Take a look at the picture above. You might see a pretty landscape, confronting terrain or a climbing playground. I stopped rock climbing at the age of 30. As much as I loved it and saw others climbing safely and well, I became overwhelmed by the risks involved, so I stopped. At 47 I have started climbing again – I’ve changed my mind.
Now this may not sound like any kind of endorsement to you. However, I believe that being able to change our minds at this level is vital, literally ‘life-giving’. For at the heart of all of our seemingly intransigent problems is an issue of our mind’s view of the world and beliefs about what we should do and are capable of doing. Expanding our mind’s view opens up new ways forward.
I am talking about something much deeper than integrating new information as it becomes available. This is about addressing our fundamental and often unconscious beliefs and assumptions which underpin our mind’s view. A vital part of our work as adults is to become conscious of them for they silently shape all our decisions and actions. With awareness we can consider if they still serve us or those we care about and, if not, replace them. Without this work we are guaranteed to be making limiting decisions affecting what we and others can achieve.
There is a plethora of research into the importance of early experiences and socialising on brain development. Many of us will know the Jesuit saying of “give me the child for his first 7 years and I will give you the man”. During this period we are building our first frameworks of beliefs for making sense of the world – without awareness or the ability to critique what we are absorbing. We continue to build on this foundation throughout our lives, for humans are profoundly sense-making creatures. We naturally piece together elements from our experiences which affirm the mindset and beliefs we have.
The multi-award winning film Sherpa offers a powerful exposé of this process in action. It explores the experiences of Sherpas and Western climbers at the time of the tragic ice avalanche on Everest in 2014 in which 16 Sherpas were killed.
Many of the people filmed present individually cohesive, yet mutually conflicting understandings of what is happening.
Tensions rose when the majority of Sherpas threatened to stop all climbing because they were angry with their government’s lack of support and out of respect for those killed. The climbers were heavily invested in their objective of summiting Everest and many wanted to continue. These are different and yet reasonable points of view. Then during a terse discussion about the Sherpas, one Western climber asked his Expedition Leader “Can’t you talk to their owners?” As the cinema audience gasped in horror at the slavery-era belief implied by this statement, I wondered what my version of that might be?
What’s certain is that we all have hidden beliefs which others would find bizarre and we need other people to help us uncover them.
An extra twist for leaders
Traditionally, leaders are paid to have the vision, set the strategy and drive the execution. We believe we are responsible for finding the answer. This works very well for leading technical problems where similar matters have been successfully resolved before
Increasingly we find that the proper understanding of the problem exists across multiple stakeholder groups. For example:
- What is the proper response to issues of environmental sustainability?
- Is my Government doing the right thing about the economy, social policy, foreign policy?
- How are disruptive technologies and Gen Y thinking going to influence my industry/business?
No one person can derive the solution to such complex issues as these. They have to be co-created. If you’re in a senior leadership role, you know this challenge well. It requires a being able to step beyond our prejudices and preconceptions to engage others.
We can think we are expanding our thinking and testing our beliefs when actually we are still sourcing from within our paradigm. An example of this is the AFR Business Summit held in Melbourne, Australia in March. It was an excellent program with some superb speakers and panellists on the question of “risk or growth?” A fair question for the business world. What struck me was that concepts of growth were predicated on the conventional wisdom of increased consumption. No one addressed current estimations that we are already consuming 1.6 times each year what the planet can sustainably produce.
This reminded me of the wisdom in the humour of Douglas Adams. He wrote in ‘Life the Universe and Everything’ of a spaceship hovering above Lords Cricket Ground in the UK protected by the most powerful force-field in the known universe – the Somebody Else’s Problem or SEP field. “Any object around which an S.E.P. is applied will cease to be noticed, because any problems one may have understanding it (and therefore accepting its existence) become Somebody Else’s. An object becomes not so much invisible as unnoticed.” The truth of this is both funny and frightening.
Changing our minds requires commitment and a sense of adventure
Otto Scharmer and his colleagues at the Presencing Institute, MIT have been helping leaders for the last 20 years to radically open their minds, hearts and wills to what is new, unknown and thereby generate radically different solutions. As mentioned above, we need other people to help us uncover our hidden beliefs. One powerful tool they teach is called an empathy walk. It means deliberately seeking out someone who operates at the fringes of our community, perhaps holds opposing views and then deliberately suspending all judgment and preconceptions as we spend time with them. Our aim is to see through their eyes, hear through their ears, feel through their skin, to understand how they love what they love and honour what they honour. We don’t have to share their beliefs, yet we can discover how their world makes sense to them. It’s a great antidote to that SEP field!
I was privileged to have a long conversation many years ago with James Strong, former CEO and later Chairman of Qantas about the understanding he forged of people at all levels of the organisation. This he developed by giving time and attention to people in their world, building connection and valuing their ideas. Some might call this ‘management by walking around.’ However, the intention was akin to the empathy walk.
The gift of the empathy walk is discovering our hidden prejudices, assumptions and misunderstandings. This awareness automatically changes us, enlarging our thinking so we become much better equipped as leaders. We then have the mindset necessary to tap into the power of collective wisdom which reaches well beyond our experience – to truly lead innovation and to shape new paradigms.
I stopped climbing when I was 30 because I had run out of mental and emotional reserves. I didn’t know at the time but I was struggling with a perfect storm of inherited beliefs of “don’t push your luck” and “don’t trust yourself”. Each time I lead a climb successfully, rather than confirming my competence it became another lucky escape from what I believed was an inevitable accident.
The easy path is to walk away from what we find hard, to stick with what’s comfortable. The personal challenges I encountered climbing were potentially life threatening. They certainly felt hard and intractable. Bashing away at the problem directly wasn’t going to help. So I went on a walk around it, intentionally experiencing new things and learning new models to adjust my fundamental belief structures.
At 47 I have no ambitions to be a great climber or alpinist. I’ve left my run a bit late! My intention is to be in wild places that nourish my spirit for as long as my body will let me.
The power of the journey is knowing that I can, we can, change some of the deepest and fundamental drivers behind how we show up every day, the impact and influence we have on other people and the solutions we see and support. Whenever a problem feels too big to handle our best response is to practice the art of changing our minds. For it breathes new hope into the biggest issues – no matter how complex and intransigent the challenge may seem.
What statisticians have long referred to as confirmation bias.
 See publications by Ron Heifetz, Marty Linsky from the Kennedy School on Adaptive Leadership, Harvard Kennedy School.