International Head of Leadership Development DLA Piper
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Leadership in 2020: why mindset, not skill set, is holding leaders back

Today’s constantly evolving business landscape requires leaders who can flex their style to suit the situation. Coaching leaders today is about getting them to recognise their own mindset, rather than just improving their skills.

19th Feb 2020
International Head of Leadership Development DLA Piper
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Businesswoman leading a training class for professionals
iStock/VioletaStoimenova

What springs to mind when you think of leadership in 2020 and beyond? Increased complexity? Greater ambiguity? Radical change? Digital disruption? Social responsibility? All the above? Being in a leadership position in 2020 is undeniably challenging – perhaps more so than at any other time in living memory.

While businesses have invested time in rethinking business models and even the meaning of work in 2020, the same focus hasn’t always been put on helping leaders consider (or even confront) their views on leadership and what effective leadership looks like today.

Compounding this is the fact that a large percentage of organisations feel unprepared to meet the leadership challenges of the future, according to the Deloitte 2019 Global Human Capital Trends Report. At the same time, organisations are spending more than ever on developing skills in the hope that this will ensure long term sustainability.

Until we spend time working with leaders to address their mindset around leadership and what being a leader today means, however, we are unlikely to see the leadership behaviours we need to navigate an increasingly complex environment – irrespective of what is spent on skills.

Why mindset matters

Put simply, our mindset – our beliefs that help us handle situations – shape behaviour. The psychologist Carol Dweck highlighted this years ago with her research on fixed or growth mindsets. The same can be said for our beliefs around leadership. Thoughts about what leadership means, what leaders do, as well as how leaders view themselves will ultimately impact how they show up and the types of challenges they will be willing to lean into.

The challenge, of course, is that while businesses have invested time in rethinking business models and even the meaning of work in 2020, the same focus hasn’t always been put on helping leaders consider (or even confront) their views on leadership and what effective leadership looks like today.

We need to help leaders air their views, beliefs and assumptions about what effective leadership is and looks like. 

To highlight this further, let me tell you about a leader I met several years ago called Sam. Sam had grown up in a global consulting company at a time when leadership and hierarchy were interchangeable. Sam’s beliefs around leadership were very much about making decisions and ensuring people followed through on instruction. While this may sound slightly archaic today, the company Sam worked for had found itself in financial crisis and needed someone with strong technical capability and an unwavering view on what needed to be done to steer the company back to profitability. While Sam’s style wasn’t always well received, there was no denying that his swift instructions and a laser focus on the financials of the company saved it from an irrevocable fate.

Cut to a decade later, however, and Sam was facing his own leadership crises. His company was financially stable but he found himself among a perfect storm of shifting customer expectation, AI and digital disruption and more ‘unknown unknowns’ than ever before. On top of that, Sam was floundering as more and more people voted with their feet and left that organisation. Despite all of this, what Sam failed to appreciate was that while his organisation was changing at what felt like lightning speed, his view of his role as leader had failed to keep pace. The context was new, but his mindset remained rigid.

Rather than leaning into challenging conversations, Sam shut them down. He asked others for their opinion and then told them why his way was better. He continued to hire people that were just like him.  More worryingly, Sam’s tolerance for risk was low – his personal mantra, though not expressed, seemed to be ‘certainty today brings results tomorrow.’

A few years later I bumped into Sam at a networking dinner after he had left the organisation. Far more humble than I remembered him, he said: “I was blinded by my own style of leadership. I realise now that what made me successful in the past was a shackle holding me and the company back. It wasn’t about skill – it was my views about leadership and what I thought I had to do”.

Sam’s story is by no means unique, so what can we do to prevent similar things happening to leaders in our own organisations?

Focus on mindset and context

We need to help leaders air their views, beliefs and assumptions about what effective leadership is and looks like. We need to help them consider whether these belief systems still hold currency in today’s context and what, if anything, needs to shift. If a leader believes that we should only focus on process improvement, how useful is this belief in an organisation facing radical disruption and change?

A starting point here is to help leaders think about the forces shaping their context and to discuss what this might mean from a leadership perspective. What long-held beliefs and assumptions might need to change as a result? What are our wider expectations of our wider leadership, or those in informal leadership positions across the organisation?

360 and psychometrics

Although confronting for many, providing a leader with robust data about their style and impact can be a wake up call. If a leader believes they are highly effective and having a positive impact, but those around them see something very different then it can be a catalyst for action.

A word of caution here though – feedback orientations and cultures vary greatly and careful positioning and support are required to ensure feedback leads to positive and sustained action. It’s also vital to use a tool with sound psychometric properties, rather than ones that are aesthetically pleasing but without criterion related validity etc.

Self-efficacy and personal experimentation

Your beliefs around whether you have the requisite skills and behaviours to execute particular tasks is also important. If a leader recognises that today’s context requires a different style or capability, but has little confidence in their ability to execute it, then little will change. The key here is to coach, encourage and support leaders to experiment with new behaviours and new ways of doing things. If a leader has held on tight to making all the decisions, then identifying ways to devolve decision making and reflecting on the results is a good first step.

Equally, if a leader realises that the business has been approaching complex problems with a technical lens then they might experiment with bringing diverse teams together to work on ‘wicked’ problems. The key here is not to just reset beliefs, but to get a little bit uncomfortable by trying out new behaviours.

What are you doing to help your leaders get ready for the future? Share your experiences below.

Interested in this topic? Read Leadership: how to develop a growth mindset at work.

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By ben_posmyk
24th Feb 2020 10:49

it is easy to start new initiatives that look like the old ones. Maybe it's similar to a dilemma for a professional pilot: You can be always fly a small, 4-person private airplane. But if you want to fly Jumbo Jets, you will need to expand your competencies, which will make you vulnerable for a time (when you learn). Now, imagine that you learn to fly a Jumbo while already in a cockpit, with an aircraft full of people. What mindset do you need now?

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