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To Become A More Effective Leader, Try Unlearning

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Beliefs and mindsets that once served us well can become obstacles when we move on to the next career opportunity. How to identify those mindtraps, and set yourself free.

You’ve been promoted to a CEO position. To be effective, you must now transition from someone whose success has depended on technical skills  to someone inspiring others to give their best. In other words, you’ve gone from playing quarterback to being the team’s coach. And the most effective coaches are those who lead not only with their heads, but also with their hearts—I call them “human leaders.”

To connect with others in this way, you first must better connect with yourself. To make this transition, follow these three steps:

• Identify the mindtraps that stand in your way of becoming a human leader.

• Shed these negative mindsets to spearhead a mindshift.

• Embrace a mindbuild by adopting new mindsets and habits to better connect with yourself.

Identify your mind traps

Patrick had built a successful career using his technical expertise.  He spent his free time solving math problems and approached most challenges¾and people¾as equations to be solved. But his company’s CEO hesitated to promote him to a leadership position. To succeed in his prospective role, emotional intelligence was far more important than the technical competence that had underpinned his success and gave him a sense of pride and identity.

Beliefs and mindsets that once served us well—bringing us success, recognition, belonging or love, for example–can become obstacles. We often cling to what worked well at one stage of our life, failing to adjust when we, the people or circumstances around us change. When transitioning into leadership roles, most of the mindtraps we face fall into two main categories: identity and roles.

First, identity. When one single area of our lives—whether career, children, cause, or vocation—absorbs an overwhelming share of our time, energy, and attention, it can easily hijack our entire identity. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but when this mental construction is challenged and doesn’t adjust to different circumstances, we risk getting stuck or becoming undone. Patrick, for example, had invested much of his identity and self-worth into his technical expertise, which greatly influenced how he related to people around him.

The identity mindtrap works both ways: not only do we tend to overly tie our self-worth to what we’ve accomplished and current skillset, we sometimes limit ourselves in areas we feel less experienced or in control. All the “I’m not good/strong/competent/brave, etc. enough” are common mindtraps. So are identities built on labels, titles, or on how you compare to others, such as “I’m an engineer,” “I’m an athlete,” or “I’m the smartest person in the room.” Beware of those mindtraps when you’re serving in leadership positions, as your identity can often be reduced to I’m a CEO or I’m in charge.

But what happens when your new job no longer requires that technical expertise? Or when you don’t have clear answers to a problem? You become afraid to change, or unsure of who you are. It takes great courage to let go of what has defined you and drove your success, and to embrace the unknown of a new role that requires different skills. But the more you’re able to define yourself beyond these identity mindtraps, the easier change becomes. So, spend some time reflecting on how you see yourself, and what you value about yourself or wish to change.

Second, the role mindtrap. Imagine a jacket or suit that is the wrong size or cut for you. Unless you decide to go for clothes that fit you, you have a problem. Either you manage to squeeze yourself in and feel very uncomfortable, or you can’t even wear them at all, and you start feeling you’re the wrong size and fit, instead of the clothes. This is what happens when we believe that there is a one-size-fits-all model to being a good leader or a good colleague, for example, but this model is at odds with who we truly are. Whether we realize it or not, we all carry mental models of the many roles we fulfill in our lives¾at work and at home. These models are drawn from people around us, but also from social norms.

What does it mean to you to be a good leader? For decades, the superhero leader model dominated the collective business psyche, sending legions of business graduates and corporate professionals on a quest to become, or pretend to be an impossibly fearless, and infallible leader. This has left executives feeling either like imposters for projecting a façade that doesn’t reflect who they truly are, or inadequate for failing to tick the “right” boxes. This is a problem for many leaders, regardless of their background: instead of wearing a well-fitting human-leader suit, they’re trying to squeeze themselves into a superhero one. The role mindtrap is pervasive in business environments beyond leadership positions. According to research from the Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion, 61 percent of employees feel they need to hide part of who they are at work.

This is the kind of mindtrap that stood in the way of my client Blake’s ability to lead. Blake had left his corporate job several years earlier to start a company but was convinced that becoming a successful leader required degree from a top university, being hyper-analytical, and showing no emotion.  This was the direct and indirect message he’d absorbed from a young age.

But Blake was none of these things: he’d been a mediocre student; his strengths were not analytics, but rather vision, creativity and human relationships.  Because he didn’t fit the profile of a stereotypical leader, Blake believed he would never succeed by himself.  This mindtrap led him not only to find a business partner who fit the stereotype of the superhero leader, but also to let that partner shape the business.  Blake’s innovative ideas were never prioritized, which left Blake frustrated, unhappy and unable to lead his team effectively.

Operate a mind shift

Mindtraps affect how we communicate with and relate to others—and how we lead. Before we can replace them with new mindsets that support our journey towards becoming more effective human leaders, we must first shed our mindtraps. How? We challenge them by asking these pivotal questions:

• Is it true?

• Is it relevant?

• Is it still helpful today?

Blake’s mindtrap about successful leaders, for instance, didn’t hold when put to the test of the first question. Plenty of effective leaders do not fit that superhero profile he assumed he needed to succeed. As for Patrick, even though he was truly an excellent technician, investing his self-worth in that identity was neither relevant nor helpful in the context of becoming a leader.

Embrace a mind-build

Once mindtraps have been identified and shifted aside, we can now develop mindsets that support us as effective human leaders. First, we need to decide the kind of leader we want to be. I find writing one’s eulogy a powerful exercise to identify what fundamentally drives us, free from the distraction of short-term considerations.  How do we want to be remembered? What have you done today and what can you do tomorrow to move in that direction?  Another tool is to identify your role models, and what makes you admire them.  How can you embody these qualities today?

Besides defining the kind of human leader you are, an effective mindbuild requires staying connected with yourself—every day. It is easy to get lost in the busy-ness of everyday life, and just like our muscles, the new neurological connections we’re establishing require daily exercise to strengthen. Take time each day to check-in with yourself, to connect with what drives you, and the behaviors you embrace.

We live in a world in transition. Today’s leaders face extreme uncertainty and economic, social and geopolitical challenges. More than ever, we need leaders able to connect with those around them on a human level, so they can apply individual talents and energy, and channel this collective power to successfully navigate leadership challenges.


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