It was a lunch meeting and we were in a very quiet back corner of the restaurant. Major systems were under going change and this particular leader wanted to explore some ideas and thoughts about it all with me. Some of these changes were being done by choice, but others were being driven by outside influences. Standardization was going to be key to the new systems. Centralization and integration across “silos” was also critical to success. To make this all happen, financial investments and financial curtailments would have to be made. In particular, we were trying to think through what the organizational chart should look like three years from now given the current strategic plan. Lots of sugar packets, salt and pepper shakers and a ketchup bottle were involved in this time of sharing.
In the middle of this strategic level dialogue, I kept thinking of two insightful quotes:
“Begin with the end in mind.” - Stephen Covey
"The problem is never how to get new innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get the old ones out.” - Dee Hock, founder/CEO emeritus of Visa International
But in the end, I talked about the important work of Hermina Ibarra in her very thought-provoking book called Act Like A Leader, Think Like A Leader (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015). Here, she points out that to step up to leadership, you have to learn to think like a leader.
Right now, we need more people who have learned how to think like a leader. We also need to recognize that this is a slow, but powerful journey. In particular, I pointed out to this individual that Ibarra believes that the way we think is a product of our past experiences. All of us need to understand more about a person’s history so we understand more about their “default” thinking patterns. If we, as leaders, want people to think and work in new ways, then we, as leaders, need to create new experiences. We have to understand that thinking and relating are interconnected.
One step in this process to create new mental maps and to refine old ones. The Dictionary defines mental maps as a mix of objective knowledge and subjective perceptions. From my perspective, it is all about how we frame things up. Aaron K. Olson and B. Keith Simerson in their book, Leading With Strategic Thinking: Four Ways Effective Leaders Gain Insight, Drive Change, and Get Results (Wiley, 2015) write that “In some ways, strategic thinking is like constructing a mental map that connects the current “here and now” to something, somewhere, or sometime in the future…. Just as a holistic perspective improves strategic thinking by ensuring that all factors are considered, it is also important to consider context…. Strategic thinking only matters if it leads to a purposeful action.”
Herminia Ibarra in the aforementioned book writes that “the only way to change how you think, therefore is to do different things.” As she continues, “This cycle of acting like a leader and then thinking like a leader - of change from the outside in - creates what I call outsight…. Doing things - rather than simply thinking about them - will increase your outsight on what leadership is all about.”
She believes “Outsight comes from a “tripod” of sources: new ways of doing your work (your job), new relationships (your network), and new ways of connecting to and engaging people (yourself)…. Sustainable change in your leadership capacity requires shifts on all three legs of the tripod.”
As Gregory Boyle writes in his book, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship (Simon & Schuster, 2017): “We don’t think ourselves into a new way of living. We live ourselves into a new way of thinking.”
For us here today, we need to remember the wisdom of Cal Newport who wrote in his book, Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World (Grand Central Publishing, 2016): “Our brains … construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to.”
Right now, the two most common leadership phrases I am hearing are these: “We inspect what we expect” and “What get measures gets done.” However, in the back of my mind are the words of a participant at a recent From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable when he shared “What get measured does not always matter.”
Our problem as leaders is that we default to thinking “this” is like “that”, a habitual response to so many things. We forget what Margaret Wheatley wrote, “Habits save time: it’s easier to do the same thing, or think the same thing. Changing our mind takes attention and time.”
Marshall Goldsmith backed this up in his book, Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts - Becoming the Person You Want to Be, (Crown Business, 2015) when he wrote “Meaningful behavioral change is very hard to do” and “No one can make us change unless we truly want to change.” We as leaders forget that to understand a problem, you have to admit there is a problem.
In short, meaningful cognitive change is very hard to do. And no one can make us change unless we truly want to change. Therefore, we have to help people choose a non habitual response by helping them recognize that what we are dealing with currently is different than the past, and that a pre-defined solution may not be the answer.
This week ask yourself and your team these two questions: What are you paying attention to these days? and What is one of the biggest cognitive changes you’ve ever made? The answers to these two questions will help all of you move to the next level.