By Vijay Govindarajan and Hylke Faber
“Nothing is impossible—just tell me why you can’t do it.”
—Gene White, President, Global Child Nutrition Foundation
Visionary leaders continuously engage in three aspects of innovation: managing the present (Box 1), selectively forgetting the past (Box 2), and creating the future (Box 3). Truly innovative leaders never seem to tire of this cycle of renewal. Or if they do, it’s not long before they’re back on their feet. How do we access this source of energy?
Continuous fascination. It’s a trait we consistently find among strong, visionary leaders. Continuous fascination with life in all of its facets gives us the energy to keep innovating and contributing. It also frees us from being entangled in what doesn’t serve us any longer. How do we cultivate this state?
Leaders, such as Gene White, president of the Global Child Nutrition Foundation, show us the way. She routinely works 12-hour days, flies all around the world, and has more energy than most leaders half her age. She is in her mid-nineties and shows no signs of slowing down. She’s passionate about eradicating child hunger worldwide. And she lives three practices anyone can adopt to cultivate continuous fascination: connecting with purpose, adopting a Growth Mindset and ongoing giving.
Commit to your highest purpose in everything you do
“I am a very fortunate person in the sense that I believe in what I am doing.” White’s response to the question ‘where do you get your energy?’ is telling. Inspirational leaders like White are clear about their individual calling and the collective calling of their organizations and teams. When serving a shared purpose, we access tremendous energy and discover unseen greatness in ourselves and others and put it to good use. White sums it up when she says, “leaders help people reach their potential for a common good.”
How do we discover our unique purpose? Sometimes our purpose finds us when we’re open to listen to life. White shares a defining moment from her experience; “For me, it occurred in a small oasis village in Tunisia when I was on a volunteer work assignment for USAID. I suddenly felt someone pulling on my dress and looked down to find this tiny girl, 3 or 4 years old, begging for a cracker. I couldn’t believe that I had no way to help her. Her malnutrition had progressed to the point that heavy discharge was running from her eyes, nose, and mouth, and maggots were crawling in the filth on her face. I knew this child was dying, and although I had training in child nutrition, I had nothing to give this starving child, not even an animal cracker.
“I decided then, that day, in that oasis village, to do all I possibly could to prevent tragedies like this from happening. This happened many years ago and I am still trying. A starving child in Tunisia set me on a path with new direction and I am so very grateful for this.” Tears well in White’s eyes.
Not all of us are so lucky as to have such a discrete purpose-giving experience. Even without it we can find our calling—what drives us deep, deep down. We know we have arrived at a sense of calling when it’s something we can rely on to give us energy consistently, no matter what is happening around or within us. Our calling is very personal; no one can tell us what it is.
Take a moment and ask yourself, ‘What motivates me? Not what others tell me, but what animates me, deep, deep down?’ This is a time to throw out the rulebook and allow yourself to see who you really are and what your gifts are. It’s likely something that has always been true for as long as you can remember. Many of us have never reflected on this question; we’ve been too busy living others’ expectations that we have internalized and mistaken as our own. Once we do connect to purpose, we’re bound to enjoy the benefits. And if you haven’t found it yet, be patient, stay fully engaged with life and keep looking. As we can see from White, finding our calling benefits not only ourselves but also everyone we touch.
Consider the learning in everything
Connecting with purpose fuels our sense of continuous fascination. Anchored in our purpose, we meet not only opportunities but also challenges along the way. Equipped with the view of continuous fascination we can choose to no longer see problems as problems; we can see them as opportunities for learning. Often times in our lives it’s the crises that afford the best opportunities for learning. In other words every ‘up-set’ can be a ‘set-up’ for learning. This view is what we call ‘Growth Mindset’.
The Growth Mindset becomes a tremendous source of energy when leaders like White embrace the learning that comes with successes and failures alike. White, “I can’t accept failure as closure but believe instead that it becomes valuable learning for new beginnings.” True to her learning spirit, White loves to learn from anything, especially challenges, which energize her. Her astounding vitality comes from living life as an ongoing adventure, learning every moment, whatever happens. To White “Growth is essential to the fulfillment of life.”
The power of a Growth Mindset is multiplied when adopted by entire teams and organizations as a shared value; we call this a Growth Culture. White shares, “I say to my colleagues, ‘Don’t tell me you can’t do it; simply tell me why.’ Many times we build barriers by saying no before trying. No is a seldom-used word in our organization.”
In this kind of culture, problems become more fuel for learning, growing and continuing the journey towards purpose, rather than (self)-blame, judgment, hopelessness and other forms of negativity. Growth Culture organizations become powerful engines for innovation, as energy that was drained by negativity is freed and directed towards creativity, collaboration and problem solving.
One way to cultivate Growth Culture is to abandon ‘sacred cows’. Once again, White spares no expense in her view, “…we should have no sacred cows. In other words, we should not be so committed to tradition, so committed to the past that we have to perpetuate it. To me, there are no sacred cows; they are best used as hamburger.”
We can ask ourselves this Box 2 question: ‘What are the sacred cows in my organization, my teams, and myself?’ Now think about how can you make hamburger with them. What would be the impact?
Visionary leaders like White cultivate fascination that is continuous, by taking the view that the real journey is endless. Walking towards their purpose on a daily basis, they see their life as a purposeful journey that they recommit to, time and again. “I haven’t given everything,” reflects White on her life’s work, “and I don’t expect I ever will. I don’t see a termination point for giving.”
Many of us worry ‘am I there yet; have I achieved my purpose/goal/aspiration yet?’ We call this a Getting Mindset. A Getting Mindset can drain our energy, especially when we hit upsets and life doesn’t go according to our plan. In shifting our focus from getting to contributing we can reconceive our life not as a destination, but as an adventure of ongoing giving. We start to see activities in our lives not as a to-do list, but as ‘possibilities for contribution’. When this shift happens it can be powerful for us and for those around us. Leadership takes on a different tenor; we become less concerned with others’ opinions of us, or even of our own notions of success or failure. Giving becomes the only measure. Walking this delicate balance is not easy; we can check in by asking ourselves by asking this simple question: am I getting or giving?
In creating powerful Box 3 futures, visionary leaders know paradoxically that their true contribution may never fully be realized. They take ease and joy in their contribution towards a longer term view. White shares, “My view is that life is a gift and only I can decide how to use it—a choice that, hopefully, leads toward a better world.” Taking the journey even further, we can start to conceive our contribution as something that goes beyond even our own life; we can see ours as a building block to something bigger. As White says, “Success may not be fully measured in our lifetimes. Perhaps the goal is to live each day as a building block for an even brighter future.”
Continuous fascination, cultivated through purposefulness, Growth Mindset and ongoing giving, gives us energy to keep innovating. Consider for a moment, ‘what purpose could keep me curious for life?’
Vijay Govindarajan is the Coxe Distinguished Professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and a Marvin Bower Fellow at Harvard Business School. He is the author of Three Box Solution: A Strategy for Leading Innovation, HBR Press, April 2016.
Hylke Faber is CEO of the Growth Leaders Network, an organization supporting a global community of leaders committed to self-growth and selfless service, and is Managing Partner of the culture and leadership consultancy Constancee. Hylke also directs the Leading as Coach programs at the Columbia Business School Executive Education program.