You are about to read an article that’s been created for a true leader like you. For a person with significant experience and hundreds of success stories – big and small. For someone responsible for a group of people, maybe 10 maybe 1000. It’s an article for people, who are used to making decisions based on what you know and the information you get from your direct reports. This is for senior people in any organization, who get asked by many next-generation leaders for being their mentors because you seem to know how business works.
But what if things are needed upside down? What if you had to change perspectives completely for continuing your success story as a leader? What if your perception of how much you “know” and how much you “don’t know” has a tremendous impact on your performance as a leader – tomorrow more than today? This calls for the need to try a different approach.
There is an ancient story about a ZEN-master I was told lately by a very wise woman: A long time ago, there was a wise Zen master and many people would seek his advice and guidance because they valued his experience and wisdom. Many would come and ask him to teach them the way of Zen. One day an important man came to visit this Master and asked to teach him about ZEN. His voice was very direct and decisive, like the voice of a man who used to get what he wanted and get things done “his” way. The Zen master smiled and offered to discuss this over a cup of tea. Whilst the Master was preparing the tea, the important man started to brag with all his knowledge about ZEN and all his experiences, all his success stories and how everyone valued his skills about ZEN. Finally, the tea was ready, and the master poured his visitor a cup. He poured and poured and didn’t stop, the tea rose to the rim of the cup and began to spill over the important man’s trousers and shoes. The visitor got angry and said “He stupid ZEN-master, don’t you see what you are doing? You are spilling the tea all over me – don’t you see the cup is full?” The Master smiled, stopped pouring and answered “You are like this cup of tea, so full and convinced of your own expertise, that nothing more can be added. Come back when your cup is empty because only an empty mind is ready for filling.”
The moment you say “I know” you stop your ability to learn more.
The idea of an empty brain is neither something that’s been valued in the past in any leadership position, nor does it make a leader feel comfortable. Whether you are a baby-boomer or a young millennial in a leadership position, chances are high you have never been incentivized for saying “I don’t know, I need to find out”. You’ve probably been hired for or promoted to your current position because of all your experience and expertise and not for asking so many great questions. That’s not a bad thing at all, it just won’t pay the bills for navigating any organization in the complex future, where any great leader must feel comfortable taking on a beginner’s mind.
Children, for example, are masters in asking the big Why-questions: Why is the sky blue? Why are birds able to fly? Why is it dark at night? As adults, we most likely pretend to know the answers in any given situation. Even if we don’t, we make sure nobody finds out. We try to come up with a quick solution rather than taking time to investigate, trying to find out what’s truly going on or what results in the best possible future outcome.
Especially as a leader, you are always expected to know the answer. You are expected to get things done and not waste too much time because hey, we are in a hurry! There is no room left for trial and error, for scenario planning, for making mistakes and learning from them, for discussion with your teams which options are available and then taking the time to try a few before deciding for the master-plan to move forward with.
Maybe it’s time to try a different approach. It is perhaps the time to change perspectives. Maybe it’s okay if you start saying more often “let’s think this through for a moment”. Maybe it’s time to reward teams and people who try out new things rather than giving them kudos for repeating what they’ve done well in the past.
Maybe it starts with YOU, emptying your very own “cup of expertise” as a leader for a second to allow for some “new tea”….? Where can you take on a beginner’s mind right now?