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Having the Right mind-set for Being a Leader

“Experience is the best teacher.”

How many times have we heard that, or said it ourselves?

Unfortunately, having an experience does not guarantee learning from it. And that is a critical issue for all aspiring leaders. Responding to environmental volatility and uncertainty requires a degree of personal flexibility and adaptability. Even more so if it is your job to help others detail with their ambiguity and change too.

So how do you ensure you are adaptable and flexible as a leader?

Well neuroscience and a good dose of common sense suggests you have to start with paying attention. When we pay attention we put a little distance between us and the situation rather than being immersed in it. If we can do that, it provides us with the opportunity to reflect and critique on what’s working or not and plan to refine or try something different in the future.
If we aren’t paying attention we have a more habitual and default response based upon our previous experiences and assumptions. There is nothing inherently wrong with a habitual response (you hardwired it because it was a useful cognitive short-cut). Unless of course your assumptions are incorrect or at odds to others.

OK so what does that mean for my effectiveness as a leader?

It means there are two things about HOW YOU think that you should be aware of. Firstly your world view or mind-set dictates largely the experience you have. Think of 2 managers being caught on the hop by the CEO for an impromptu discussion. One is plagued with anxiety and suspicion; one is more relaxed and welcoming of the opportunity. They have very different experiences as a result of the meaning they have put on the situation. This difference in experiences will not only drive their decision making on how best to respond, it will likely impact on their performance too. Caro Dweck in her book Growth and Fixed Mind-sets goes some way to explain the power and influence of how we think and see the world. Her research identified 2 main mind-sets.

It’s helpful to think of Learning Mind-set as a set of prescription lenses, through which you view the world and your experience. If you operate with a mind-set that leads you to view work projects or tasks only as things that you need to do in order to fulfill your job responsibilities and to succeed, then you will most likely focus only on producing the desired results “on time and under budget,” using your current knowledge and skills.


That may be fine where old solutions to old problems are still working. Operating with a Learning Mind-set leads you to view those same work projects and tasks as opportunities to learn something new while achieving the desired outcomes. As a result, you will focus both on expanding your current knowledge and skills and taking creative action to produce the desired results. The conceptual lens of Learning Mind-set leads you to see every experience as an opportunity to learn, grow, and develop. It also supports having a go, reflection, collaboration, soliciting feedback and learning more from others. The ability to learn is a defining characteristic of being human and: “The ability to continue learning is an essential skill of leadership. When leaders lose that ability, they inevitably falter.” Warren Bennis & Robert Thomas That’s all very well you might say but when do I find time to cultivate my learning mind-set?

It is particularly difficult to manage and allocate resources in changing and volatile times. So what is your scarcest resource? In the typical fast moving and busy work environments of today it is tempting to say time or people. A better answer might be your attention — your personal capacity to attend to the right things for the right amount of time and this is our second insight about your thinking. Secondly your ability to focus and pay attention is a limited resource that you can direct.

As a leader do you know what the drivers of success are in your workplace?

I bet it isn’t long meetings, a forest of timewasting emails, unnecessary telephone calls, and tasks that could be turned over to subordinates.

So why do so many leaders get bogged down in this activity?

The study of attention is telling us that excellence in anything is associated with a high level of attention and focus. As our scientific understanding of the brain evolves (yes we have an awful long way to go) it is becoming clear that our attention or focus is a resource to be deployed rather than squandered. The problem is that we may have been under a misapprehension that we have the cognitive bandwidth to be across all these modern sources of information and entertainment and connectivity. We can be surfers on the waves of information we are exposed to.

But how true is that?

As Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon first suggested 40 years ago, when information is plentiful, attention becomes the scarce resource. How we feel and the degree to which we are paying attention affects our comprehension, our memory, our ability to listen, to learn and gain insights through reflection. What we are focusing on also affects our emotional state and even our ability to read others’ emotions and interact effectively. It is not overstating it to say that what we pay attention to has a huge influence on our lives, let alone our ability to lead others.

So how are we using our attention in today’s busy workplaces?

It is my view that we are inadvertently diluting our attention because we believe we have all the resources we need when we need them. The same applies with our teams and organisations. If you think of attention as a collective company resource how is it currently being deployed and what can you do as a leader to constructively influence that? So perhaps the biggest challenge we face as individuals at work, and as leaders, is attention management. This means being thoughtful and disciplined about how we split our time between different activities, and also about how we encourage others to focus on the right things. And that is probably the defining difference between excellent leaders and the rest they spend more of their time focusing on the right things that drive value.

Effective Leadership

Our world view is so pervasive and profound in its effect on us that it is clear that if we want to be effective leaders we have to be aware of our own mind-set and purposefully cultivate a growth and learning perspective. We also have to be more purposeful and mindful about our thinking and the attention choices we make. Daniel Goleman usefully suggests there are 3 areas that all Leaders need to pay attention to:

  • Internally: reflecting, gaining insights, developing our self-awareness
  • Interactions with others: reading the emotions of others, empathy, listening, adapting our style
  • The wider world: Strategy, trends, industry, planning

It might be interesting for you to reflect where you are focusing currently and the impact of that.

Only by being purposeful on what we pay attention to as leaders and how we use our limited cognitive resources are we empowered to be able to choose and create a positive impact. If management by objectives characterised the 1970’s challenges of getting everything done, perhaps today’s challenge is identifying the critical few things to do and the many other things to stop doing.