Sharpen the Saw to Keep Your Leadership Edge

August 27, 2018

Staying Mentally Fit

With the approach of a new school year, I wanted to explore the importance of continual learning in order to maintain your leadership edge. This is about sharpening the saw to stay mentally fit.

In Stephen Covey’s classic leadership book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, habit number seven is Sharpen the Saw. The analogy he describes is that of the woodcutter who is sawing for several days straight and becoming less and less productive. The process of cutting dulls the blade, and the solution is to periodically sharpen the saw.

In this particular habit, Covey discusses renewing the four dimensions of our nature that include, the physical, social/emotional, spiritual and mental. All of them are important, of course, but it is this last one where I want to focus.

Keeping mentally sharp means staying on top of not only important daily news and information, but also studying thought leaders on any subject relevant to your business in order to continue growing your leadership capacity.

Learning Should be a Way of Life

All too often people choose to stop investing the time and energy to further their learning once they’ve finished formal education. It’s as if now that they’ve acquired the degree and found a job, there is no longer the need to continue the process of learning. But learning should be a way of life not a goal one can expect to ever complete.

Successful leaders stay on top because they keep learning. This is an intentional act, which requires discipline, curiosity and the humility of the “beginner’s mind.”

What I’ve found in my study of leadership is that the best leaders are those who are driven to learn throughout their careers. This can be found in many ways, such as:

  • Read lots of books. The best CEOs read on average four to five books a month while the average person reads only two to three each year. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Elon Musk, Mark Cuban are all voracious leaders who make time to read every day.
  • Get training or coaching. There isn’t any leader who couldn’t become a better communicator, presenter, motivator or listener. Those who want to improve these and other skills are the ones who seek out training or coaching.
  • Hold back opinions. When leaders have an idea before a meeting, the best are able to hold back on presenting them until everyone else has had a chance to weigh in. They are more interested in bringing the best ideas forward regardless of whether it is their own.
  • Ask the right questions. In the course of trying to determine the right decision, it is not so much talking about the challenges and the opportunities as it is asking the right questions of the right people to learn how best to move forward. The best leaders recognize their role is asking the right questions at the right time.
  • Listen really well. The best leaders don’t just ask the right questions, they also take the time to hear what is spoken and continue probing for what is not yet said. At a time when people are expected to get to the point quickly, sometimes simply asking “and what else?” can bring forth the most important things to consider.
  • Remain open to new ideas. The older I get the more I realize how little I really know. There is an overwhelming amount of information out there and this requires a certain humility for continued intellectual growth. The best leaders are those who are open to what they do not know and remain curious to know more.

Learning began with your first breadth as a newborn and it should remain your mindset throughout life. This is because only through lifelong learning can you continually sharpen the saw to attain and keep your intellectual edge.

Mindfulness in Leadership Development

January 12, 2012

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”
–Shunryu Suzuki

In a recent Harvard Business Review blog, Polly LaBarre wrote about the wisdom of developing mindful leaders.

Much of the billions of dollars companies invest in leadership development fall short of success because the programs are so heavily focused on data/assessment gathering and so little on people and processes.

“What if, instead of stuffing people with curricula, models, and competencies, we focused on deepening their sense of purpose, expanding their capability to navigate difficulty and complexity, and enriching their emotional resilience?” ponders LaBarre.

“What if, instead of trying to fix people, we assumed that they were already full of potential and created an environment that promoted their long-term well-being?”

LaBarre cites the Personal Excellence Program (PEP) developed at biotechnology company Genentech in 2002 by CIO Todd Pierce and his coach, Pamella Weiss.

PEP begins with the premise that people are whole, not broken. By fully integrating the intellectual (head), emotional (heart) and somatic (body) intelligence, PEP is able to tap into people’s wholehearted engagement, helps them cultivate self-awareness, and supports them to develop mastery through embodied practice.

More than 800 Genentech employees have so far completed this program (primarily in the IT department) and it has dramatically improved employee engagement.

This includes:

• 10-20% increase in employee satisfaction;

• 12% increase in customer satisfaction;

• 50% percent improvement in employee communication, collaboration, conflict management and coaching; and

• 77% of PEP participants reported “significant measurable business impact” as a result of participating in PEP. This is almost three times the norm (25–30%), compared to dozens of similar programs studied.

In terms of a return on investment, evaluators found the program conservatively produced an estimated $1.50 to $2 for every dollar spent to deliver PEP.

“I thought PEP might be a strategy for people to develop a skill or quality,” said Pierce. “But what I see is that it is a strategy to help them be life-long learners and to increase their capacity for personal development and personal satisfaction in every area of their life.”

The PEP program takes place over a ten month period and includes three large group workshops, eight facilitated small group meetings, three individual coaching sessions and monthly peer coaching.

Participants choose a topic to focus on that is important to them, observe them selves in real time to gain insight and self-awareness, and then practice new behaviors to establish new habits and develop mastery.

Deliberate practice is the most significant indicator of success and this requires steady, consistent repetition over time, until new behaviors take root in the body as a new habit.

Mindfulness is about paying attention. It is about learning to observe one self in the context of day-to-day life to enable new insights and begin seeing yourself more clearly. The result is you can then make wiser choices. Increasing this self-awareness helps you cultivate the ability to act rather than react, enabling you to become response-able—even in the midst of high-stress situations.

“I think what makes PEP so successful is less about what we do than it is about the attitude we bring to how we do it,” says Weiss. “When we start from a place of beginner’s mind, and add a big dose of curiosity, patience and appreciation, learning happens because as human beings we are wired to learn and grow. In many ways, it comes down to doing less and trusting more in our innate capacities and vast potential.”

Leadership development programs should provide tangible, long lasting results and a program like PEP that engages the heart, mind and body is an example of one that appears to work.

Rather than seek a one-off, one-day solution for developing leaders in your organization, look for a longer term program with dynamic involvement that includes mindfulness and disciplined practice for changing behavior. Only then will you have a significant return on investment measured not only in dollars, but also in more engaged human capital.