So, you’ve taken steps to be a better leader in a complex world. You’ve adjusted how you give feedback; created a clear but adaptable vision; factored in human irrationality and creativity. But you might still be feeling disorientated and on edge, in the face of difficult changes and an uncertain future.
In Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders, Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston put it this way:
“What was clear is now foggy, and we worry that it won’t ever be clear again. In fact, because we tend not to have a way to think about these learning moments, we can worry that we’re going backward instead of forward; we worry that we are simply losing what we once had rather than building something new.”
But there is a way to change this: focus on growing yourself and your people. So how can leaders do this?
Moving towards a growth mindset
I’ve spoken about Carol Dweck before, and will undoubtedly do it again, because her work on mindsets is just so important. She found that most of us tend towards either a fixed mindset – ‘I am who I am and that’s that’ – or a growth mindset – ‘I know I have this tendency, but I’m working on it.’ Which one you have affects how you respond to failure, and face complex conditions.
The good news? If you have a fixed mindset, you can change it. Johnston and Berger suggest you start by asking “who have I been and who is the leader I want to be?”
Developmental forms of mind
Your developmental form of mind goes even deeper than your mindset. As children, we all start with a self-sovereign form of mind, but most of us have moved onto a socialised form of mind by adulthood. Today’s leaders need to move a step beyond this – to self-authoring.
A self-authoring leader “creates her own vision, makes decisions based on her inner compass, and can test out her ideas with others without losing her own center. Now complexity is visible, and leaders can begin to make use of it to create better systems and decisions to manage risk and to take advantage of opportunity.”
But Berger and Johnston say that 5–10% of people manage to move past even this. They reach the self-transforming form of mind, starting to see across systems and “understand and hold the perspectives of multiple and opposing stakeholders at the same time, knowing that there is truth and importance even in starkly different perspectives.”
Thinking critically about ‘common sense’ approaches
Berger and Johnston give four examples of “well-intentioned, fine-sounding approaches that are adopted for good reasons and that often constrain people in perverse ways.” In my years as a coach, I’ve seen countless leaders make this mistake.
So, what are these not-so-common-sense approaches?
1.We hire the smartest people.
This can lead to viewing applicants as finished products, rather than works in progress. Instead, focus on their potential, on what their viewpoint and experience can add to the team. Ask about when they’ve failed, and pay attention to whether their response showed a growth mindset.
2.We hold people accountable for results.
Should you completely stop paying attention to results? Absolutely not. But you should balance it with a focus on attempts. Otherwise, you’re “likely to stifle innovation and individual growth.” Needless to say, that prevents people from developing a growth mindset or self-authored form of mind.
3.Competition keeps people sharp.
There are some advantages to a competitive culture. But if you’re not thoughtful about it, you end up encouraging your people to rely on external systems of evaluation (not helping them become self-authored), and spend too much energy on demonstrating that they’re ‘better’ than everyone else.
4.We treat people the same.
Treating everyone the same is just fairness, right? Well not necessarily. It fails to account for the fact that people have different experiences, and different needs. You might say “it’s only fair to give everyone access to the same technology, no special treatment.” But that overlooks the fact that someone may have a back problem and need a standing desk, another person may have dyslexia and need speech-to-text software, another may be Autustic and require noise-cancelling headphones…
I think Berger and Johnston sum this up perfectly:
“For a long time in organizations in the West, we have treated the idea of fairness as a simple problem; if we treat everyone the same, give everyone the same opportunities, salaries, and the like, that will be simply fair. Oddly, this leads to fewer women and people of color at the top of most organizations and to a significant pay differential as well. The simple rule has perverse consequences.”
Building growth into your systems
Encouraging growth and development isn’t just about one leader showing the way. It requires structural support. I agree with Berger and Johnston that we’ve created an unhelpful divide between ‘real work’ and professional development. Ideally, they should be interwoven.
One way to do this is by having regular performance conversations, in which all parties have the opportunity for growth and learning.
Another is to try using action learning groups (ALGs) to face your trickiest problems. Participation in ALGs can encourage agility, improve listening and help develop empathy and healthy conflict skills. “Action learning”, say Berger and Johnston, “has a kind of straightforward magic: by helping people spotlight the learning as much as the action, we put the possibility of learning and changing at work in people’s minds in a new way. Declaring learning to be a part of action means that you’re more likely to get both.”
Finally, you can build growth opportunities into meetings. Ask yourself these questions about how you hold meetings:
Do we prepare properly? It’s best to keep your agenda focused on discussion items, and handle informational ones separately.
Do we select topics and attendees properly? Many meetings happen out of habit, not intention, and include sections which are irrelevant to half the attendees.
Are we questioning curiously? Often we simply respond with points we want to make, rather than digging deeper with genuinely curious questions.
Are we agreeing on next steps? Everyone leaving the meeting should do so understanding what was agreed, and who does what next.
Have we reviewed learning? Finish with this, to keep the focus on growth.
Humanity’s ability to learn, adapt and connect has powered our growth over millennia. Today too, these are the skills we need to encourage in ourselves and each other. And leaders who manage to weave them into their organisations will reap the benefits, especially in complex times.