We live in a world that values skill acquisition. Skills are like the best currency in the world; the more you have, the more protected you are for long-term success. Yet the world seems to be disrupting this age-old truth.
Global events over the past several years have propelled the concept of "It’s not what you know..." What is less defined is the second part of that statement. Some have postulated it’s not what you know, but who you know. Others have said it’s what you can prove, while others say it’s what you do with it. There's also a saying that "It is better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so." What does this mean in the modern world of leadership?
As an executive coach and practitioner-scholar, I have spent the whole of my career trying to understand what makes great leaders great. What I have observed in both my work with clients and in academia is that what sets excellent leaders apart from others is the way they embrace and work with complexity. Borrowing from the field of constructivist-developmental psychology, it is not what you know but how you think.
So where does a leader turn to continue their growth journey? First, it is rarely found in a classroom. But equally important, it is also rarely found in those who have been there and done that consistently for 40-plus years. Those leaders who demonstrate the ability to sit with, embrace and engage complexity are the ones who share these five common strategies:
• Lean into tension versus trying to fix it away.
• Seek to understand before you speak.
• Accept multiple truths versus singular answers.
• Surround yourself with people unlike yourself.
• Engage deeply in your own inner dialogue.
1. Lean into tension.
When you approach every problem as an issue to be fixed, you limit the learning that the problem could uncover. Some problems are meant to be fixed, while others give us signals of areas that might be under tension. The simple act of curiosity—asking oneself "How did we get here?" and "What is under tension?" and "What else can we learn from this problem?"—is an excellent way to avoid jumping straight into "How can we fix this?"
2. Seek to understand.
As a leader, you are often measured on your ability to act, think and listen. The challenge is that it’s rewarded often in that order of priority. Our economy values action, movement and momentum. Thinking and listening are in apparent direct contradiction to this. However, the quality of our actions is far greater when we apply deeper listening before acting—listening that seeks to understand. The next time you are in a meeting, have someone observe you. How long before you start asking questions? How long before you start fixing? If all sides of the problem have yet to share their point of view and you have already begun talking, you know there is much work for you to do on learning to seek understanding before action.
3. Accept multiple truths.
While you may know intellectually there is no one answer for every problem, this doesn’t mean your instincts won’t try as hard as they might to find the closest thing you have to the right answer. The problem is that the answer you find is based on your assumptions of truth. The best way to avoid this singularity trap is to harness solutions from the team, while also using the group to decide on the action to be taken and the measurements to explore whether it was the optimal choice. As we know, two heads are better than one, so always challenge yourself with the questions, "What assumptions am I making? How are others seeing this problem? What am I struggling to let go of within my truth?"
4. Surround yourself with people unlike yourself.
Commonality is the single greatest rapport-building tool we have in our kits. In an increasingly globalized world, we tend to want to focus on what makes us the same versus what makes us different. But this can be a slippery slope. Instead of seeking commonality, lean into what makes you different. Surrounding yourself with others who have diverse backgrounds from your own helps highlight in a very stark light the assumptions you make of people and problems. While these differences can cause tension, finding effective ways to engage in these discussions will always lead to better outcomes.
5. Engage deeply in your own inner dialogue.
Ask any leader who has undergone a major transformation, either personal or professional, and they will tell you the heaviest and most important work begins within. Taking time to reflect and be mindful and intentional in how you show up in your world is a critical aspect of change and growth. But this does not happen by accident, nor does it happen by chance. It is through consistent self-reflection that we discover how truly willing we are to let go of the old and start laying the foundations of the new. Make time every day, even if it is only for a few minutes, to reflect. This will pay greater dividends than anything else you will do.
In a world that keeps changing and evolving, the only currency we truly have is our ability to adapt to the increasing complexity. Use these five strategies to expand your capacity as a leader. The result will not only lead to more effective decision-making, but you will likely find a lot more joy.
Dr Saba Hasanie
This article originally appeared on the Forbes Coaching Council, Jul 6, 2022, 8:15am EDT