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How to Lead with an Open Mind

True open-mindedness, the kind described by Laszlo Bock, is a critical, but unappreciated component of CEO leadership.

GettyImages-535853839-compressor“What we’ve seen [at Google] is that the people who are the most successful here, who we want to hire, will have a fierce position. They’ll argue like hell. They’ll be zealots about their point of view. But then you say, ‘here’s a new fact,’ and they’ll go ‘Oh, well, that changes things; you’re right.’ – Laszlo Bock, SVP of People Operations at Google, (New York Times)

True open-mindedness, the kind described by Laszlo Bock, is a critical, but unappreciated component of CEO leadership. As a trait first measured by social psychologists in the ’50s, open-mindedness has not been studied in relation to leadership effectiveness. Here are the key characteristics of open-mindedness and how it can be cultivated by organizational leaders.

What does “open-minded” mean in organizational life?
On the simplest level, open-mindedness means being receptive to new ideas and new information. In organizational life, it has several dimensions:
An openness to internally generated inspiration or innovation (creative dimension)
An openness to the ideas of others in the organization (collaborative or team dimension)
An openness to new trends and needs evident in customers and markets (external sensing dimension)

“On the simplest level, open-mindedness means being receptive to new ideas and new information.

How to develop open-mindedness
Guided self-reflection can help you cultivate the collaborative dimension of open-mindedness. Either solo or in concert with a coach/thought partner, use the following prompts:

  • Are you able to admit you’re wrong? Take note of your own tendencies to make excuses, extensively explain and argue. Dissect recent disagreements to examine whether you were appropriately defending your position or shutting out others’ opinions and important observations.
  • Can you describe instances where you, as a leader, changed your mind on a fundamental organizational issue? How did you come to see things differently?
  • Are there key people in your organization whom you turn to because they will give you the “unvarnished truth?”
  • Can you describe a time when your team took your initial point of view or decision, reworked it, and came out with a better decision? How did you respond?
  • Finally, reflect on how your organizational culture either fosters or devalues open-mindedness. As a leader, do you promote or hinder open-mindedness as part of the culture? As the CEO you can elevate the importance of open-mindedness as both a value and a behavior.

A question of balance
Our traditional view of leadership stresses forcefulness, courage and risk-taking. But as important as these ideas are, when coupled with closed-mindedness, intolerance of dissent and groupthink they can lead to organizational ruin.

Open-mindedness is foundational to both good decision-making and organization-wide engagement. We need to do more to value, select for and develop open-mindedness, for it is the dynamic balance between forceful action and open-mindedness that defines outstanding leadership.

About Steve Axelrod, Ph.D.

Steve Axelrod, Ph.D.
Steve Axelrod holds a Ph.D. in psychology from New York University and has been an advisor and coach to high-level executives on leadership, organizational dynamics and high-risk executive behavior for 20 years. You can learn more about his approach at http://steveaxelrodconsulting.com.