Beginners Mindset

In conversations during the recent Transformational Leader programme at Hult Ashridge, participants were exploring the need for disruption and innovation – and the leader’s role and responsibility in making these happen

Jack Welch famously said, “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.”

Many organisations struggle to keep up with, let alone get ahead of, the rate of change in their environment. The rate of change in society is accelerating rather than slowing at present: technological advances, political volatility, societal changes and economic uncertainty are factors driving major changes in businesses such as Uber for transportation, Airbnb for accommodation and Amazon for just about everything.

Leaders know their organisations have to innovate, adapt and transform themselves. They also know they are responsible for making things happen – and it is not easy! Perhaps the secret to unlocking the difficulty lies in the previous sentence. Leaders feel it is their job to ‘make change happen’. What if, the harder they try, the less they succeed? Leaders are perhaps applying a logic that maintains continuity as a method for creating change?

Traditional models of leadership come from the military or the school of scientific management exemplified by Taylor and Fayol. A key underlying principle is control: knowing what is happening and being able to predict what will happen – based on cause and effect. Creating disruption and innovation may be best effected by a leader with a ‘beginners’ mindset’. Someone who does not believe they should have an answer, who has the self-confidence to launch experiments and support activities for which the outcomes are unknown and unknowable. Someone who is genuinely curious about what might be rather than what should be. Someone who approaches challenges, opportunities and chance-encounters with an open mind and an open heart. Someone who is not afraid if things are ‘out of control’: a scary thought for most of us?

It is perhaps harder to unlearn than to learn? As Will Rogers said over 100 years ago, “What you don’t know may hurt you but what will kill you is what you know for sure that turns out to be wrong.” I would paraphrase that to “what you know for sure that turns out to no longer be the case.” Old certainties in new contexts don’t work.

The message for leaders is not ‘forget control, anything goes’ however if a controlling mentality pervades an organisation it may well struggle to innovate and change. This is a personal issue, not a question of policies and procedures – although having policies and procedure which encourage disruptive innovation can be helpful. It is the behaviour of leaders that send the loudest signal. Can the leader demonstrate, and encourage in others, a ‘beginners’ mindset’? One in which assumptions are challenged, judgement is suspended, and genuine curiosity drives behaviour. Where experiments are launched, upside-down thinking rewarded, the obvious answer is rejected and the ridiculous applauded? Where the leader is comfortable with their own discomfort at what is happening. As one participant said, the fear of experimenting and ‘living in the moment ‘is actually worse than doing it.

This way of working has to be framed correctly. Judgement needs to be applied at some point, decisions taken about what to stop and what to accelerate – but this is the part most of us are good at! Applying the beginners’ mindset is the developmental challenge for most leaders.

It’s the importance (and difficulty) of unlearning. It’s getting comfortable with your own discomfort. It’s encouraging the ridiculous.

Colin Williams - Professor of Practice

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Hult International Business School
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