over from the top-heavy weight of its too numerous bronze cannons and outrageously over-developed higher decks. How did this great ship end this way? Well, the proximate cause was a King who meddled, despite having no marine architecture knowledge, and demanded too much from his team. And a team of builders without the courage to say no to, well, the King. The King had none of the knowledge he needed, and was unwilling to admit it. His team of builders had all the knowledge, but none of the empowerment to make decisions. Hence the disastrous launch and failure of the Swedish flagship, to say nothing of the King’s ambitions.

In short, Gustavus and his political advisors knew nothing of the learning cycle:

And they approached their “business need” —the need for a Great Ship—in pretty much the same way we all approach our business problems. Apply what we know as fast as possible, with the “leaders” telling the “do-ers” to “git ‘er done!

This misalignment of knowledge and empowerment got me thinking again about a VUCA world. What sort of leadership behaviors do we need when we face volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity? Obviously, we can’t have the sort of imperious meddling of the King. But neither can we have the subservient acceptance of peers and subordinates. Might we not need a more balanced, distributed approach to leadership that taps into the very best contributions our teams can make, while empowering them to lead into the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity we are experiencing?

My gut was telling me yes. But I always like to discuss this with peers. Hence the performance roundtable yesterday.

We kicked off with a discussion of the drivers for the day — the notable statistics regarding the failure of business transformations and initiatives —the sorts of behaviors that in fact pretty much ensure failure and lead to situations like the Vasa shipwreck. Or just about any change initiative we might implement at our companies. Then we segued into a discussion of the VUCA world we are facing —what is driving it, for instance? And we heard in the room that there are many drivers — huge industry disruption, consolidation, fracturing of industry hierarchy, organizational re-architecting, and generational transformation. So whether you’re a business growing by stitching together various product lines across a global footprint or a firm dealing with fundamental shifts in how your industry does business, you’re experiencing VUCA in all its glory.

And this means that whatever knowledge you have, or experience you have mustered, may in fact be of absolutely no use to you. In fact, it may keep you from being successful.

So how do we proceed? How can we lead in such VUCA conditions? Well, at the highest level, most broadly, we must shift from execution behaviors to empowering behaviors. And across the day we discussed what such behaviors might look like and the tactics that might support them.

We discussed aligning our behaviors with the neuroscience of motivation, for instance, and deploying brain-centric tactics to help our teams perform well in great uncertainty. The NLI’s AIM approach was very well-received, for instance:

This approach asks leaders to identify where their team is on any issue —are they in an approach mindset or in an avoidance posture? And then based on the answer adapt their leadership behaviors to make alternatives relevant and attainable for their teams. Shifting language from “why” to “how” for instance, if your team is in the avoidance mindset, allows you to help them overcome their fear of failure and helps them identify the best paths for moving forward. Establishing the context and cues for the right behavior that will lead to success then becomes the focus for the adaptive leader. As the team at NLI might say, with this approach you help your teams uncover the most salient insights, in a social context, and then you structure processes to support their developing the right habits.

We discussed, as well, tactics we could use to become more mindful of our leadership behaviors.

It’s interesting — the “bias for action” that pretty much every leadership program tells us to embrace really doesn’t work in a context of new and unfamiliar situations. But as I re-discovered last week at the NLI 2016 Summit, taking the time to be mindful about your behaviors actually cognitively couples your default networks with your prefrontal cortex. What this means is that your resting brain aligns much better with your executive functions, helping you to make better decisions in difficult situations. It also helps you to avoid confirmation biases, or to project your own cognitive biases on to others. If only we will take the time to consider leadership behaviors instead of rushing in and “solving a business problem” without contemplating how to empower our teams.

Yes if only…and the group discussed a tactic that could be quite helpful in that regard.

See, Say, Do, as playful as it sounds, is not a kindergarten activity. Rather, it’s a quick and easy approach a leader can use to force his or her brain through a reflective exercise, pulling up to the level of empowering behaviors rather than technical knowledge about a business problem. The exercise allows the leader to move beyond the “shallow structure”of a business situation —the neutral facts, observations and data that describe it—and instead push cognitively into the “deep structure” of the situation and get at what the situation “means” for the leader, as a leader, in terms of behaviors that empower people. The activity then allows the leader to mindfully plan those behaviors and monitor his or her shift from execution behaviors to empowerment.

You see, with that activity we are really getting to the essence of leadership in a VUCA world — and the group yesterday really helped me understand some powerful insights. Leadership now requires much more mindfulness and adaptability than before, and it requires we acknowledge that no single person can overcome all challenges or successfully achieve all objectives. So the role of the leader is to empower teams to achieve goals in his or her absence —to shift from demanding execution on a process to instead supporting performance through continuous feedback loops and mindful planning about empowering behaviors.

What is more, leadership now demands a shift from leaders as “fonts of all knowledge” as one participant said, to “enablers of productive relationships” that drive performance.

Leaders, therefore, must create connections and develop “open experiences” for team members across silos and beyond “boundaries” of all sorts. As one participant noted, her best manager let her go on a month-long “sabbatical with a purpose” to expose herself to new relationships in Asia and acquire new knowledge about the region that proved to be quite valuable later as her group worked on projects there. In other words, leaders don’t tell people what to do, or solve the problems themselves —they create experiences for their teams that will develop connections that trigger value and do so by understanding individual aspirations, needs, and capabilities. They do this in a mindful manner so that their teams will be prepared for new and unfamiliar situations that are emblematic of the VUCA world we are facing — Situations they cannot even predict will emerge.

Yesterday was a great session, and I am happy to have “led” it — I was actually more a participant than anything. I learned so much from the others, as I knew I would, and I look forward to more sessions in the near future. I have already received some requests for sessions on the west coast and Chicago. So if you think you could benefit from a conversation on this topic, just let me know. I never have to be asked twice to visit San Francisco or Chicago. Let’s see? Ghirardelli and sour dough bread? Deep Dish Pizza and Big Bowl? Well, I say yes!

All levity aside, however, as you ponder the VUCA world, just keep this in mind — be mindful of your leadership behaviors. The very act of pausing to ponder “how to be a leader” will actually make you a better one.