Leading is not easy. If it were, more people would do it, and do it well. Yet, never have we needed leadership more than in the chaos of our modern, hyper-connected world. Without a doubt, we could use the guiding lights of more leadership talent. Developing leadership talent is hard, especially when a critical element is missing. That element is focus on the scariness of the risks traveling with the new and unknown.
Companies pour major money into training on such leadership fundamentals as vision, strategic thinking and communication. Participants emerge from training with new thoughts, vocabulary and personal action plans. Then, they return to their desks and resume their project work, managing details, coloring between the lines and delivering results. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, except it is not leadership.
Leadership, simply put, is about discovering new ideas that will make things better for an organization and convincing others to make them happen. Whether it is a product that enables better information storage, a team structure where teams rather than managers choose their members or a communication culture favoring advocacy over reporting, all require new thinking and behaviors. They also carry no guarantee of success.
Leadership requires a mindset that confronts the risks of the unknown and its scariness. To take the organization into the future, leaders must take chances and be OK with the unpredictability of the new. Companies need to develop in their leaders a mindset that recognizes the new and its unsettling qualities.
Appetites for risk vary from “little to none” to “large.” Many prefer the “little to none” end of the continuum. That’s OK; however, those people should not lead. They fit better into managerial roles, where the tools and methodologies are tested and known. There is no dishonor in managing. Managers tend to the engines that generate profits. What we do need are people who willingly step out of the known into the unknown territory of new ideas. That’s the role of leaders.
How do you develop a leadership mindset? Below are four important mileposts along the road through the scariness of the new:
1. Identify dreams for making life better.
The role of a leader is to move an organization into the future, not to stay stuck in the present. That means discovering new ideas to meet the evolving needs of stakeholders in a rapidly changing world. Successful leaders jump in with both feet and learn what customers, employees and communities truly want.
Listening without prejudice can be challenging. Responses can be surprising, hard to achieve or even disconcerting. They could say your prized security platform is too complicated, the fancy menu lacks luster or managers choosing project team members disengage the team. Inventing ways to address these concerns can be perplexing, but that is the leader’s job.
2. Get comfortable with the scariness of risk.
New ideas bring risk, because you won’t know whether they will work until you test them. Much can go wrong along the way. Your customers might think the ideas are stupid, irrelevant or expensive. Your employees might greet them with suspicion or annoyance.
With risk comes reward, and failure. In fact, the road to success is paved with failures. Success includes accepting them and viewing bumps in the road as learning opportunities instead of reasons to slash headcount, slow down, or quit.
3. Watch out for self-sabotaging behaviors.
While in the uncomfortable process of testing new ideas, the walls of resistance will rise. Teams can react with tepid buy-in, outright criticism or passive aggression (“Gee, I wish I had time to help, but … ”). Leaders plunge into defensive behaviors that provide short-term comfort but take them away from achieving greater possibilities.
Defenses represent a normal reaction to risk, even when risk brings growth. Everyone has defenses. They appear in many familiar forms: micromanagement, personalizing and conflict avoidance are three common ones. Building a leadership mindset includes recognizing defensive behaviors, understanding their negative impact and adopting better behavioral strategies.
4. Find drivers to give you fuel.
To navigate the discomfort on the way to the new, leaders need to identify a purpose for traveling it. The purpose can represent a fundamental value, such as a core belief in human dignity. It also can be as simple as, “I so despise that guy that I have to beat him with my proposal.” The key is to identify something that will give you fuel to wind your way through with the discomfort of uncertainty on your journey toward the new.