I have worked in leadership development for the last 25 years and this is where I hope you will enjoy some of the insights I have gained. We know a lot about leadership – and, at the same time, some really important aspects still puzzle us. For example, are leaders born or made? You would think that we would have the answer to this question by now. Yet in every leadership class I have ever led, practising leaders will raise and debate this question, with passionate opinions on both sides. On another theme, research from the University of California, Berkeley, tells us that executives tend to have an IQ of 125 or above, putting them in the top 3 per cent of the population. But we know that leaders who rely on their brains to get them the top job are doomed to failure. Humanity, personal values and understanding others are much more important for the successful leader. In fact sometimes, sticking with the data to take a decision can be the wrong thing to do. And charisma is over-rated. What followers really want is someone who is passionate about the job and who is also going to look out for them.
These insights, and others, are shared through the stories of practising leaders at the top of their game, running global companies. You will find them told in my new book, Inside the Leader’s Mind, published this year.
The lead dog in the husky team was called Babou. Babou knew his left from his right and was very quick on the uptake. One word from the driver and he manoeuvred his way through the steep paths in the snow. The huskies were a good team and followed faithfully. That is, until Babou was asked to cut a new path through the snow. He was confused. He stopped. He looked left and right, but couldn't see a path. The other dogs sensed his hesitation and started to roll in the snow, lie down for a rest, eat the snow. The team wasn't going anywhere. Then Babou set off a couple of paces into the virgin snow, at speed, but quickly lost his nerve and circled back to the path. There was chaos behind him, as the dogs fell out of line and were forced to jump over each other to avoid getting trampled. The driver said 'Babou knows his left from his right, but he is not a real leader'.
After the sleigh ride, I reflected on how you can find simple yet telling analogies about leadership everywhere. And leadership matters everywhere – it makes a difference to organizations, to lives and even to teams of huskies pulling a sleigh. Why wasn't Babou a real leader? Because although he understood how to find his way on existing paths, when he was asked to make a new path of his own, he lacked the courage. And this caused chaos and confusion in the team that he was trying to lead.
It's the same in organizations. We need leaders to make change happen – not to keep us on the same path that we have always been on. Without change, we become less relevant in a world that never stops changing. We need leaders who aren't afraid of forging a new path, a path where others can follow, but where no other feet have yet trodden.
After 25 years of conversations about leadership with hundreds of executives all over the world, it occurred to me that we were still missing something important about leadership. We haven't been paying enough attention to how leaders think. After all, how I think drives how I lead. And through hours of conversations with executives, listening to the stories that they tell, I discovered that leaders think in five remarkably similar ways. The Leadership Mindset describes my global journey to learn more about what drives leaders from the inside.
Fundamental to making change happen is one of these five ways of thinking - no safety net. Babou wasn't happy to create his own, new path. He needed the safety net of an existing path to work his way across the snow field. He isn't a real leader.
What does no safety net thinking involve? First of all, as a leader, you have to understand that you stand alone. Although you may run a big team, or lead a large organization, essentially you are at the head of the pack. If you stop, or baulk at a difficult decision, just like the huskies, the team behind you is going nowhere. Second, you need to have the courage to take that first step across the virgin snow. No-one else has been there before you, although many will follow as you step forward. But there is no clear route or path ahead of you – you have to forge this for yourself. There is a lot at risk in uncharted territory and you are the one who is going to step out.
But be careful not to lose people by getting too far ahead. The husky team provides another great analogy here. The dogs are literally roped together, so that the leader is always in sight and in contact. There is no danger that the leader gets so far ahead that the team can't see or follow any more. You have to do the same as the leader – be in sight and accessible, but always moving forwards, so that others have to move to keep up.
The fourth element of no safety net is to keep a good healthy dose of self doubt. Sounds contradictory, doesn't it? But there are many paradoxes in leadership and this is just one of them. So you need to look confident enough that the team will trust you and want to follow you. You have to show the confidence that will inspire confidence in others. But at the same time, you are marching off into unknown territory. Who knows what might happen? You need to keep really alert to danger signals and listen for clues like you have never listened before. There are endless stories of leaders who got to believe their own press, just before they fell off the edge of the precipice. You need to look and sound confident – and keep listening despite all the cacophony that goes alongside any change.
Will you always be successful? No. So the final important element here is resilience. Be prepared to fail and if you do, pick yourself up and try again. Everyone experiences failure – but it is how we deal with it that separates the leaders from the followers. Leaders try again – and again, and again. Keeping with snow analogies, it's like skiing. The best skiers aren't afraid to fall. And if they do, they stand up, brush themselves off and set off again. Maybe you take a different route, maybe you try a different technique, perhaps you even have another fall. But you get there in the end.
Inside the Leader's Mind describes in detail each of the five ways in which leaders think. It brings them alive through stories from executives who currently lead global companies – leaders like Dennis Nally, Chairman of the PwC International Network; Irene Dorner, President and CEO HSBC Bank USA; Niall FitzGerald KBE, Deputy Chairman Thomson Reuters; and Tom Albanese, CEO of Rio Tinto.
Leadership matters, at all levels. Inside the Leader's Mind showcases the story of a young leader, just starting out, who already shows signs of thinking like an outstanding leader. Like him, you can use the book as a guide for your own leadership journey. A self assessment guide at the end of the book will help you to assess how closely you think like these other leaders, at the very top of their game. The final chapter is dedicated to helping you to craft the next steps on your own leadership journey - to the top.