A proving ground for leadership
2020 gave us the opportunity to test ourselves and our organisations in a complex and uncertain working environment; 2021 allowed us to make certain that we developed the ability to respond. Like an overzealous teacher, Covid-19 introduced us to the day-to-day reality of a ‘Black Swan’ event, but then extended the project work as it continues through to today. Just as the waves of the pandemic have peaked, fallen, and risen again, we have had to respond by transforming our strategies, working practices and objectives in parallel.
While challenging on many fronts, in the organisation and work realm one of the major battlefronts has been leadership – how it is done, why it happens and what it does. There have been many triumphs of leadership in the last two years – whether it is creating a surge in healthcare provision, maintaining supply networks, or simply keeping businesses afloat. These have been matched by complete failures of leadership character, whether political, commercial, or social. In between there has been a lot of muddling through and discovering the best reactive strategies while simply trying to keep pace with the changes presented to us.
It is impossible to be fully prepared for unforeseen predicaments at a practical level, but what the best leaders have shown us is that leaders can make themselves ready to come through these hazards unscathed or even stepping forward into a new future.
The Explorer’s Mindset
The mindset which a leader holds provides the key to success in the face of challenge. Your mindset is the collection of assumptions, beliefs and attitudes which you hold – these then inform the practices, habits and behaviours which you bring into your leadership role. While most of us are familiar with the overarching concept of a ‘growth’ mindset (the belief that skills and talents can be developed), there are also key mindsets which support leadership in specific contexts.
In our work examining how leaders can best respond to VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environments, the Møller Institute has defined seven vital mindsets which allow any leader to take the helm. To be a leader in these circumstances requires a powerful toolkit which can be called on flexibly and with adaptability. These circumstances require a leadership approach which is open to opportunity, measured in its attitude to risk and conscious in its actions – we call this the Explorer Mindset.
Personal Resilience is a key aspect of the Explorer Mindset. This includes the speed at which a person bounces back from disappointments, their tendency to see things as within their control or influence, and their fundamental belief in their ability to overcome obstacles and thrive during adversity. We tend to have certain beliefs about ourselves and the world that influence our base level of Personal Resilience. However, Personal Resilience also needs to be nurtured in order to be sustained during challenging periods.
Ambiguity Tolerance is the extent to which ambiguity is seen as desirable due to it being perceived as challenging and interesting. Leaders who have a high Ambiguity Tolerance are likely to be attracted to complex thinking and exposure to unfamiliar situations and problems. People with high levels of Ambiguity Tolerance tend also to be relatively at ease in situations with high levels of uncertainty and will tend to be more comfortable than most in executing and leading in those contexts.
Approach Orientation is one facet of motivation. It is a habitual way of seeing things and tends to influence aspects of life such as; what you pay attention to, what you value, the approaches you choose, and how you feel when you succeed or fail. Inherent in Approach Orientation is the drive for ‘gains’ and ‘the ideal’ when pursuing goals. Approach Orientation measures the tendency to identify and pursue opportunities, which is a key aspect of the Explorer Mindset.
Risk Tolerance is another motivational tendency that measures your tolerance for risk. Like Approach Orientation, it strongly influences your perception and decision making. Risk Tolerance measures your sensitivity to risk and the extent to which you are likely to show risk avoidant behaviour.
The ability and desire to lead others to innovate is another key aspect of the Explorer Mindset. This most often comes from a combination of attraction to innovation and an ability to motivate the behaviour in others. The ability of leaders to inspire others to be courageous, try new ways of working and innovate, is another characteristic of the Explorer Mindset.
Being well-prepared, organised, and goal orientated, is a trait that underpins the effectiveness of a leader. Preparedness is also indicative of the extent to which someone tends to follow through on verbal commitments and see projects through until completion. Those with lower levels of Preparedness tend to enjoy the pressure of the ‘last minute’ more than those who are higher in this trait.
Perspective Taking is putting oneself in another’s shoes and seeing things from alternative perspectives. The ability to do this for a range of stakeholder groups, such as employees and customers, is a core characteristic of sustainable leadership. Whilst people high in Perspective Taking tend to naturally empathise and see things from other people’s perspective, it is equally important to check the accuracy of this perception with others through questioning.
Mindsets in reality
At the Møller Institute we have delivered an Explorer Mindset programme for a number of years, helping leaders prepare for the unknown. A number of cohorts have completed the programme since 2017, so we asked alumni to let us know how well the Explorer Mindset set them up for responding to the challenge of the pandemic.
Over 80% reported that the pandemic had significantly impacted their business, that it continues to do so, and that it had created challenges for them as a leader. However, to respond to the pandemic 96% said they had adopted an Explorer Mindset, drawing in the mindsets and behaviours above. This allowed a majority (61%) to create clarity for themselves around the future while supporting 95% to see opportunities to pivot in order to drive change, and to take on the challenge of leading that change and innovation. More significantly, use of the mindsets above led to 87% of respondents feeling that they had been able to respond well to whatever they had been faced with.
At their core, an arsenal of leadership mindsets allows a leader to make active rather than passive decisions. It creates the freedom for leaders to try on different approaches for size and then select the one which will build the best outcome. This is why it is essential for leaders to continually stretch themselves and develop the toolkit which allows them to see others’ perspectives, actively evaluate risk and make judgements, and all the other leadership tasks they have.
The mindset creates the conditions which allow a leader’s skills to be exercised and forms the habits which become routine. We also asked Explorer Mindset alumni about the skills they drew out from the mindsets they developed. Remarkable in their consistency, the skills they felt they exercised the most while adopting the Explorer Mindset were:
‘Leader’ is a role created by consent, and those who succeed are the ones who are able to consciously create the space for others to flourish while steering a course for positive impact. The skills that our alumni have discovered they derive from their exploration of mindsets are those that leaders discover along their lifetime journey, and they are those that have created leaders resilient to circumstances.