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Think Piece: The Foundation of True Leadership's All in Your Head.


A few years ago, I worked with the leadership team of a massive, billion-dollar construction project in its very early stages.

The general manager was a super dude but also incredibly intimidating. For starters, he’s the most deadpan person I’ve ever met. If he were at a poker table, I’d walk away. I’d be sure to lose my wager.

Along with his incredible ability to control his reactions, he was also very assured in his perspective.

I’d been invited to help the team think through the early, formative stages of its leadership philosophy for the project. At the time, there were only seven or eight people, but it would grow to a staff of more than 600 when things got rolling.

One day, the team met for an important and potentially controversial conversation about how leadership would devolve as the project grew. The manager spoke first. I cringed inside a little. I knew the team was intimidated by him, that they’d likely just go along with whatever he said.

And then something incredible happened. He started to speak, then stopped himself.

“I'm probably going to disagree with myself before I finish this sentence,” he said before sharing his view. And his opening left the door open to debate, leading to a fascinating, four-hour discussion.

That one little statement, “I may disagree with myself,” said to everybody, “feel free to challenge me on this, I'm open to changing my thinking.” And it changed everything about that conversation and that team’s dynamic moving forward.

Check Yourself

Being able to question your thinking is foundational to Thinking-Action-Outcomes, or TAO, for short, our core philosophy about how leaders grow. Your thinking as a leader has a far more dramatic impact on the outcomes you’ll achieve than anything you say or do.

This framework sees leaders as works-in-process. Heck, just recognizing that you’re not and never will be done learning and growing is the first step to becoming a true leader instead of just a boss or manager.

The Performance Paradox

Of course, this is easier said than done.

That’s because leaders are used to being right.

As the late, great Chris Argyris writes in “Teaching Smart People How to Learn,’ in the Harvard Business Review, leaders “need to reflect critically on their own behavior, identify the ways they often inadvertently contribute to the organization’s problems, and then change how they act. In particular, they must learn how the very way they go about defining and solving problems can be a source of problems in its own right.”

These well-educated, high-powered, high-commitment professionals are used to being affirmed and rewarded for their ideas. Many have probably been the stars, the standouts their entire lives. And that’s a handicap because they lose the ability to hold their thinking up for examination. They will find all kinds of ways to blame any failure on something else. It clearly can't be them because, well, they don't fail.

The good news? Self-interrogation is a skill you can learn, a habit you can build. As I wrote in a recent post, leader is not a static position at the top or a title. It’s a steady state of becoming.

Kickstart Better Thinking

Of course, endless reflection and self-inquiry are not the goal–delivering results for your organization and stakeholders by engaging your team is.

But better actions and that lead to more successful outcomes rest on better thinking, which starts with becoming conscious of what we believe, assume and perceive.

  • Here are some ways to start the process of challenging your mental models. There are a kind of mental yoga for leaders.:

  • Read a lot. Read widely. For inspiration, check out this post by Kate Wallace, a copywriter, on swapping in some classics among your business books.

  • Seek out and talk to people with different backgrounds and points of view. Constantly ask, “What do they see and believe that’s different from me?”

  • Reflect upon yourself and your thoughts as a leader. Some questions to ponder:

    • What do I think about leadership?

    • What is my role as a leader?

    • How have my thoughts been shaped? What have been the key influences over my mental models? What might change if I had been born and raised in a different place, met different people or gone to different schools?

    • When faced with tough decisions, consider: what are my thoughts, my beliefs and my assumptions about the situation? What about it may be different from what I perceive? What data am I missing? Am I filtering anything out? Who has a different perspective from mine?

    • What are the unintended consequences of my decisions on key stakeholders?

    • What challenges do I face? What have I done about them? What were the results? (Taking action and either not solving the problem or having it pop up in a different form are key indicators that something may need to change about your thinking.)

  • Try arguing on behalf of another point of view. Faced with a decision, try to make the case for taking an action that’s radically different from the one you favor. Consider what’s different about your thinking when doing so. When debating a course of action with others, have everyone “flip” their point of view and argue one different from their own.

  • Keep an open, yet critical mind about everything you read and hear.

  • Keep a journal of your thoughts, feelings, beliefs and assumptions about your role as a leader. Watch how your mental model may change over time as you are exposed to new perspectives or new experiences.

Let me know how you make out with these are simple exercises to build flexible thinking. I’d love to hear about a time you challenged your thinking and it led to better or different outcomes. Share your story in the comments below.

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