Leadership and mental complexity

A few days ago I finished reading the book Immunity to change. It was a great reading and here are some thoughts about it I would like to share with you in this post.

The authors describe three different levels of mental complexity.

  • Socialized minds are strongly influenced by their perception of the world and by what others want to hear from them. They also influence what they receive and are deeply influenced by what they pick up – that sometimes goes far beyond the original message. They are team players, faithful followers and seek direction from others.
  • Self-authoring minds view the world through their eyes only, have their own agenda and are great problem solvers. Their attitude goes towards getting behind the wheel to drive the car but they also filter the information that comes through and that’s just what is relevant to their design, nothing more. These people can be very focused and result oriented, but their plans can lead to a disaster if some crucial elements are not considered.
  • Self-transforming minds can look at their filter, not just through it. They leave space for their agenda to change, depending on new information that they can very well receive. When they inquire information, they don’t look just at what will advance their design, but they question the design itself, seeking for new elements that might alter, evolve or change it dramatically. They are likely to receive information and people are likely to send it to them. They are aware that their behavior will influence people’s decision to approach them and be open because such information will be welcome. They are emotionally intelligent, aware of themselves and others. They are capable of thinking outside the box.

The current market is asking leaders to shift from self-authoring to self-transforming minds. The complexity we currently deal with requires technical skills as well as adaptive approaches and flexibility to change, experiment, fail fast and learn. In order to face these challenges, leaders have to change their mind-set: this implies a higher level of mental complexity that is needed to achieve better performance.

I consider leadership coaching crucial to make this mind-set shift happen and open the door to a new world of discovery. It is a discovery of self and others, discovery of links and influences. A discovery that completely changes the approach to the world and the receptiveness of what’s going on around you.

Let’s try and make things clear with an example!

A manager is looking at ways to improve performance and investigates possible root causes. He creates a comprehensive picture of key elements contributing to what is happening. Then talks to his direct reports and goes through the list of all the inefficiencies that, in his view, have to be looked at. Everyone seems to agree to the list.

You might have guessed the level of mental complexity we are looking at and what a self-transforming mind would do differently.

He would present the problem statement to the team, ask them to brainstorm and come up with the key factors influencing the problem. He would not come with an agenda, maybe he would not even be in the room to make sure that his people feel safe to speak up. He would ask a coach to work with them to gather ideas in a creative and inclusive way to come up with a more comprehensive view of what could make the difference. He would trust them to come with the best solution!

Chances are that in the first scenario they would only reach out to a coach if things are not improving.
How would I coach my client in this scenario to step up and think outside the box?

Here are some of the steps that would guide my strategy to support this client:

  • believe that he can make it and he has full potential to succeed, despite what happened
  • work to increase his awareness of his own filter and limited agenda
  • discuss with him what safety looks like in his team and how he is influencing it
  • challenge what would happen if his people had to figure it out for themselves
  • understand how much he trusts his people and work on how he can get the best from them
  • discuss the impact of not trusting them vs allowing them to fail
  • picture best and worst case scenario: what would happen if they totally screw it up? what if they succeeded?

As a coach I am in a position to work with this leader and influence change within himself so that he can get what he wants.

However, there are a few must-have ingredients that will allow me – and him – to succeed:

  • a relationship based on trust that would allow me to challenge him
  • his openness to look at what’s behind the door of self-discovery
  • his willingness to change to become an agent of change and start the journey to become a better self
  • his willingness to accept the cost of the change to take his/her people through this journey
  • his openness to understand the impact of not changing.

A mentor once told me: “asking for the help of a coach is like going to the doctor, you won’t do it unless you think you have a problem”.  I have seen many organisations that treat coaches as doers, not as agents of change and leaders that do not ask for their support because they are not willing to change, that’s someone else’s job! I explain my role as a coach to leaders when I start an engagement, offer my support and leave the door open for when they are ready to move to the next level of mental complexity.