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Innovation and the inner world of a leader

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During my coaching conversations, I’ve become increasingly curious about the connection between a leader’s inner world of thoughts and feelings and their ability to generate creative ideas whilst in the midst of uncertainty. What are the habits of mind that enable the leader to let go of the pressure of feeling they should ‘have the perfect answer’ or ‘be in control of the future’ and welcome instead a curious sense of ‘what if’ or ‘how might I?’ How might these habits of mind foster a culture of collaboration and creatively in those they lead?

The pandemic, and now the promise of ‘reboarding’ continues to bring new challenges that leaders need to navigate. Reflecting on those leaders who respond with ease and energy, it seems their response is underpinned with three inner world habits that are woven into a metaphor, often discussed in our coaching conversations, ‘the river of well-being’. Imagining our physical, mental, and emotional energy as it ebbs and flows as a river within, can be a powerful way of tuning into our inner world. Our river can be experienced as open, calm, and clear bringing a sense of flow, curiosity, and playfulness; and also, can become narrow, choppy and murky bringing a sense of confusion, frustration and discomfort. Noticing if the river is ‘open’ or ‘narrow’ is a useful first step with the three habits summarised below:

Drop Anchor: How can I pause before responding?

Leaders discover ways to introduce a ‘circuit breaker’ for their knee jerk reactions to challenging situations. Instead, they create a ‘pause’ in order to open up new responses.

  • They notice the connection between their body language and their inner world. These leaders are able to use the body as a ‘tool’ to remain grounded and calm when under pressure. Shifting posture, such as placing both feet on the floor and then breathing out, can create a moment which opens up new responses.

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Dial up Agility: What is the opportunity to learn here?

Leaders recognise that uncertainty offers a chance to learn rather than a chance to fail, as a result they engage with others by:

A) Setting an intention to listen to learn rather than listen to fix

  • They let go of controlling contributions from others, pointing out what is wrong with ideas and interpreting what is being said with their own points of view. They reflect back and summarise what they notice with curiosity and kindness.

B) Asking exploratory and future orientated questions rather than closed leading questions

  • What are the other ways we can look at this? What if we thought about it in a new way? How could this be a great opportunity? Who would have a different perspective on this? What could we learn from them? What could this look like if we imagined we had solved the problem?

C) Encouraging experimentation rather than finding ‘the perfect solution’

They create psychologically safety for themselves to create a culture of safety for others. They are clear about the boundaries of testing new innovative solutions with questions such as:

  • What is the experiment we want to try out?
  • What would a small improvement look like?
  • What would help us to know if things weren’t working?
  • How can we ‘learn, learn and learn’ no matter what the outcome is?

As described here, these leaders have found that the spark of innovation can be ignited through habits of mind. As I return to the quote at the beginning of this article, I invite you, the reader, to also discover:

What habits of mind will give you the courage to let go of certainty and foster creativity?

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