Leadership and the Unknown: Looking Under the Hood

Leadership and the UnknownSuccess for a leader requires embracing the unknown. Only by seeking out new ideas can leaders reach new strategic directions for their organizations. That is, after all, the job description of a leader. By their very nature, new ideas are untested. You will not know how they will turn out until you have tried them. In short, the future of your ideas lies in the unknown.

The unknown falls into two categories: The external and the internal unknown.

The External Unknown.

The external unknown includes the wide universe of people and things around us that can have an impact on our business—economic trends, global politics, social evolution, technology, etc. With a global, 24/7 hyper-connected world, things change every second of every day. Many of these things can have an impact on how we generate strategy for our businesses. Figuring out everything we need to know is impossible. However, failure to reach out and learn what we can could prove fatal to achieving business growth.

The Internal Unknown.

The internal unknown is what we do not know about ourselves. Not knowing ourselves can get in the way of us engaging effectively with our own internal reality where great ideas are born, and with the people we need to help us with those ideas.

To see clearly the world outside of us requires seeing clearly what is inside of us. Self-awareness is power. It surfaces who we uniquely are, what values we hold dear and the dreams we want to realize. We will never know everything about ourselves. However, our willingness to see ourselves as we are, not as we should be, inspires trust in others. It allows them to connect to us and to our dreams for making things better. That connection produces the strategic ideas we need to build the future of our organizations.

Not knowing ourselves can be a major barrier to success. As Tolstoy wisely observed, “A man is like a fraction whose numerator is what he is and whose denominator is what he thinks of himself. The larger the denominator the smaller the fraction.” In other words, if we think we are something we are not, the channel to new ideas and others gets clogged.

The Impact of Our Biographies

We all travel with our unique biographies that steer us, whether we like them or not. While we have been given many gifts that inspire us to lead, we also live with lessons from the past that can be painful, particularly if not used as a learning opportunity. The more we are able to uncover and acknowledge the influences of the past, the easier it is to see the future without obstructing filters. Some examples:

  • Coming out of a hyper competitive, toxic work environment that discouraged taking intellectual risks for fear of being shot down should not condemn us to pursue only safe, conventional ideas.
  • Understanding how a parent’s own perfectionism affected our self-view is an important step towards not placing a perfectionist burden on ourselves.
  • Detaching ourselves from the impact of a bullying older sibling that made us shy away from conflict in our adult life will help us to find our voices to speak up when we need to do so.

Uncovering and decoding our pasts is not easy. Yet when we avoid such discovery, we limit our ability to stretch into the unknown and take the kind of risks that will bring about positive change. Knowing more about ourselves does not mean we can eliminate the past. We cannot change our biographies, but we can change how we behave as a result of them.

Navigating the Internal Unknown

It is not easy to change our behavior. Here are five baby steps:

  1. Notice: Become aware of when and under what circumstances you get stuck or hold back .
  2. Pause: Once you catch yourself, take a deep breath and allow yourself to step back from the moment, however briefly.
  3. Reframe: Look more broadly around you and focus on picking up a wider field of information. What really is going on in this room, and what do I really want?
  4. Redo: Shift your behavior to a different approach to match what is actually in the room, not what you reactively think is there.
  5. Relive: Later on, reflect back on what happened in that moment and think on what past experiences are showing up that may be getting in the way of you moving your organization forward.

Separating the clogging effect of your past from the reality of the present will help you see the way to new possibilities for the future of your organization.

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