Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Beginner's Mind Revisited

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few."
-- Shunryu Suzuki

"Imagination is more important than knowledge"
-- Albert Einstein

Our modern culture is one in which expertise is honored and rewarded. To move up in the corporate and academic world, more and higher degrees and certifications provide increased credibility and respect. Certainly, professional development is an honorable pursuit.

Nevertheless, many of the worlds wealthiest people never completed college. So, achieving a high level of education is not necessarily a prerequisite to professional accomplishment. In fact, a single-minded drive to become an "expert" can actually hinder accomplishment.

Expertise requires the adoption of paradigms. In order to establish what "expertise" means, one has to set boundaries and structures around a field of study, to observe patterns and create a model that is accepted by general consensus.

The very nature of the system that establishes expertise creates its own pitfalls. In particular, paradigms create a lens through which all facts about an area of study are filtered. So, when information arrives that may not fit the paradigm, the tendency is to reject, change or reinterpret the information in a way that fits the prevailing wisdom.

History is full of examples of great scientific minds whose theories or discoveries were out of line with the prevailing paradigms. Some of these individuals were put to death -- or threatened with death -- for their ideas. Yet, history proved their ideas to be correct; it was the "experts" following prevailing wisdom that were misguided.

So, does that mean one should not pursue expertise? In a sense, yes. If expertise is the goal, rather than a means to an end, then your pursuit of gaining an intimate understanding of a paradigm may cause you to reject, change or reinterpret information you receive in order to fit the model that defines an "expert" in your field.

Great knowledge combined with a "beginner's mind," however, will help you to see new possibilities in an area where you have a great deal of experience. That is one of the great balancing acts of leadership: how to acquire and use knowledge and experience, while at the same time, be open to answers that lie outside of the paradigm of your "expertise."

Einstein is an example of a great leader who found this balance. He had developed significant knowledge and experience in his field and was an expert. Yet, he was able to set the paradigms aside and look at possibilities far outside the prevailing wisdom. Though his own description of the process he used doesn't explicitly state employing a "begininers mind," that is precisely what he did. He said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." And so it is with leadership.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Three Essentials of Leadership - Part 3

"There are three essentials to leadership: humanity, clarity and courage."

-- Zen Lessons, Translated by Thomas Cleary

Part 3: Courage

In Part 2 I provided the example of a CEO that had values clarity that made her decision very clear. If the client could not be trusted to do the right thing, the best thing for her company was to walk away from the deal, regardless of the income potential. But of course, having clarity on what to do is not the same as doing it. She and her sales representative also had to have the courage to execute on their conviction.

In that example, the client did do the right thing and her company did not have to walk away from the deal. So, we don't fully know if the third essential of leadership -- courage -- would have prevailed. We do know she had the courage to give her sales person the authority to walk away, but we don't know if he would have had the courage to do it had the client continued engaging in unethical behavior.

The other two essentials of leadership are only meaninful when combined with courage.

Humanity, the ability to let your guard down, requires courage. People can and do take advantage of perceived weakness. But letting that fact prevent you from opening yourself to the possibilities that come from getting help from others makes you weak in reality, not just perception.

Having clarity of values, vision and focus is ultimately meaningless if you don't have the courage to follow through. You have to know the right thing to do and have the courage to do it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Three Essentials of Leadership - Part 2

There are three essentials of leadership: humanity, clarity and courage.

Thomas Cleary -- Zen Lessons

Part 2: Clarity

Being an effective leader requires clarity -- clarity of values, vision and focus.

A colleague who is in sales recently shared with me a story about a situation he encountered in a past job in which a potential major client -- one that would have represented 10% of his company's annual revenue if they got the deal -- engaged in unethical practice against his company. They had been illegally obtaining licenses to use his company's software prior to purchasing it. Immediately upon discovery of this, the potential client was made aware of his company's knowledge of what had happened.

Just prior to the meeting in which the deal was to be made, the CEO called my colleague into her office and said, "If you don't have complete trust that they are going to do the right thing, you have my support to just walk away. You don't need to run it by me. Just walk away."

Fortunately, the client did do the right thing (the single individual responsible for the act was fired and a formal apology letter from management was issued with assurances this was contrary to their values and would not be repeated) and the deal went through. Nevertheless, my colleague's former CEO showed great clarity of values when she gave him authority to walk away from what would have been the largest deal ever for her company with a Fortune 50 company. My colleague shared that his experience working for that CEO was the single most satisfying time in his career.

If when asked those who follow you can immediately and clearly articulate where you and your organization are headed, you have clarity of vision. No other test is necessary. If your followers tilt their heads with the look of a puzzled dog when asked about your vision, you lack clarity. Or, if their answer doesn't match yours or each other's, you lack clarity. Simply asking the question -- even if you're afraid of the answer -- is a great start.

Having clarity of values and vision is essential, but having clarity of focus is equally important. This means "majoring in the majors." If you know where you're headed and what you stand for, but get bogged down in minuteae or fail to execute on the actions that will produce the greatest return on time invested, then you may not fulfill your vision. Take time to determine what activities will have the most impact toward achieving your vision and spend the majority of your time there.

In my own business, we conduct events. We've developed an internal buzzword called "salad dressing." Instead of focusing on the quality of the speaker, the value of the program content for our attendees or the value proposition for event sponsors, we spend inordinate time evaluating the quality of the salad dressing being served at the event. When we catch ourselves doing something like this, we joke with each other about not getting caught up in salad dressing issues.

Leadership clarity means knowing where you're headed, what you stand for and what actions toward your vision are essential vs. salad dressing.