Joanna Barsh and Johanne Lavoie on “Lead at your best”

LeadHere is an excerpt from an article by Joanna Barsh and Johanne Lavoie for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. They recommend and explain five simple exercises can help executives to recognize, and start to shift, the mind-sets that limit their potential as a leader. To read the complete article, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register to receive email alerts, please click here.

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When we think of leadership, we often focus on the what: external characteristics, practices, behavior, and actions that exemplary leaders demonstrate as they take on complex and unprecedented challenges. While this line of thinking is a great place to start, we won’t reach our potential as leaders by looking only at what is visible. We need to see what’s underneath to understand how remarkable leaders lead—and that begins with mind-sets.

As important as mind-sets are, we often skip ahead to actions. We adopt behavior and expect it to stick through force of will. Sadly, it won’t if we haven’t changed the underlying attitudes and beliefs that drove the old behavior in the first place. Making matters worse, our behavior affects other people’s mind-sets, which in turn affect their behavior. A leader’s failure to recognize and shift mind-sets can stall the change efforts of an entire organization. Indeed, because of the underlying power of a leader’s mind-sets to guide an entire organization toward positive change, any effort to become better leaders should start with ourselves, by recognizing the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that drive us.1

In this article, we’ll share five simple exercises adapted from our new book, Centered Leadership, that can help you become more aware of your mind-sets. Armed with this knowledge, you can start making deliberate choices about the mind-sets that best serve you in a given moment and learn through practice to shift into them without missing a beat. This allows new behavior that improves your ability to lead at your best to emerge naturally.

[Here’s the first exercise.]

1. Find your strengths

A surprising amount of our time and energy at work is focused on our shortcomings—the gap between 100 percent and what we achieved. For many executives, this pervasive focus on weaknesses fosters a mind-set of scarcity: a feeling that there are too few talented people in the organization to help it move the mountains that need moving. Many executives we talk to find it very hard to recognize, accept, and appreciate any other view. The same may be true for you. But what if you could move mountains by starting with strengths, leveraging people’s strong desire for meaning?

Try this exercise to learn your strengths. Find a comfortable spot without distraction. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. When you’re ready, put yourself back in these three moments, in turn:

o As a small child. What form of imaginary play do you like most? What characters or roles do you choose? What games attract you most, and who do you get to be in them?

o As a young adult. What activities draw you in so entirely that you lose track of time? What boosts your energy, and what does that say about you?

o As a working adult. Look back to a high point that occurred over the past 18 months. What are you doing? What is the nature of the impact you are having on yourself, others, and the organization?

Looking across these moments, what do you value most about yourself? What would fill you with pride if you heard it from your colleagues and loved ones at a celebration for you? Those are your strengths.

Of course, there is no magic in the act of self-reflection on strengths. The magic comes when we learn to integrate strengths into our daily work—a real challenge, since many executives believe that strengths are the words that come before the inevitable “but” in their performance reviews. It is hard work to shift mind-sets in the face of mounting pressures and worries. We adopt the athletically inspired mantra “no pain, no gain,” as if the shift to “playing to our strengths” was unrealistic, yet we overlook the fact that professional athletes always aspire to play to their strengths.

Some executives will use the greater self-awareness the exercise brings to catalyze a career change—drawing on feelings that may have been percolating. The vast majority find that the simple act of peering through the lens of strengths is a doorway to enhance their power, generating positive emotions and energy. One executive admitted that the process of understanding her strengths—among them empathy and love of learning—and then hearing them confirmed and appreciated by her colleagues brought tears to her eyes. Another reported learning more about a colleague during a ten-minute conversation about strengths than he had in the previous ten years’ worth of conversations about everything else.

To be sure, everyone has weaknesses to improve. But deliberately shifting to a focus on strengths is a far more inspiring approach; you’ll raise the odds of lighting up everyone around you and unleashing enormous energy for creativity and change. Fabrizio Freda, the CEO of Estée Lauder, told us: “You need super talented people who know they need to do fantastically well. And when your leadership team takes the same attitude, you create a culture where each one can give his or her best…In particular, you have to find the strengths of each individual and of the organization—and then you can create magic.”

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In our work with executives, we’ve found that tools, practices, and exercises like the five above help leaders understand — and shift—the mind-sets that govern their actions. Trying to change our behavior (what is seen and judged) will fail—the old, hard-wired patterns return when pressure mounts — unless we have first addressed internal patterns with conscious effort.

To make change stick, unwire and rewire from the inside. Start with self-awareness: seeing yourself as a viewer of your own “movie.” Once you see the pattern, you have a choice whether to change. Owning the choice creates enormous freedom. And as you exercise that freedom to change your mind-set and practice new behavior, you role-model a transformation—creating what does not exist today but should. And isn’t that what leaders do?

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Here’s a direct link to the complete article.

Joanna Barsh is a director emeritus in McKinsey’s New York office, and Johanne Lavoie is a master expert in the Calgary office.

This article is based in part on the authors’ book, Centered Leadership: Leading with Purpose, Clarity, and Impact (Crown Business, March 2014).

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