Gaining competitive edge by slowing down, listening

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By John McGuire

What organizational changes are on your leadership to-do list for the new year? If you’re like most leaders today, you have many problems to solve and a host of complex, unwieldy dilemmas that seem beyond solution.

Challenges that defy easy answers are everywhere — finding the right business models in shifting markets, innovating to stay ahead of the competition, and creating and implementing strategies that work in our schools and communities. All our complex challenges, of course, are further complicated by the dire economic realities that stretch from a family business in Colorado Springs to entire governments across the globe. We are all facing the challenges of leadership in an interdependent world.

The only way to survive and succeed as we face these challenges is to grow our abilities to correspond to the size of the challenges — to get “bigger minds” about leadership. As it stands today, most of us are working with cramped, too-small mental models. We’ve hit the ceiling and are trapped in a loop of our own limited reasoning and cramped imagination, and our mindsets need a good stretch. It’s time to bust though the ceiling, raise the roof, and create more headroom for leadership.

As leaders, we need to make space for new, expanding mindsets, new thinking, new ways of learning and understanding our situation and creating alternatives. When we show, through our decisions and actions, a willingness to counter traditional assumptions, we create the conditions for others to learn and collaborate. Together, we can better address complex, emergent issues and build capacity to lead change in an evolving, ambiguous world.

Does your organization need some headroom? What does it take from you to raise the roof on leadership in your organization? It begins with three things:

Willingness to share control. Successful leaders of change understand that they must relinquish the personal need to control and share it with others, and sometimes many others. This calls for different leadership practices.

Leaders who develop themselves and move away from a tightly held “control-center” begin to see themselves as instruments of change. Leaders who release and share control behave as if they don’t have all the answers. They listen and look to see what’s really going on at deeper levels. They develop tolerance for ambiguity and a facility for dealing with complexity. This is not a small thing. These leaders become more confident in themselves working with others as they develop new leadership practices that other leaders can participate in. New solutions emerge.

Think about your Control-Center and its role in how you lead change by asking:

Where is my control center, and where did it come from? Does my need for control actually minimizing organizational risk or does it just containing my anxiety?

What function does control play in my decision-making process? What is the real problem here?

What if I’m wrong, or only half-right? What if there are multiple right answers? What if we all could come up with better answers together?

A shift in “time sense.” Have you considered that some things are too important to be urgent? In the rush to “get it done and get it done now,” many leaders mistake speed for effectiveness. There is a lot of evidence that better-faster-cheaper faded out with the twentieth century. Today’s complex world requires time to question more deeply, observe and reflect before making quick decisions. We call this “slow down to power up.”

Slowing down is about learning, and learning may be the most competitive edge in today’s markets. If you slow down in the face of a grizzly issue you may find that it is a paradox to be managed rather than a problem to be solved. Tough paradoxes like “how much do I manage and make it happen now” versus “how much do I lead and stay focused on the future” don’t go away. They require a both-and approach in which you ask questions, reflect and engage in dialogue.

If doing the same things harder and faster isn’t working for you any more, consider that you might need to slow down to speed up. Begin by asking yourself:

Am I confusing activity with meaningful action?

Is this really a fire I need to put out? Who actually started this fire?

Whom haven’t I heard from? What’s missing? What do I gain from speeding up? From slowing down and learning?

A clear intention. Intentionality is like an internal compass setting; it maintains the courage and commitment to hold true to the course.

Intention is about beliefs — our deep convictions that grow out of our values. I am not talking about superficial intentions or flip New Year’s resolutions, like “I intend to improve my golf game Leadership intention is about deep resolve in your heart and mind.

You need to set your leadership intention as clearly as other goals and metrics. Start by exploring these questions:

Why change? Am I really committed, or am I just giving lip service to appearance and activities?

What are my beliefs and assumptions about change? About a specific change?

Am I being an instrument of change that gets us where we want to be? How do my decisions and behaviors reflect my beliefs?

Taken together, control center, time sense and intentionality are the three cornerstones that allow you, to grow the bigger mind that is needed to lead in a complex, interdependent world. If you change your leadership practices, engage in more learning with others, and make the deep commitment to shifting your beliefs, you will break out of your box, raise the roof on leadership and help others to do the same.

John McGuire is a senior faculty member and Transformation Practice Leader at the Center for Creative Leadership’s Colorado Springs campus and co-author of “Transforming Your Leadership Culture.”