Leadership is often thought of in terms of external characteristics, practices, behaviour and actions. However, this is only half the picture. Joanna Barsh and Johanne Lavoie, writing for McKinsey Insights, insist that leaders won’t reach their potential by only looking at what’s visible – they need to look at their own mindsets.
They add that if a leader fails to recognise and shift mindsets, it can stall the change efforts of the whole organisation.
The authors share five exercises adapted from their book Centred Leadership that can help leaders become more aware of their mindsets and develop the ability to shift them.
1) Find your strengths. Many leaders focus on their weaknesses, leading to a “mindset of scarcity” – the feeling that there is a lack of talent in the organisation.
Barsh and Lavoie suggest the following exercise to learn your strengths:
Find a place where you can get comfortable without distractions. Shut your eyes, breathe deeply and remember the following in turn:
• As a small child. Recall the type of imaginary play you enjoyed the most. Remember the characters or roles you chose in the games you were most attracted to.
• As a young adult. Remember the activities that drew you in so much you lost track of time. Think about what boosted your energy, and what that says about you.
• As a working adult. Remember a high point from the last 18 months. Think about what you were doing and the impact it had on yourself, others and the organisation.
The authors ask: “Looking across these moments, what do you value most about yourself? What would fill you with pride if you heard it from your colleagues and loved ones at a celebration for you? Those are your strengths.”
They add: “Some executives will use the greater self-awareness the exercise brings to catalyse a career change – drawing on feelings that may have been percolating. The vast majority find that the simple act of peering through the lens of strengths is a doorway to enhance their power, generating positive emotions and energy.”
2) Practise the pause. When we’re faced with difficult challenges at work, the upset caused can produce an “amygdala hijack”, where your brain sends cortisol and adrenaline coursing through your body as a defence mechanism. This could lead to you lashing out in anger, walking out on your colleagues or stopping in your tracks.
Instead of this reaction, you should try to pause, reflect and “creatively and effectively” manage what you’re experiencing. Barsh and Lavoie suggest the following exercise to help:
Remember a recent event that was upsetting and still carries an emotional charge. As you put yourself back in the moment, think of an iceberg as a metaphor, where only a small part is visible above the surface. Think about what you’re doing in this moment and the effect your words and actions are having. Now think of below the waterline – consider what you’re feeling but not expressing and your worries. Go deeper still for your values and beliefs – what’s most important to you. Now go even deeper and examine your underlying needs – what is at stake?
The authors comment: “Surprisingly, perhaps, we most often create the outcome we fear. Worried about losing control? When you snapped at your team, you just did. Worried about being heard? When you argued defensively, people turned away.”
Pause and ask yourself what you really wanted in that moment.
Barsh and Lavoie explain: “By noticing when our attention is focused on needs that we want to protect, and redirecting it instead toward the experience we want to create, we open up access to a greater range of behaviour.”
By learning to pause and reengage your thinking, you can replace a mindset of threat-avoidance with one of learning from the moment.
3) Forge trust. Don’t look upon trust as a scarce resource. See it as something you can inspire in people. Your own behaviour can instil trust in others, so be aware of how you appear to others.
To gauge your trust profile, score yourself on the follow test from 1 (“I do this rarely”) to 7 (“I do this regularly”):
• Reliability. “I don’t make commitments if I can’t keep them; I always deliver on my promises and clarify expectations.”
• Congruence. “I align my language and actions with my thinking and true feelings.”
• Acceptance. “I withhold judgment or criticism and separate people from performance.”
• Openness. “I state my intentions clearly with straight talking; I’m honest about my limitations and concerns.”
4) Choose your questions wisely. Fear is a powerful motivator – it gets the adrenaline flowing and makes us sharper. But it’s easy to become overwhelmed and paralysed by it. However, hope can counterbalance this negative effect, so you need to use a mixture of both. Barsh and Lavoie advise you to start with the questions you ask.
First, find a discussion partner and talk about their most pressing work problem. Use only the following questions:
What’s the problem? What are the root causes? Who is to blame? What have you tried that hasn’t worked? Why haven’t you been able to fix the problem yet?
After a few minutes, stop and restart the discussion using these questions instead:
What would you like to see (and make) happen? Can you recall a time when the solution was present, at least in part? What made that possible? What are the smallest steps you could take that would make the biggest difference? What are you learning in this conversation so far?
Stop after a few minutes and debrief. What differences did you notice between the two discussions and your respective mindsets?
The authors explain: “The difference is tangible. The first set of questions, great for solving technical problems, often prompts defensive reactions and leaves participants feeling drained. By contrast, participants report feeling animated, curious, and engaged the second time around.”
They add: “Remember that employees with problems already feel fear. Problem-focused questions only fuel it.”
5) Make time to recover. We’d love to work non-stop in high-performance mode but you need recovery time, just like an athlete.
The common mindset is for commitment to be noticed through hard work and suffering – taking time off during the day is considered slacking. You need to shift your mindset from managing time to managing and balancing energy.
Barsh and Lavoie suggest scheduling recovery activities and sticking to the routine until it becomes the “new normal”.
They offer the examples of a US CEO who recharges his energy levels by consciously seeking out conversations with employees to learn something new, and a technology executive who turns her chair to look out the window, meditating on nature while viewing the oak tree that fills her view.