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Why Changing Your Mind is One of the Most Important Skills of a Leader

Executive Summary

According to Spiceworks’ 2019 State of IT report, large companies adopt new technology at 10 times the rate of small businesses. In a rapidly changing market, one of the most vital skills a leader can possess is the willingness to change.

  • The future needs leaders who are capable of motivating employees, collaborating across cultural divides, and maintaining order during times of change.
  • A healthy relationship with uncertainty is what will make or break a leader because decisions involve options and options involve risk.
  • To successfully complete a mindset shift, leaders must weigh their values, principles and strategy against innovation, alternatives, and creativity.

The future seems to be coming at us faster than ever. It is not going to slow down. Would anybody seriously consider the idea that tomorrow will be at a slower pace than today? Technology, social media, and the rate of change will never allow that to happen. To go forward, we need to move faster. And as leaders, we need to stay ahead, we need to see more than others, and we need to see before others.

Because of the pace of change, we also need to be flexible. Do you remember the old Mother Goose rhyme “Jack Be Nimble”?

Jack be nimble,

Jack be quick,

Jack jump over

The candlestick.

The more nimble, adaptable, and flexible we are, the more quickly we can move and change.

Plan, but Plan to Change Plans

Forward is also shorter. As a young leader, I was taught that to be effective in leading my organization, I should create a long-range plan of ten years, a medium-range plan of five years, and a short-range plan of two years. That seems absurd now. Today a long-range plan may be two years. Technology and innovation move so quickly that everything is going forward in a shorter time frame. As leaders, we can’t drag our feet or take too long making assessments. We have to change, reread our situation, and change again. And continue changing.

Adaptability is a Requirement For Both Individual and Group Growth

How does a leader do more than just hang on and survive in such an environment? The key is to learn how to continually make leadershifts. What is a leadershift? It is an ability and willingness to make a leadership change that will positively enhance organizational and personal growth. Educator and author Bruna Martinuzzi cited a study conducted by an organization called the Economist Intelligence Unit. It identified the top three leadership qualities that will be important in the years ahead: “the ability to motivate staff (35 percent); the ability to work well across cultures (34 percent); and the ability to facilitate change (32 percent).”

All three of these qualities require adaptability. Martinuzzi likened this to the Chinese proverb that says that the wise adapt themselves to circumstances, as water molds itself to the pitcher. Perhaps at no other time in recent history has adaptability been more important than it is now. "Adaptability—the ability to change (or to be changed) to fit new circumstances—is a crucial skill for leaders."

A more recent study conducted by Right Management and published in The Flux Report made it clear that the need for adaptability is only increasing. They asserted that 91 percent of future recruiting in the workplace will be based on people’s ability to deal with change and uncertainty.

Learn to be Comfortable with Uncertainty

Good leaders adapt. They shift. They don’t remain static because they know the world around them does not remain static. This has always been true, but it’s never been more obvious than today, nor has the ability to change quickly been more important. And when I say that good leaders adapt, I don’t mean that they conform.

As success coach Dave Martin pointed out:

"There is a profound difference between adaptability and conformity. The “greats” seem to instinctively understand this difference, and while they disdain conformity, they cherish the courageous ability to adjust to changing circumstances. Conformity is the negative quality of blending in, becoming average, refusing to stand out or capitalize on one’s uniqueness. Adaptability is the positive quality of being able to sense the shift in wind direction and proactively adjust one’s course to take advantage of that wind shift. While conformity is a weakness based upon fear of rejection, adaptability is a strength based upon confidence in oneself and in one’s own judgment and abilities."

In the face of uncertainty, people who conform pull away to a safe place to protect themselves. Adaptable leaders who make leadershifts lean into uncertainty and deal with it head on. I like what Paul Karofsky, executive director emeritus of Northeastern University’s Center for Family Business, said about this, though he used the word ambiguity instead of uncertainty: "Ambiguity may keep people up nights, but anyone seeking exquisite simplicity in his or her career ought to look for a non-leadership position."

Leaders, by definition, have followers. Followers need direction. Direction requires decision-making. Decision-making requires consideration of options. And consideration of options involves dealing with uncertainty.

If you want to be successful as a leader, you need to learn to become comfortable with uncertainty and make shifts continually…A seemingly small shift can make a big difference. Simple and obvious it may be. Trivial it is not.

activate your "mental floss"

The truth is this: every advance you make as a leader will require a leadershift that changes the way you think, act, and lead. If you want to be an effective leader, you must leadershift. You cannot be the same, think the same, and act the same if you hope to be successful in a world that does not remain the same.

As Malcolm Gladwell said, "That’s your responsibility as a person, as a human being—to constantly be updating your positions on as many things as possible. And if you don’t contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you’re not thinking."

Maybe as leaders we need to recognize the value of “mental floss.” Dentists encourage us to use dental floss daily to promote the health of our teeth; we need to use mental floss to get rid of old thinking and promote the health of our leadership. In my twenties, I was inspired by the words of nineteenth-century preacher Phillips Brooks, the author of the famous hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” He wrote:

Sad will be the day for every man when he becomes absolutely contented with the life he is living, with the thoughts that he is thinking, with the deeds that he is doing, when there is not forever beating at the doors of his soul some great desire to do something larger, which he knows that he was meant and made to do.

I memorized those words and have often used them to move me toward greater growth and achievement.

Leadershifting moves us forward in the face of the natural temptation to be mentally rigid. It prompts us to become more innovative and get out of our comfort zones, question conventional wisdom, and welcome change. Every leadershift you make has the potential to make you a better leader.

Do You Possess the Shifting Skills of a Leader?

Before I talk about the practices involved in leadershifting, I want to lay the groundwork by describing the mindset needed to leadershift.

  • How open are you to change?
  • Are you willing to start asking more questions instead of giving more answers?
  • Are you willing to become a better listener, a better observer?
  • Are you willing to rely more on your intuition and your creativity?

Leadershifting will require you to rely on values, principles, and strategy, but it will also push you to rely on innovation, to seek out options, to harness creativity. You’ll also need to let go of some things and be dedicated to getting better.

Leadershifting is not easy, especially when you first start doing it. Often you leave behind something that has worked to pursue something untested. You’ll have to deal with the tension between the stability that gives security and the adaptability that opens up opportunity. That will empower you to get better, to become someone new before you can grow into something new. The desire to improve will drive you to keep learning. But here’s the good news: learning to leadershift will make you a better leader!

Adapted with permission from Leadershift by John Maxwell, copyright John Maxwell.

Bring It Home

"Would you like to take over the marketing for our company?" Our organic reach was good. Between myself and another content strategist, we were publishing six blog posts a day around core topics in our industry. But we needed a marketing plan to attract a wider audience. We were one of the top three businesses providing presentation design services, however, we were losing out on projects because we weren't sure how to turn our viewers into followers and clients. I had been at the creative agency for about four months, and was finally getting my bearings. Coming from the journalism field, this position required me to adapt my writing style to different formats. Now, my CEO was asking me to take another leap of faith. Would I be able to write marketing copy? What if my marketing campaigns failed?

In the face of uncertainty, I had to detach from my ego. I enrolled in online courses, abused the Google search bar with variations of the term "marketing strategy," and tried and tested different messaging for selling our creative services. Within two months, I developed free pieces of content which I used to build an email list. I supported the list with email funnels that answered more questions and delivered more insight to people. It was not an overnight shift, but by listening, learning, and brainstorming, I was able to generate more leads and revenue for the company.

The value of routine cannot be understated. From exercise routines to skincare routines, a scheduled and defined process for achieving a goal has proven benefits for our personal well-being. Becoming too tied to routines in business, however, can be detrimental to progress. If my CEO had decided to continue relying on blogging strategy alone, our competitors would have quickly surpassed us. When leaders come face-to-face with new solutions and products or services outside of their comprehension, the ability to make a shift in perspective and thought will determine outcomes. How can you, or how have you balanced routine with transformation to promote growth within your team or company? Comment below with your best practices! - Harper Collins Leadership Essentials

John Maxwell

John C. Maxwell is an internationally recognized leadership expert, speaker, coach, and author who has sold over 19 million books. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP and the John Maxwell Company, organizations that have trained more than 5 million leaders worldwide.

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