12 Jan 2017 19:33 IST

The leader’s reboot

We must learn to practice the art of pause, to reflect and draw strength for the next step

As we begin a new year, it is beneficial to reflect on the need for a reboot. The reflect-review-reboot habit is worth adopting to ensure both personal growth and that of the teams and organisations we will lead in the future.

Standing still

Our lives as leaders are often filled with activity. We careen from one project to the next, rarely stopping to breathe. To be inactive or to slow down is often seen as a sign of poor performance. We find that we cannot slow down without feeling pangs of guilt.

There’s an important lesson from mountain climbing that a South African friend of mine shared with me. When she was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, she shared how the porters accompanying the climbers would keep chanting ‘pole pole’ in Swahili, which means ‘slowly, slowly’.

The seasoned porters knew that the key to reaching the peak faster lay in significant periods of going slower. We need to learn to practice the art of the pause. To practice slowing down — to think, reflect, to rise above the fray and review the direction of our restless everyday rush.

The Jesuits (a religious order founded by Saint Ignatius) are famous for their work in education. They set up schools, colleges and universities. Theirs is a busy ministry and yet St Ignatius saw it fit to strongly recommend to all members of his order to undertake what he called the Spiritual Exercise or the Ignatian Retreat. This involves 30 days spent in silence, meditation and reflection.

It is a practice that we must transplant into our ordinary lives. While very few of us will ever we able to take that 30-day reflection time, it is good to be able to set aside a day or two, at least once a year, for self-reflection.

In this time of standing still, we start to see things more clearly, we gain perspective and sift truth from illusion. This gives us the resolve for the next step.

Letting go

Historian Arnold Toynbee put it insightfully when he said: “Nothing fails like success”. What does this mean for us, as leaders? Very often, our inability to let go of what has worked well, what has succeeded in the past, paves the path to future failure. One of the most difficult decisions for a leader to take and execute is creative destruction.

In our leadership journeys, we often accumulate baggage — personal, professional and organisational. While they served their purpose in the past, they tend to become dead-weight that hold us back from fulfilling our own potential and the potential of the organisations we lead.

Sometimes, we get emotionally attached to this baggage and find it difficult to let go. This could range from an office building and a software platform to a client relationship or a team member — or even personal strength. It takes a courageous leader to let go.

It was this ability to stand still, stop, see what was really going on and then decide what to let go of, that led Sam Palmisano, former CEO of IBM, to sell the company’s PC and low margin hardware businesses. To appreciate how momentous that decision was, we need to understand that for most people, PC was synonymous with IBM. But Palmisano saw that IBM’s growth would only be held back by the PC business and he did not hesitate to ‘shoot the wounded’.

One of the toughest acts of letting go is stepping out of the comfort zone of a traditional strength and putting on the beginner’s mind again. What Michael Gerber, the small business guru, calls ‘a blank piece of paper’. Leaders who have excelled in a particular product or service area, a specific technology, or geography must force themselves to discard the ‘expert’ label and go back to becoming learners.

Once the letting go happens, space and energy is created for the next step in the growth journey.

Stepping out

We are now better prepared to focus on the next stage — stepping out. Often, the tendency is to embark on small improvements or what I call ‘building a better bullock cart’. This is one of the big differences between thinking like a manager and thinking like a leader.

Do I potter around with improvement or am I willing to step into the discomfort zone of real transformation? Consider the journey of a butterfly; it transforms from an egg to a caterpillar, pupa and then, a butterfly. Imagine the caterpillar saying to itself: I’d like to be a better caterpillar; that is stagnation. But if we choose to step towards transformation — which may be uncomfortable — it leads to real growth, innovation, and a genuine shift.

In December, last year, we heard of Howard Schultz, the remarkably successful CEO of Starbucks, step down and focus on a social impact agenda and new technologies for Starbucks. He wasn’t pushed out; he was enjoying a dream run and yet he chose to step out and head into uncharted territory. With that decision, he is now poised to significantly expand the width of his impact as a leader.

Surely, this was the result of some reflective standing still, a determined letting go and a courageous stepping out.

Let’s make time to do the same. Go ahead and press Ctrl+Alt+Del and restart yourself.

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