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Inside the Leader’s Mind – Liz Mellon

Dr Liz Mellon is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on leadership development. She currently works with Duke Corporate Education, and was formerly a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, where she spent the last 25 years designing, developing and delivering leadership development programmes. She was also visiting faculty at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, where she taught leadership on the Global Advanced Management Program.

For Duke Corporate Education, she was one of two founders of the London office for Duke in 2000, its first venture outside the US. The company has offices in India and South Africa and campuses in Dubai, Shanghai and St Petersburg.

Her book on CEO development, Inside the Leader’s Mind: Five Ways to Think Like a Leader, was published by FT Prentice Hall in 2011. She spoke to Des Dearlove.

Why focus on the leader’s mind?

Being in the business for so long, spending such a long time in the classroom, or in coaching sessions with leaders, one question kept coming up again and again. It was really around authenticity.

How do I follow my company or organization’s view of the excellent leader; its list of leadership attributes or competencies? How do I follow that and still be an authentic leader?  How do I still be, in essence, me, as well as the corporate leader they want me to become?

What did that tell you?

We are missing something. In our drive to observe and measure how our leaders behave, we are missing something very important.

It’s about how leaders think. When you get to behaviour, there’s such a huge range of different ways that leaders can behave, when you try and capture it in a list, it is difficult. That’s why leaders struggle. They look at the big list, and wonder where they are on it.

But how we think, how we see a situation, how we conceptualize our job, how we believe the world works – that’s what drives our behaviour. So where they are is how they think about themselves, and about their job.

You describe five ways of thinking like a leader?

Yes, but the first thing to say is that they don’t go in any order. It’s not “right, first I’ll do this, then I’ll do this.” It’s more like dance steps. You know the steps are there, but the music and the pace will depend on you, the individual. So, how you get there varies.

One of the five ways of thinking is called No Safety Net, what does that mean?

That means someone has to step out, because they are the leader. Everyone expects them to be the first to step out, over the precipice, over the abyss, with nothing below them. They’re the one doing the balancing act. There is no safety net; they have to step out. They have to be that brave.

When I talk to the people I interviewed, and ask what no safety net means, they describe it as a way of thinking – “it means, I have to be the first one out there. I’m taking the first step. I’m taking the risk. I’m the one who does that.”

However, when I ask them for examples of how they do that, I get a huge range of responses about behaviours.

What others are there?

Another one that’s at the very personal level is Comfortable in Discomfort. There’s a whole lot of ambiguity and complexity out there in the world. Imagine you are running a business that spans multiple countries, with thousands of employees, and all the complexity that goes with that, markets, politics, national cultures.

Somehow you have to live with that, find a way through it, and still have the courage to take the decisions that need to be taken, while being comfortable with the level of complexity that’s coming at you.

That manifests itself in different ways. Sometimes the leader has tons of data to support their decision making, whether they should go into China, or divest Sri Lanka, whatever the decision that they are considering is, but they wait, because they just know the timing isn’t right. Or maybe there’s no data at all, and they make a decision to go in certain direction.

For leaders coping with that kind of complexity it must be difficult not to convey that pressure they have to deal with to their employees?

Exactly. The leaders have to live with that uncertainty, and with a smile on their face, so that they are not worrying everybody else around them with the level of ambiguity they are actually coping with, day in, day out.

That brings me to a way of thinking I callI Am the Enterprise -thinking very carefully about the message you’re sending out to others. A good illustration of this is Tom Albanese, the former CEO of Rio Tinto [he stepped down in January 2013]. In the space of a few years, among other things, he faced a hostile takeover, bought a company almost the same size as Rio Tinto, and entered into the Chinese market. He faced a huge amount of complexity and ambiguity, and had to be always-on.

And he told me a really interesting anecdote. Coming out of one of the more fraught meetings during that period, he looked at his assistant and realized that she was looking a little bit worried. So he said to her, “I know I’ve got to be smiling, but actually you have to be, as well, otherwise they’ll think I’ve told you something that’s worrying you.”

So at an enterprise level, and running the organization, there is that way of thinking where the leader is always aware of the message that they and their team are sending out.

Another way of thinking you style On My Watch?

This is at the organization level. It is a really interesting one, and I call it On My Watch. The image I have in my mind here is that you are crossing the Atlantic on a yacht, following the trade winds, and you are the one who has got to stay awake for the night. Everyone else on the boat is asleep.

On My Watch means you have that, for a period of time, you have that incredibly enhanced sense of responsibility. You know that somebody took the watch before you, you’re on this watch, and then you’re going to hand it over to somebody else. So you have to be able to take care of three time zones; the past, the present and the future.

The problem with running a business is that today is so busy, so hectic, so preoccupying, that there is a danger you spend all of your time thinking just about today. That won’t help you create a different tomorrow.

Dennis Nally, the global chairman of PWC, told me an interesting story. He said that when he was younger, he used to just worry about his results, today; because that’s when he was making his reputation. When he was being promoted as CEO of PWC in the States, and then global chairman, he realized that his job is to worry about the things that he is doing today, that may not be creating any value today, but lay down the foundations for somebody else to be famous in the future. That humility was really very interesting.

Not only do leaders have to stop doing what you’re doing today to gaze into the future, but they also have to understand and respect the past, know which bits to keep and honour, and which bits to discard and when?

Exactly. I think one of the reasons that some leaders are very poor at leading change is they arrive with their 100-day plan and draw a line in the sand, and it is often along the lines of lets discard the past, that was then, this is now, off we go.

But you’re addressing, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people, who’ve just invested years of their life, creating where you are today. When the leader shows them their vision of the brave new world they are likely to say well, wait a moment, I’m not sure I’d want a part of that. I’m not sure you see me as part of that.

So reverence for the past is really important, integrate their story into a future. Yet remembering that if the past is going to stop you moving to the future, you have to gently leave it behind – but it is gently.

And that brings us to authenticity?

Yes. Authenticity is absolutely integral to this. I call it Solid Core; and like many of the others it is multifaceted. It is a tumultuous world of information and technology and change. Look across the globe, events like the tsunami in Japan, huge companies going bust that you would never expect. In this maelstrom of communication, somehow you have to go inside yourself, and say, “this solid core is my compass, and this will give me a sense of where I need to go”.

That is about being authentic. That’s where I think the heart of authenticity lies. It is in having this core of inner certainty. I don’t know where it comes from, and actually, nor do the CEOs. Some of them say, “I’ve been in this industry for 25 years, 30 years, so it’s all that experience.”

Dennis Nally said, “actually, I’ve been this way since I was 15. I’ve always had this inner sense.” Sim Tshabalala, the Group Deputy Chief Executive Officer of Standard Bank Group, for him, it’s about his values, and one of his values is about using the platform of business to build society, in this case, South Africa, and then more broadly into Africa.

So it’s a complex concept, but they all have it. They all have this core of authenticity that surrounds the way they approach life and their work.

So, having formulated this set of ways of thinking, you then took them out and discussed them with a range of leaders and they seemed to resonate?

They did. As one of the people I talked to noted, in my work and writing the book, we have observed leaders in action, derived these principles, and then we are applying them back. So it’s really grounded in practice, in what leaders really do.

These five ways of thinking really resonated. I can barely get through them before people say, “oh, yes”, and tell you a story that relates to one of them.

So there are leaders who think like this. We don’t know how or why, or when they began thinking about this. But what about the rest of us who want to be leaders, can we learn these ways of thinking?

That’s where it comes back to authenticity. Some leaders would say that they have always thought like that. But others have said that they learnt. Comfortable in Discomfort is a good example. Jacko Maree, the former group CEO of Standard Bank said to me that he was Comfortable with Discomfort, but never used to be 20 years ago. He learnt this one, it came with maturity.

So the good news is that it can be learnt. For aspiring leaders everywhere, these ways of thinking can be embraced and learnt.

Learn more about Liz Mellon

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