The short answer is no.  Great cultures are those that have a great story that employees want to be part of while great brands are those that have a great story that customers want to be part of.  

Many times, we may think that creating a brand is based on a great marketing strategy. Buying billboards, producing TV commercials, and using social media and content marketing are great tools to create brand awareness, however, remarkable brands are those that create the conditions under which customers want to talk about them and be associated with them. 

The Raving Fan Strategy  

David Salyers, one of the original precursors of the Chick-fil-A brand, promotes a strategy they developed known as the Raving Fan Strategy. In short, this strategy consists of three parts. 

  1. Operational excellence: Serve people and give them what they want, but do it with excellence. 
  1. Second Mile Service: Going the extra mile is not enough; excellence means going a second extra mile to ensure customers/clients/partners spread positive remarks about your brand in a positive way- word of mouth. 
  1. Emotional Connections Marketing: Emotional Connections Marketing is the concept of finding ways to invest marketing dollars and resources into what’s important to your customers and then make it important to you. For example, if you’ve got kids in a local school and I support that school, I’ve supported you – my customer. I’ve used the resources that I have to care about what customers care about. 

The only way that this can happen and be sustained over time is by intentionally building an organizational culture that lives by these values, and then letting your brand story be a consequence of that culture. 

great brands

It Starts with Leadership 

A good place to start is to get clarity on what we stand for as an organization and our desired ways of working in order to create remarkable customer experiences.  These start with our leadership teams and should shape the unwritten norms that tell people what is expected of them and what is celebrated or frowned upon. 

For example: Is it ok to make decisions to serve a good customer without checking every detail with your boss?  Should you follow the rules even if they don’t make sense or are you expected to speak up?   

There are key things that leaders can do to build a strong culture that in turn builds a strong brand.  Leaders need to understand what is important to their customers and then communicate that across the organization to make it important to everyone involved.  Then you have to focus on walking the talk by defining systems and showing behaviors that support these expectations. 

great branding

Culture is Caught more than Taught 

It’s crucial to understand that example teaches much more than just words. A lot of people think, “let’s set up a class and teach our employees about our culture”. But in reality, the strongest way to “teach” cultural values is to bring clarity around what they are, and then empower leaders to role model them consistently

Your employees and your customers will certainly notice whether you are living your brand from the inside out or not.  After all, every interaction that your customers have with your team has the potential to elevate or destroy their connection with your brand and, therefore, turn them into detractors or raving fans. 

In the first instance of this series, we broke down more effective meetings. This time, we will talk all about just that — talking! Many people muse about the difficulty of having effective challenging conversations.

This can be as simple as telling the truth with honesty and respect, and sharing ideas without fear of reprisal or being written off as unrealistic or too “soft”. In order to have productive conversations, where everyone is present in mind, body, and spirit, we need to get to a dynamic that changes everything.

The quality of our communication and conversations has an impact on the quality of our meetings, decisions, and implementation. How? Read along!

First of all, let me introduce you to the I-WE-It model.

We are always meeting because we want to achieve something (IT). And whatever we are doing, we need to do it together. Plus, this might not be the last time!

So, remember: every conversation is an opportunity to increase or decrease trust (we) and to feel better (or not) about ourselves in the process. The more you create a virtuous circle, the more effective you will be.

The first step, before even beginning to deliver the content or topic of conversation, is to create the connection and context (who, why, and where). We need to connect with people there so that everyone can more quickly listen to others and express their concerns and ideas.

That way, even if there is a disagreement, everyone can feel like they are in it together. At the “We” level, any conversation is an opportunity to increase trust and collaboration. That way, no matter what the outcome, people can feel connected, respected and empowered.

At the “I” level, it is checking into whether we feel valued and that we can grow and express who we are. This can even be applied to solo time — what is the quality of the conversations you have with yourself?

Sacrificing the “I” or “We” for the short-term “It” creates an unhealthy dynamic, and if there is no inbuilt trust then for the next conversation and negotiation we might need to have sooner than later. It is important also to remember that we cannot control the appearance of thoughts, emotions, and feelings — these just “happen”.

If we voice them literally, we can unintentionally escalate conflict, hurt relationships, and feel bad. If we don’t voice them or tell a “cosmetic” truth, we never address the real problem. The relationship is hollowed and we keep the toxins without ourselves. Often the task is negatively impacted as well — and worse, the “I” energy leaks out anyway. The only way through (and the most effective short and long-term) is to have an authentic conversation. So what does that entail?

Having Authentic Effective Conversations

First, understand that the only reason you have a toxic thought is because something that you care about feels at risk. Once you have acknowledged a toxic thought, you have 3 options:

  • Spill it out (just say it). This is the reactive level — our first reaction.
  • Swallow it (don’t say it). This is the superficial level — what we want others to think about us.
  • Distill it (transform the toxicity into a learning opportunity). This is the core truth — who we really are; our true BE-ing.
effective conversations

Underlying reactivity, there is something of value that is at stake. In order to distill your core truth, you need to ask yourself:

  • What really matters to me?
  • Why is this a concern to me?
  • What is at stake for me?
  • What do I really want?

The core truth is always honesty and respect. Try out these practices above, and watch how much more effective your communication becomes — through the quality of outcomes of conversations, and the quality of your relationships.

How many of us wish we had more productive, effective hours in a day?

From my conversations with leaders around the globe, I gather probably all. That said, there are some very simple things each of us as leaders do every day, that if done more effectively, could free up immense amounts of time and energy.

This series will dive deeper into four areas that we are actually practicing every single day of our lives, that if improved, could increase the quality of all things we do at work.

And through this, it can lessen workload, improve productivity, and empower others. Without further ado, these four things are:

  • meetings,
  • conversations,
  • decisions,
  • and implementation.

Did you realize that every day, we are in a meeting, and/or having a conversation with someone or ourselves, or making a decision (or judging one that was made by someone?) or implementing something (with less or more will and energy)?

productivity habits for better meetings

Let’s start with the one we most feel trapped in at almost 8hs a day: meetings. Through implementing the practices we discuss, you will improve your capacity to be in the right meeting, with the right setting, for the right reason… or decide not to be there consciously!

These facts and figures are pretty staggering, and illustrate just how important this topic is:

  • Employees in upper management spend 50% of their time in meetings.
  • Research suggests that employees spend 4 hours per week preparing for status update meetings.
  • A recent survey found that 67% of employees complain that spending too much time in meetings hinders them from being productive at work.
  • More than 35% of employees found that they waste 2-5 hours per day on meetings and calls, but achieve nothing to show for it.

First, make sure you design the agenda strategically to justify the investment of time you and other people will be making: choose the right topics, information, and people needed, and align time per topics and dynamics to achieve what you want.

3 Types of Meetings

It is important to note that there are really only 3 types of necessary meetings — to inform (to seek understanding), to discuss/debate (to gather input), and to decide (to choose between two or more options), but usually, the one calling the meeting does not clarify this upfront.

When this happens… can you make sure you ask for this to be clarified before starting? After understanding the intention of the meeting, it is key to understand if your participation is truly necessary or important. Many people end up in meetings without knowing why they are there, and without their presence really being needed. Do I need this information? Is my input needed? Do I need to be part of this decision?

Next, check in and align intentions to ensure that people are present and connected to each other, and to clarify what the goal of the meeting is. Clarify the expected outcome for each topic on the agenda, and explain to people how they could effectively participate. Now it’s time to deep dive into the content.

Make sure you agree on commitments and the next steps before leaving each section of the agenda. Close out the meeting with a “check out” and capture key actions and learnings for the next one.

From the outset, it is important to confirm that the meeting is truly necessary. If the purpose is to inform, clarify if it could have just been an email. If discussion, don’t spend 90% of the meeting just talking about things without any structure or intention. If the meeting is for decision-making, make sure everyone knows how the decision will be made before you engage in the discussion.

5 Key Habits for Effective Meetings

Lastly, there are 5 key behavioral habits for effective meetings:

  • Be a player, speak in 1st person: when sharing your perspective and opinions, own them to make them more relevant and clearer.
  • Be a learner, ask clarifying questions (before sharing opinions): before you make someone “wrong”, seek to understand through thoughtful questions.
  • Reflect back: make sure whoever has just spoken feels understood before sharing your own perspective.
  • Make clear requests: if you have a need, express the request to the right person in a clear and straightforward manner.
  • Give acceptable responses to requests: A response could be acceptance, asking for clarification before accepting, or saying no while explaining why you cannot commit to it — and discussing other possibilities if needed.

Try these out, and watch how much more effective your meetings become. In the next piece of this series, we will discuss decision-making.

About the Author: Stefaan van Hooydonk is the founder of the Global Curiosity Institute & Business Council Member of Axialent. This article is a shorter version of a dedicated chapter on curiosity and leadership in his book: The Workplace Curiosity Manifesto.

It is hard to be a good leader — whether the source of leadership is being an executive, running a country, or being a frontline manager. It is also hard to find good leaders. An extensive 2015 internal study of twenty thousand executive placements was conducted by the executive search firm Heidrich and Struggles. The study revealed that 40 percent of these newly appointed executives fail within eighteen months.

Curious Leaders Create Successful Cultures

A failure means the executive left, was asked to leave or was performing significantly below expectations. Consistent with data from other research in subsequent years, the success of executive appointments was no better than 50 percent. Executive recruitment seems to be a hit-or-miss activity. Candidates have an equal chance to succeed or fail.

The challenges managers face today are less predictable than they were in the last century. Solutions to problems are not so easily found in previous successes. The power to effect change requires more gentle influence than formal top-down authority. Especially now, leadership is ambidextrous. Leaders need to be good at keeping their ship afloat while, at the same time, reinventing the future. 

Curiosity in its various dimensions is well suited to assist leaders to widen their perspectives, listening intently, engage new challenges, experimenting, learning faster, and building organizations that create results in times of crisis.

What is a curious leader?

In a cross-industry curiosity study led by curiosity researcher Todd Kashdan commissioned by Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, professor Kashdan posits several curiosity barriers associated with leaders.

  • Autocratic, top-down leadership behavior stifles curiosity as curious subordinates are not provided with the opportunity to question or challenge decisions, nor are they invited to explore and share novel options.  
  • The prevalence of risk-averse behavior makes leaders opt for proven and safe ideas, thus restricting creative thinking time.  
  • A preference for conformity and fear of standing out from others among managerial peers.  

The above points already highlight a number of dimensions explaining incurious leadership behavior. What becomes clear is leadership positions are sensitive to the nature/nurture divide. Leaders show up with their own level of curiosity, yet simultaneously are also adapting their individual inclination for curiosity to the context they are in.

An interesting finding in the research is that when a CEO displays a healthy dose of curiosity, the company benefits both in terms of an increase in operational efficiency as well as an above openness to exploring new territories.

When the CEO, or the team leader for that matter, is high on curiosity, the members of the organization are more likely to agree with the statement that the organization encourages curiosity. This does not mean employees at all levels of the organization automatically feel encouraged and enabled to show up curiously at work.

Next to being role models, leaders also need to establish habits and interactions, so employees are reassured curiosity is not reserved for people at the top.

Curiosity needs champions. The shadow the manager casts is an important driver of team curiosity. In my research, I have established a linear correlation between the number of hours a manager spends on the acquisition of new information and knowledge through reading books or articles, viewing educational videos and taking (e-) classes, listening to podcasts or e-books, and so on.

The more the manager consumes new knowledge, the more the team also follows in the curious behavioral footsteps of the leader. As a result, there is an increase in the hours the team spends on learning to mimic those of the leader. Intuitively this makes sense.

When the manager is curious herself, she will—openly or not—make it clear she values new knowledge in the team. The team will recognize that learning and intellectual exploration are important and will follow her example.  

The inverse is sadly also true. If a manager does not communicate in words or—more importantly in actions—that learning is important, the team refrains from consuming learning. Luckily, not all team members mimic the manager’s learning habits.

Some of them—the A players—are intrinsically so curious, that even a non-conducive environment does not stop them from exploring. A-players are not negatively influenced by the behavior of their leader. In summary, curious managers uplift the team and stretch it beyond what they thought was feasible. Incurious managers, on the other hand, stifle the team and hold it back.

Curious Leaders Create Successful Cultures

A 2018 study of three thousand international employees conducted by Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino disclosed the implications of workplace curiosity and the corresponding leadership support for curiosity. She states curiosity is an important aspect of a company’s performance because of the following reasons:  

  1. When curiosity is triggered, leaders tend to be more intentional and rational about their decision-making.
  2. Curiosity makes leaders—and their teams—more adaptable to the dynamics of uncertain market environments.
  3. Curious leaders command higher levels of respect of their followers than incurious leaders.

Workplace curiosity works in real-time. When leaders are more curious and invite surprise about everyday activities, the more it has a carry-over effect on team members.  

However, when studying the above-mentioned Harvard Business School research on how leaders viewed curiosity, Professor Francesca Gino found: “Although leaders might say they treasure inquisitive minds, in fact, most stifle curiosity, fearing it will increase risk and inefficiency”.  

On the one hand, executives realize the underlying importance of curiosity in helping to implement their firm’s strategy agenda when it comes to product and services innovation, outwitting competition, winning deals, and taking calculated risks in the pursuit of novel and creative outcomes, etc. On the other hand, these same executives are rejecting curiosity as something which goes against the grain of operational efficiency of the organization or that of their team.  

A crucial misconception is that curiosity will naturally occur in any reasonably healthy workplace. In fact, curious work environments are rare. They require deliberate and consistent action. Here are some steps to help you as a leader promote a more curious work environment:

  • Put curiosity on the team agenda.
  • Show up as an all-around curious individual interested in the world, the people around you, and yourself.
  • Ask for (reverse) feedback.
  • Become aware of your question strategies. Are they open-ended or closed?
  • Baseline your own curiosity as well as that of the team.
  • Identify barriers to curiosity in the team, create quick wins and build on their success. Ask the team how they can help in creating a curious environment.

Do try out the above steps and explore on your own how curiosity can lead to building more successful and better performing organizational cultures. 

I invite you to become aware of how you show up as a leader. Are you showing up with curiosity or with judgment? Are you listening to fix or are you listening to learn? Are you projecting yourself a personal desire for continuous learning and growth or not (what type of questions do you allow in your team meetings; questions that confirm what you know already or questions that challenge the status quo)?

These questions will help you become aware of your own curiosity level, trigger you to make curiosity at work intentional, and help you start measuring progress.   

Welcome to the community of curious leaders. Watch the full webinar here.

Teryluz Andreu, Axialent Partner & Culture Expert, and Ginger Hardage, Founder of Unstoppable Cultures Fellowship & Former SVP of Culture and Communication of Southwest Airlines, engaged in an interactive forum discussing how leaders can create and sustain cultures of enduring greatness within their organization.

Ginger retired from Southwest Airlines after an illustrious 25 years and created The Unstoppable Cultures Fellowship. UCF lives on as The Fellowship (which Axialent has the privilege of partnering with this year), a four-day masterclass helping you build a captivating culture that your customers can’t resist and your employees refuse to leave.

Ginger Hardage Unstoppable cultures

Ginger and Teryluz began their discussion by listing the three most common pitfalls organizations run into during their pursuit of cultural transformation and advice on how you can address them.

  1. Leadership is not on the same page. It is critical for leadership to be on the same page when trying to evolve their organizational culture. Alignment amongst the leadership team on what kind of culture they desire, how they will drive it, and what commitments they are willing to make is vital. If misalignment occurs within leadership, it will not only be noticed internally but externally as well.
  2. Lack of processes and discipline. Cultural transformation is not a one-and-done project. It requires time, processes to support the change, ongoing communication, and discipline in follow-through. Too often, organizations underestimate the rigorous processes and disciplines needed after launching cultural initiatives and don’t make the necessary investments to drive sustainable change.
  3. Lack of employee involvement. It is important to understand employees’ thoughts and perspectives before making organizational changes. Often, organizations do not listen to their employees’ pain points and roadblocks, which slows efforts down the road. When employees are involved from the start, it creates a sense of ownership and shared responsibility to overcome barriers and see transformational change.

Ginger and Teryluz shared some insights on actions that we can take to address (or even better, avoid) these challenges. It all starts with two key steps: Define and Demonstrate.

  • Define. Have open conversations with your team about these key questions: Where do we want to go? Who do we want to be? What do we need to protect? What do we need to evolve? Teryluz mentioned that this step is a great opportunity to find creative ways to make everyone in the organization a part of the cultural conversation.

For this to work, senior leaders need to have a vision of where they need to go, but also have the courage to seek understanding. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, these leaders need humility to let go of any preconceived notions on what needs to change. Understanding the current culture from employees’ point of view will help inform what key shifts need to be made culturally.

  • Demonstrate. Help leaders walk the talk. When it comes to demonstration and changing culture, Ginger outlined a few key things leaders should address:
    • Culture is everyone’s job.” The most effective efforts involve all departments, not just the typical communications and HR-driven initiatives. If all leaders aren’t living the values and modeling the desired behaviors the desired outcome will not be achieved.
    • For culture to change, leaders may need to change. Leaders must reflect on how they need to change, not just the organization. It’s critical to provide safe spaces for leaders to gain self-awareness on how they need to improve their own mindsets and behaviors to align with the new ways of working.
    • Never underestimate the power of storytelling and leadership visibility. In the era of social media, people are used to the continuous flow of communication and increased accessibility. Engaging in conversations about the what, why, and how of the organization’s cultural initiatives has to be a constant process across multiple channels. To be authentic, leaders need to find what approach works for them, understand what is most engaging for their internal audiences, and establish a cadence to keep the dialogue going.

Even the best laid-out strategies can get stuck or go off the rails. Ginger and Teryluz offered some ideas on what to do if you feel stuck in your culture journey.

Watch the entire webinar now! Click here.

  • State the need for change. Tie the need for change to your business strategy and priorities. Ginger encouraged organizations to look at their “return on culture” like other ROI challenges. How can culture drive your business at the enterprise level? It’s essential to clearly articulate how the lack of change will impact employees.
  • Give a cross-section of leaders the responsibility to lead culture. Too often, change is only driven through the HR lens, which can be limiting. It takes a cross-section of people to solve problems and help initiatives get unstuck.
  • Don’t be too prescriptive. Let people serve the organization in the way that works best for them. Model employee empowerment and involve people in creating solutions for problems they care about.

Like any strategic change initiative, cultural transformation requires a clear vision, discipline in execution, agility to adapt to circumstances, dedication to overcome obstacles, and a great deal of resilience.

Let’s allow this journey to be an opportunity to evolve as people as we transform our organizations.

In today´s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) and BANI (brittle, anxious, nonlinear, incomprehensible) world, our capacity to face challenges and respond effectively is key for sustained performance.  

Among the key capabilities required to navigate in this context is empowerment. 

I understand empowerment as: “The process of gaining freedom and power to do what you want or to control what happens to you”. 

So, fostering a culture of empowerment is about helping others connect with their own possibility of making things happen and driving actions towards a vision.  

We cannot “empower others”, but we can invite others to take ownership by creating the right container. People must step into their own power and ability to impact. 

Empowerment accelerates growth and leads to faster decision-making. Agile organizations that enable innovation lead to satisfied clients with high-quality products and fulfilled employees.  

Unlike autocratic leadership, a culture of empowerment encourages people to play to their strengths, grow and develop, and build self-confidence. It brings out the best in people in service of a higher purpose.  

How cultures of empowerment accelerate growth

In a culture of empowerment: 

  • people work with autonomy and with a sense of purpose (goal-directed actions). 
  • day to day decisions with a clear intent and communication are pushed downwards to ensure faster decision-making and agility. 
  • decisions are based on facts vs opinions. 
  • accountability is the other side of the coin; with greater power comes greater responsibility. 
  • leaders promote high support and high delegation.   
  • trust is the cornerstone. 

What are some of the common challenges in building a culture of empowerment? 

  1. Fear of failure: One of the most common challenges is fear of failure. In an attempt to mitigate this fear, leaders begin to micromanage others and try to control them step by step to ensure the outcome they are hoping for. This kills empowerment and innovation and causes people to feel disengaged because their creativity is being suppressed. 
  1. Lack of purpose and direction:  not setting clear guardrails of the impact we are looking for will end up in people feeling lost and with a sense of meaninglessness at work. Connecting our work with a higher purpose fuels engagement and provides guidance as a headlight. 
  1. Opposing to others’ voices and ideas: killing peoples’ ideas before they are even born is a fast segway to building an evasive and risk-averse culture with people laying low to avoid being pointed out or criticized. 
  1. Watering down accountability: leaders are responsible for creating a high trust and high support environment to drive empowerment and high accountability in their team. They set the behavioral standards that are required in the organization, they live by example, and they demand others to do the same. Holding each other accountable in each other’s roles is crucial to building this type of culture.  

In the words of Steve Jobs, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do, we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” We can build a culture of empowerment by aligning the leaders’ behaviors, systems, and symbols of the organization to reflect empowerment fully. 

These are some essential steps we need to consider: 

  1. Leading like a coach: Leaders don´t tell others what to do, they help people come up with their own answers. They support the team to open newly unthought-of possibilities and push them forward. They know their team members, are confident in what they can bring up together, and provide enough space for people to try new things, learn and become the best version of themselves. They establish clear boundaries and set the standards by role modeling. 
  1. Creating a psychological safety and trusting environment: We all need to feel safe to fail, learn and continue improving. Bringing our whole selves to work is still a challenge in many organizations. If we are living in fear of criticism or retaliation, we will hold back, and not be able to push the limits of our creativity and help the organization find new heights.   
  1. Developing feedback as a habit on your team: Having honest conversations on a recurrent basis about what has worked and what needs to be addressed in the future is needed to fuel empowerment and grow accountability. We can all easily fall into a pattern of not sharing feedback and allowing small resentments to grow over time. It takes some intentionality to do this, and a process, until it becomes a habit — it does not just happen on its own.  
  1. Shifting into a player and growth mindset: Focusing on the things that we can control and approaching our challenges as an opportunity to continue learning and growing provides us with the energy and right attitude to sit in the driver’s seat of our life and own our power to change the things we need to. 
  1. Acting courageously: Is about showing up and doing our best in congruency with our values and being detached from the potential outcome.  It takes courage to take each of these steps. There is a reason that cultures of empowerment are few and far in between at times. It can be a difficult process to begin and to work through all the barriers, but has exponentially positive results.  

Fear-based cultures constrain results by maintaining the status quo, causing people to feel to disconnected from the organization, and limiting innovation and engagement through command and control strategies. Victimhood arises, and people tend to blame others to survive and prevail in the system — while avoiding taking risks. 

Instead, a culture of empowerment brings out the best in people by unlocking their potential, increasing performance, promoting doing things well, and establishing trusted relationships with others. It is a key lever to drive sustainable growth. 

I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the pandemic a few weeks in advance and to be able to act based on the signs, intuition and experience to face a challenge that we did not even imagine what it would finally be like.

The signs were the cancellation of a project in Germany and the anger around the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The intuition, that we were facing something unknown and devastating. The experience was that of my colleague Thierry de Beyssac warning me that in the face of real crises, the “worst-case” had to be “really” a nightmare scenario.

Today, two years later, I know that surviving would have been impossible without the trust of our partners and the support and ability to sacrifice of all of us who comprised of Axialent in March 2020. Practically our entire operation was face-to-face with our clients, and involved travel throughout Europe and America that was cut off to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

That was the situation.

The first thing I perceived was fear — fear in our people, fear in our clients, fear in our families. And I understood that the first thing we had to do was to overcome fear.

I set myself three priorities to transform fear into hope.

The first: guarantee the survival of the company. We did it by renegotiating the financial structure, expanding the capital base and applying very tough cost management that included pay cuts up to 50% in the highest salaries and eliminating all non-essential expenses.

The second: talking to people, honoring our values and proposing a pact to socialize sacrifice so that no one would be left behind in circumstances in which uncertainty and vulnerability were total. The tsunami had hit us in the middle of the sailing and all of us on the Axialent ship deserved to reach port together, safe and sound. So we agreed, so we did. It is what I am most proud of as CEO.

The third: to talk to our customers and offer help and support with the ship afloat and the crew weathering the storm. They were just as scared and perplexed as we were. It was the best we could do — we helped each other. We designed new services together that helped them in a complex and challenging scenario, and because of this we were able to reinvent ourselves beyond what we would have dreamed of without the pressure of the coronavirus.

The implementation of these three priorities brought us an unexpected gift, which was to accelerate innovation. Almost without realizing it, we began to do remotely what we were doing in person. The need helped us to make possible what we previously saw as impossible — and for which we had brought a team to the company whose presence at that time was critical. Thanks to this, we found ourselves giving new answers to the new problems that the pandemic brought to the table. At the same time, none of this was easy. And although today I see these two years as a vital and invaluable learning experience, the truth is that we all suffer a lot and still continue to suffer consequences of COVID-19.

At some point, we used the tools we use with our clients to see how we were working in the midst of chaos and the result overwhelmed me. I heard things that I did not like, and it helped me to see things that I did not see. All of this helped us to correct course, and taught me how the humility to admit mistakes is the best ally to create the confidence that is needed to act and lead in uncertainty.

When they ask me what my keys as CEO were for Axialent to survive, I answer that I listened a lot and made quick decisions at the service of the people. Decisions to empower, remove obstacles and protect with an armored umbrella those who were on the front lines helping our clients, containing the budget, or reinventing our services. And underneath the armored umbrella manage the storytelling without essentially missing the truth and remembering that “a team is a state of mind” as my friend Jorge Valdano says. I considered that some bad news or explaining in detail the size of certain obstacles would only serve to increase the distress and discouragement of the team in the midst of the greatest challenge most of us had ever faced in our lives. I sincerely believe that this selective transparency, and sometimes with an optimistic bias, helped us stay on course and reach port.

The pandemic brutally showed us the difference between what we can control and what we cannot. Knowing how to make this distinction and focus energy on what is under our control is what we call at Axialent “unconditional responsibility” which, next to caring for people, are the keys to getting out of a crisis like the one we are experiencing with more awareness and wisdom. Is important to know it now since we also know that this is not last crisis we will have to live.

I recently watched Sophie Scholl – The Final Days, a German historical drama nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 2005. The movie tells the story of the last days of 21-year-old Sophie Scholl, a member of the non-violent anti-Nazi student group the White Rose. Tried for distributing anti-war leaflets at Munich University in February 1943, she was found guilty of High Treason by the Nazi People’s Court and executed the same day.
Although the film ends with Sophie’s tragic execution, I found her story powerfully inspirational. Sophie Scholl’s fierce loyalty to her core values even in the face of Nazi interrogation reminded me how vital our principles are in determining the best course of action in any situation, the importance of which I’ve previously written on. Her conviction that the truest form of success is living congruently with your beliefs – no matter the outcome – illustrates the principle of winning beyond winning.
I’d like to believe I would be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to defend my own beliefs, but I admit I wonder just how strong I would be in the moment. Would I deny my dearest convictions, like the Apostle Peter, and afterwards weep bitterly with regret?* I suppose there’s only one way to know for sure.
Beyond Sophie Scholl’s example of holding true to her beliefs under penalty of death, another principle struck me in her story – a mindset, really, which I believe is an empowering truism we can leverage in any situation.
Every Situation Holds This Truth
Imagine holding an apple in your hand. If you drop the apple, it will fall. If asked why it falls, you’ll probably say “gravity,” and then quickly add because you let it go. I often do this demo in my leadership seminars and these are the most common answers.
And you’d be right – the apple falls both because of gravity and because you let it go. One of these elements, gravity, is outside your control, while the other, letting go of the apple, is within your control.
It’s empowering to acknowledge (and embrace) that in every situation there is at least one element within your control – the ability to choose your response. Imagine your freedom is unjustly taken away and you’re thrown in jail, deprived of adequate food, water, shelter, and clothing. Even in that terrible situation, although there are many elements outside your control, you still have the power to choose your response, your attitude.
In his groundbreaking memoir Man’s Search for Meaning, written after surviving Auschwitz and three other Nazi death camps,† Viktor Frankl noted that while some prisoners turned their faces to the wall and gave up on life, others achieved near sainthood, comforting their fellow captives and offering up their last piece of bread. Emphasizing the power of choice, Frankl wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Victim or Leader?
At a very young age, we learn to choose innocence over responsibility. We learn to play the victim. A little child is more likely to say, “it spilled” or “it broke,” rather than “I spilled it” or “I broke it,” thus preserving their innocence, looking good, and staying out of trouble. Just yesterday, my four-year-old granddaughter, after spilling her drink on her clothes, explained, “Papa, it leaked!”
Yet it’s not only kids who act this way. We adults do it all the time, too. We deflect responsibility by taking on a victim mindset, blaming external factors for our mistakes or shortfalls in performance. At work, how often have you heard statements like “the project got delayed,” “the file got lost,” or “the team fell short,” employing a voice of innocence rather than a voice of responsibility?
This victim mindset can be appealing, especially when the going gets tough. It’s a palpable relief to blame our shortcomings on external factors. Gratifying though it may feel in the moment, however, that mindset also leaves us powerless. By relinquishing responsibility and living in a place of resignation and resentment, we surrender our agency.
Leadership Mindset
Leaders work hard to avoid a victim mindset. They empower themselves by looking for elements over which they have control, making astute choices, and acting decisively. They recognize the greatest power they have is the ability to respond in any situation. Flipping the familiar adage on its head, they responsibly believe if you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution. Imagine the absurdity of an airline pilot who discovers that one of the jet’s engines has burst into flames midflight, begins cursing the sloppy maintenance crew, and then simply throws their hands up in disgust.
Leaders know that while every situation will present them with certain elements outside their control, there will always be at least one element within their control, even if it’s only the ability to respond. This is the concept of being “response-able”‡ – able to respond – and it may be our species’ greatest gift. The capacity to choose for ourselves in any situation is the embodiment of free will.
We face challenges of every kind all the time. Some are comparatively mild. Others are quite severe, even life-threatening. The question to ask in the face of any difficulty is this: how can I best respond to this challenge?
I don’t know if Sophie Scholl expressly asked herself that question or not, but she certainly chose her answer to it.
When you adopt a leadership mindset, you maturely accept your challenges for what they are, including the elements outside of your control, and resolve to respond the best you can. Rather than resignation and resentment, you adopt acceptance and resolve.
Putting it Into Practice
Learning the difference between a victim mindset and a leadership mindset won’t do you any good until you put the knowledge into practice. So here’s my homework for you today: consider the victim stories you struggle with, inside yourself and with others. Share them with a trusted colleague, friend, or partner. Consider how you want to leverage a leadership mindset instead. Make a goal to do so and write it down.
By confronting the victim mindset head-on and choosing to reject it in favor of a life of “response-ability,” you empower yourself in the face of challenges and increase your leadership impact. After all, as a leader you model the behavior others will imitate…for better or worse.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” –Viktor Frankl
* By referencing Peter this way, I mean him no disrespect but take comfort in his humanity.
† Pardon a second reference to WWII – how awful the cost of the lessons learned from it!
‡ Kofman, Fred. Conscious Business. Boulder: Sounds True, 2006. Print.

To me, the most intriguing paradox of conscious business — and the hardest to explain — is the interdependence of openness and resolve. How is it possible (even necessary) to be curious, open, humble, and yet at the same time, decisive and action-oriented?
This question is not just academic. If it weren’t possible to be both decisive and open, the whole set of mindsets and skills that we call “conscious business” would be of very little use. Why would anyone with leadership responsibilities want to practice being curious, flexible and open if it meant being ambivalent, indecisive and fickle as a chameleon?
I believe that skillful leaders get a “feel” for how to be “decisive learners.” They don’t just get it cognitively. An experiential component leads them to “get it” in the same way that you first found your balance on a bicycle or learned to look up while dribbling a ball.
By the same token, there is a risk of overexplaining such things. How long would you want me to explain how to ride a bicycle? (For that matter, how long would you want me to evoke the paradox of the decisive learner before asking you what you already knew about it?)
I’m going to offer two stories: one from the martial arts and one from business. Then it will be over to you!
As you may know, Tai Chi is one of the “soft” martial arts, like Aikido. The joke about Tai Chi is: “How can you expect to defend yourself when you are moving in slow motion?” Yet meticulous practice of these slow movements (the “form”), as well as “holding” postures, are a critical part of training for the dynamic and interactive part of Tai Chi “Push Hands.” And Push Hands can be lightening fast (and rock hard).
Traditionally, Push Hands is not taught to novices. I had been learning the “form” and related exercises for almost a year before I was allowed to join a Push Hands class in 1989. That is when I got my first taste of “open/flexible/receptive and tough/decisive/resolute.” My assignment was to try to “push” my Tai Chi teacher, Lenzie Williams (i.e., make him lose his balance or even just move his feet). The difficulty began when I couldn’t even find anything to push on. No matter where I thrust my arms, he seemed to just disappear. (He was “yielding.”) And yet when he pushed me, I went flying across the room. It was a major “aha.” I felt, quite tangibly, how it was possible to be totally receptive, open and relaxed, and at the same time grounded, decisive and powerful. Lenzie demonstrated these qualities without a shadow of a doubt. The only problem was that I had no idea how to do it! I had taken the most important step in my learning journey. I was now “consciously (rather than just unwittingly) incompetent.”
With practice, I became “consciously competent,” which meant that if I really paid attention, I could evade my more experienced classmates, and sometimes even push them out. The thing I paid attention to was staying relaxed and receptive as I yielded and also as I pushed. Lenzie always emphasized (and demonstrated) that the greatest strength came from the greatest “yielding.” It was by practicing softness that we developed our “rooting” — the ability to stand firm like a tree and push people in a way that was powerful and irresistible.
So that is the martial arts story. I also want to share with you the story of a CEO who transformed his leadership style from directive and controlling to receptive and encouraging, without losing any of his action orientation. In fact, he became more resolute, not less.
What happened is this: Bob wanted to engage his staff more. He recognized that there were unintended consequences when he “cut to the chase” and went into director mode. His staff would become remarkably passive, waiting for him to tell them what to do. This was frustrating to Bob. What he really wanted was for them to be energized and take more initiative, yet he seemed to be influencing them to do the opposite.
Following an Immunity to Change approach, Bob wrote down his improvement goal: He wanted to be more receptive and encouraging to his staff, particularly when they were tackling a problem that he had a strong opinion about. Next, he listed the things he did (unwittingly) that undermined this goal: interrupting, taking over, correcting, focusing on flaws, failing to inquire. He asked himself what did he worry would happen if he did the opposite of those things? The worry that first occurred to him was that they would steer the company into an impasse, and the results would reflect badly on him as a leader.
In other words, Bob came to see that he was ambivalent. He was committed to energizing and empowering his staff, but he was equally committed to never letting them get off track. Each of these competing commitments triggered the other. When he got carried away “correcting” his staff, he resolved anew to empower them, but when he trusted them to take charge, he felt an equally compelling need to reassert control. He was oscillating in a state of “unresolve,” never fulfilling either commitment to his satisfaction.
Bob did not resolve his ambivalence by “trying harder”; the problem was not willpower. Rather, he began to question the assumption that was holding it in place — that if he let others take the initiative, he would end up being neglectful (because they needed him to course correct) or worse, obsolete (because they didn’t). So long as this assumption remained “true” for him, he was bound to buck and bridle when he felt the initiative passing into others’ hands and out of his control.
Instead of remaining subject to this assumption, however, Bob conducted a set of deliberate challenges to it, in each case comparing what the assumption would have predicted to what actually happened. First he tried a new behavior. He listened; he left the initiative to his subordinates; he made himself notice, appreciate and acknowledge their progress. Then he asked himself, “Well, did they go off track? Am I being irresponsible or neglectful? Do I feel superfluous? Are they wondering what value I’m adding?”
To his astonishment (and relief), when subjected to such direct scrutiny, his “big assumption” crumbled; its predictions just did not hold up. And just beyond the movie that had been projected by this limiting belief lay a much bigger landscape of possibilities: His staff could seize the reigns enthusiastically, and he could feel good about it. They could suggest things he had never thought of, and he could be intrigued. He felt much more connected to his staff, more “on task” as he delegated, and more fulfilled as he discovered his role as a coach and mentor. Now his way of adding value wasn’t just to “keep the business on track.” It was also, in a more complex view of the world, to “grow leaders.”
Through this learning journey, Bob did a lot of letting go. He became less controlling and more curious, open, receptive, engaging, encouraging and patient. As he put it, he learned to avoid the “impatience trap.” His staff noticed the changes, and they were responsive and relieved. As Bob had hoped, they became more energized and took more initiative. He willingly relinquished the initiative. Most of all, he let go of a way of thinking about himself — a self-image as “company savior,” as the one who could discern the risks that others missed and save the day. He also let go of the corresponding self-doubt — his fear that he would have no other way of adding value.
But here is the paradox: In letting go in these ways, Bob did not become ambivalent or indecisive. On the contrary. He became resolute. He stopped oscillating between competing commitments and became more consistent in his mindset and behaviors. Rather than getting caught on the horns of a false dilemma (“if I empower my flock, they will stray”), he was now integrating the poles of a paradox. He could offer challenge and support, leadership and development.
Bob’s story is not unique. It describes a pattern of human development that Psychologist Robert Kegan has described as the movement from subject to object[1]. An assumption or belief that we were subject to — that functioned as a premise for our behavior without our being aware of it — becomes an object of reflection, and it can thus be modified to adapt to the realities we are dealing with.
My aim in evoking Bob’s story was to provoke recognition of this pattern. Have you observed it in someone at work? In your family? In yourself? Can you recognize how this form of human development follows a paradoxical pattern? On the one hand, you let go of a limiting belief or assumption — of an attachment to seeing things a certain way; you become more flexible, open, receptive to possibilities; you learn. On the other hand, you become more resolute — less ambivalent, more aware, congruent, clear and decisive.
If so, then you may also be able to see the connection between Bob’s story and the martial arts story mentioned previously. Each illustrates not only the possibility but also the necessity of being both receptive and resolute, decisive and open.
[1] Robert Kegan, The Evolving Self (Harvard University Press, 1982)