Leadership is about changing YOUR mind

Leadership is about changing YOUR mind

By Karen Ellis and Mike Vessey

Whether we take our inspiration from the Olympics or the need to feel good on our upcoming summer holiday, we have, it seems, no problem with the idea of continuing our physical development.

But it’s hard to imagine an equivalent spur causing people to rush en masse to develop their mental capacity in adulthood. Mental development is often perceived as ending after our education.

Unlike physical fitness though, the good news about mental development is that our peak performance doesn’t decline with age: we can carry on improving our mental abilities into our seventies.

And when we look at the sort of mental development people are capable of in adulthood, it’s very different from the competitive acquisition of knowledge in early education. It’s far more about broadening mental perspectives, becoming more flexible in your thinking and learning to examine and question your own beliefs.

For leaders, achieving these new levels of capacity is a necessity not just for their own development but for the health of their organisations. The qualities and skills that got them where they are, are still essential but are not enough to cope with the interconnected, rapidly changing and complex world we live in.

This state of affairs can be summed up as VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, four interlocking forces which require far more from leaders than what have been traditionally seen as leadership capabilities. Foundational skills are still necessary but we need to understand why one leader operates much better than another in VUCA conditions even though both seem to be equally intelligent, hard-working or experienced. Simply getting better at what we already do - acquiring more knowledge and more skills - what we might call ‘horizontal development’ - won’t help us.  We need to grow ‘vertically’.

At MDV Consulting, we believe someone’s ability to stay ahead of the game as the world is changing is driven by their ability to expand their mental capacities to keep pace – to upgrade their operating system rather than just installing new apps, if you will.

More good news: people are hard-wired to learn. They never stop and even if they appear to have stopped developing at work, they may have been learning new things in their personal lives.

So why do people stop learning at work? The organisational context may be too sterile, too repetitive to offer scope to learn. Or they may have experienced or seen others experience negative feedback for experimenting and failing. They start to lose confidence in their own ability to change.

It’s not a question of talent or motivation. These people will already have a strong ability to think critically about their own mental processes and a desire to learn. They just haven’t been given a programme to develop those muscles. Some of these muscles are more cognitive, such as the ability to deal with information and patterns. As people develop, they increase their ability to deal with more and different data, connecting the facts of a situation, the emerging social context and the need for a new narrative. They start creating their own maps as they move into unknown territory.

And some of the muscles are more related to ‘emotional intelligence’, such as staying resilient. The leaders we are describing know how to manage their emotions and energy as well as their thinking - they build the capacity to make better choices on how to respond in the future.

In our Leadership in a VUCA world article, we describe the four ‘mental capacities’ demonstrated by late stage leaders (complexity handling, intellectual fluidity, self-observation and perspective-taking). At MDV Consulting, we work with leaders to build those capacities and, as importantly, to help them improve their ‘development engines’ – two critical aspects known as metacognition and learning motivation:

Meta-cognition, as it is technically known, is your ability to think about your thinking or, more broadly, to be aware of your awareness. Leaders who thrive in VUCA are able to notice when they are over-attached to an old set of beliefs. They can let go of their maps and invite challenges to the new maps they are drawing, even as they are drawing them. 

Learning motivation, or ‘learning to learn’, may seem an odd requirement for VUCA leaders. Surely they have sufficiently demonstrated their learning motivation through their experience in getting to their current position?

It seems not. David Snowden (originator of the Cynefin model for diagnosing decision-making situations) shows us that in complex situations, we can only ‘learn the way forward’ – by definition, in circumstances we haven’t seen before. We must share our data, send out ‘probes’ into the new environment and run ‘safe-to-fail’ experiments as if our organisation depended on it – which it probably does…

Fortunately, the VUCA leadership capabilities are eminently learnable: they are not fixed traits or characteristics, not simple correlations with IQ or expertise. However, this development in ‘meaning making’ does not happen by accident.

Leaders who continue to develop often trace significant changes in their ‘meaning making’ back to transformative experiences in which they have focused on their learning.

At MDV Consulting, we know that we can foster this ‘capacity’ development in ourselves and others by creating experiences in which we choose to learn, and by supporting that transition with coaching and structured interventions. So how do we build the ‘mind gym’? Organisations can create learning opportunities using day-to-day challenges of real work. We build our learning programmes around people’s own ‘leadership challenges’, adding in specific accelerator activities which fuel those development engines and help maximise the opportunity to learn. The idea for those insights are originally from two articles written by Nick Petrie at the Center for Creative Leadership. These accelerator activities are:

Heat experiences
Put individuals in unusual and edgy situations where it is safe-to-fail and they will often find that their current meaning making is stretched to the limit.

Colliding perspectives
When leaders are exposed to radically different points of view, they learn to challenge their assumptions and hold contradictory ideas in their heads at the same time – leading to new ways of approaching old dilemmas.

Elevated sense making
Just as a sports coach helps an athlete bring together the different aspects of training into performance, so our MDV trainers create processes which help leaders make sense of the new experiences and encounters, and show them how to put their new, expanded worldview into practice.

Clearly a one-size-fits-all development programme will not suit all individuals. As with fitness training, we know it is important to design programmes which can flex activities to a person’s current capacities and the size of their ‘engine’.  Some will move faster than others, but it is important not to rush things. Like lifting weights or running a marathon, deconstructing your conceptual framework is not something to be taken lightly!

Reflective exercise:

Does your organisation offer people a chance to stretch or develop, or are they stuck on a treadmill of repetitive experiences? Is your own routine challenging or confining you? What could you do to get yourself and others learning again?

For more information

Curious to know more? Download our White Paper: What in the world is going on? Mapping Vertical and VUCA beyond the bandwagon

Try vertical capacity building exercises on your own challenges, on our one day workshop. Book here

Read the unabridged article here.

 


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