Message From Julie: Leading with a Beginner’s Mind

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The theme for this month at The Mat Yoga Studio where I practice is “Beginner’s Mind”. As the teachers talked about the theme at the beginning of classes throughout the month, I thought about how beneficial it could be for leaders to lead with a beginner’s mind.

In the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind Shunryu Suzuki says:

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

When I first read this quote, it took several beats for me to realize that Suzuki is actually suggesting that the beginner’s mind is a more resourceful way of being than the expert’s mind. In our culture that is often a very foreign way of thinking.

Using a beginner’s mind means looking at situations from fresh perspectives – with ah, wonder, and curiosity – like you were encountering them for the first time. It requires letting go of expectations, assumptions, and the illusion that you already have all the answers – something that is difficult for many leaders to even contemplate.

In his book, Turn the Ship Around, retired submarine Captain L. David Marquet shares how he was forced to lead with a beginner’s mind when he was assigned at the last minute to command the USS Santa Fe, a different class of submarine than he had prepared for. He also provides a poignant example of the pitfalls of trying to lead with an expert’s mind. (As a side note, if you have not read this book, I highly recommend you do so. It is one of the best if not the best leadership book I have ever read – and I have read a lot of them.)

Under Captain Marquet’s beginner’s mind leadership, the USS Santa Fe went from the worst performing submarine in the Pacific fleet to first and continued to perform exceptionally well for many years after Marquet’s command ended. In addition, all the officers serving under Marquet went on to assume major command.

The Benefits of Leading with a Beginner’s Mind

Approaching leadership with a beginner’s mind can:

  • Improve problem solving,
  • Lead to better decisions,
  • Enhance creativity, and
  • Drive innovation.

It engages team members and provides them the opportunity to contribute, grow, take on greater responsibility, and contribute to their full potential.building a high performance culture webinar

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits though is it relieves the leader of the burden of having to have all the answers. It lifts the weight of needing to be the expert off the leader’s shoulders.

Cultivating a Beginner’s Mind

Despite the benefits, cultivating a beginner’s mind can be a challenge for leaders. It requires stepping out of the role of expert and tearing down the façade of having all the answers. Leading with a beginner’s mind requires a level of transparency and vulnerability that are outside the comfort zone of many leaders.

Here are some specific ideas for beginning the journey of leading with a beginner’s mind:

  • Identify and analyze assumptions. Whenever you and your team make a decision, develop a solution to a problem, or settle on a course of action, ask yourselves what assumptions and beliefs are behind the decision. What are you assuming that is resulting in this conclusion. Once you have identified the assumptions you can then analyze if they are accurate and are likely to be accurate into the future.
  • Ask questions and listen. There it is again, that keystone leadership habit of asking questions. When striving to lead from a beginner’s mind it is especially important to ask questions of those with little or no experience in the specific area – for example those in other functional areas and even other industries.In the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program we put participants into growth groups made up of individuals from different industries. It is common to have the owner of an HVAC business with the owner of a veterinarian clinic, or the owner of an engineering business with someone who owns a wedding planning company. The initial reaction from the participants is, “What benefit am I going to get from these people who don’t know my industry.” What they find is some of the best input and ideas come from those businesses who are most different from their own.
  • Put yourself in group situations where you are not the expert. Get outside your comfort zone by putting yourself into group situations where you are not the expert. Maybe take an Improv class or an art class. What is something you have always thought about doing but never have because you don’t know what to expect of if you will be good at it?
  • Surround yourself with people who are different from you. Develop an advisory board consisting of people from different backgrounds, industries, experiences, and ages. Hire people outside your functional area and outside your industry. Hire people without experience in a particular area. Encourage everyone to share their thoughts, ideas, and perspectives.
  • Spend time with children. Strive to see the world through their eyes. Emulate their approach to asking questions.

To lead with a beginner’s mind requires accepting that ignorance is not a four-letter word. Socrates said, “The only true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing.”

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