Leaders need to renew their own way of thinking before they can hope to transform their organizations. According to Rotman School of Management’s Professor Scott Rutherford, the way organizations transform themselves is more to do with what's going on inside the brains of their leaders than what’s going on inside the organization. This is an extract from his recent article:
Organizations typically respond to performance challenges by bringing in new and different leaders. But more effective and less disruptive transformation happens when there is a change in the way of thinking and being among the leaders who are already there. Leaders who regularly re-fashion their thinking can in turn model this change in approach for others, preparing the ground for organizational transformation and the next phase of collective success.
The process of stepping back from the daily tyranny of the urgent to reflect more deeply has been described by leadership researcher Ron Heifetz as "the balcony and the dance." Our day to day work is focused only on the dance. We react to the daily and quarterly crises. We respond quickly as we have before. We get the same results, but we get through. Climb up to the balcony however, and we get a new perspective of that same dance floor and the patterns that were impossible to see from below. We shift from reacting to the situation to creating the future.
Renewal work gets us up onto our balcony. It puts us into a position where we can reflect not only on the dance floor but on ourselves, as leaders, as individuals and how the two are intertwined. Having an accurate sense of self demands the capacity to step away from yourself and practice meta-cognition – the ability to think about your own thinking. Researcher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, among others, has shown that practicing mindfulness can help us to do this by giving us control over our brain's function, rather than being stuck in a stimulus-habitual response cycle. Positioned this way, we can ask ourselves important questions that can help us discover the purpose of our work, revitalize our sense of self and bring a refreshed perspective to our leadership.
Consider the story of someone we'll call "Bob." Bob had done a wonderful job leading a national firm. But when he was diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer, he came to realize three things. First, the all-consuming nature of his leadership lifestyle contributed to the cancer's spread – he ignored the early warning signs, attributing them to the non-sustainable lifestyle he and most of those around him tried to maintain. Second, once his treatment was underway, he realized its success depended as much on him taking responsibility for his illness and treatment as it did on his doctors' skills.
When his cancer finally went into remission, Bob recognized the whole thing would have been meaningless if he chose to return to the life and leadership style he had carried on before. Yet instead of stepping back entirely, which would have been understandable, he took the more transformational path of maintaining the same role and responsibilities he had had previously, but completely changing the way he led himself and his organization. Non-sustainable lifestyles became unacceptable. The old way of leading became not just old, but unthinkable. Bob's success and that of his organization increased. The organization's renewal spread to its clients' organizations and to individual members of those organizations, some of whom found the seeds of their own renewal in Bob's story.
The fruits of renewal are infectious. Personal transformation can move successful change through the organization where other approaches might have ended in failure. Fortunately, it's not necessary to wait for a life-threatening experience like Bob's to make it happen. We can treat regular leadership renewal like any other strategic investment, one that ensures long-term, sustainable performance by transforming the way organizations look at what is – and what is possible.
Scott Rutherford is an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and the Executive Director of its Leadership Development Lab.
Rotman School of Management: Leadership Development Lab
Rotman's Leadership Renewal Retreat