The Mindset of a Leader May Not Be What You Think It Is

Learning to delegate wisely and create meaningful partnerships with team members sets an admirable example for others to follow, demonstrating true leadership.

What could be more important than the mindset of a leader – the way a leader thinks, reflects, and consciously engages with the realities of a business? It is hard to imagine anything more critical than an effective leadership mindset in the face of this turbulent, ever-changing, chaotic world.

But what is the reality of the mental landscape of most leaders? How about:

  • Overwhelmed.
  • Stressed.
  • A feeling of being burdened with impossible challenges.

And often, a sense of guilt that they are not doing more, despite working tirelessly on a treadmill of seemingly endless tasks.

Does this scenario seem familiar? I thought so. And this raises the question, “What can a leader do to function more effectively, leading teams of similarly challenged people to achieve the mission of the business?”

There is no one simple answer that will work for every person in every situation. However, there are a few effective principles that can make an immediate and significant difference in the mindset of any leader. Here, then, are three principles – and related inquiry – that can support the mindset of an effective leader:

Clarity of Purpose. Take the time to get crystal clear about the purpose of this business and your own best role in serving that purpose. The question to ask is, “Why are we in this business and how can I allocate my time, attention, and creativity to inspire others to engage effectively with achieving this purpose?” (Not “How can I heroically take on all of the responsibility myself?”)

Many leaders are clear about their business purpose but lack self-awareness regarding their most effective role in pursuing that purpose. They are not sure what they personally should be doing. Can you see the problem? This is a blind spot regarding one’s own talents and is quite common, in my experience.

Focus. You know you cannot do it all (do you?), yet it is the tendency of leaders in senior roles to feel as if they should, and many leaders habitually take on responsibilities covering a spectrum of challenges that is far too broad – often ludicrously so. While “doing it all” may seem heroic, it is simply ineffective, because it leads quickly to overload and exhaustion. And you can spend lots of time and effort “heroically” working on things that either do not matter or could better be done by others.

Doing everything yourself will also effectively disconnect you from your people because you are going to be too busy dealing with your own stress to pay attention to their concerns. And it is safe to say that leaders feeling overwhelmed are not going to excel at decision-making in general. When leaders become disconnected from their people, it is the beginning of the end. So what should they do?

Four questions to ask yourself

Leaders will better serve their organizations – and themselves – by consciously focusing on a series of strategic questions to guide their choices regarding how they spend their time, and on what:

  1. What is our purpose as an organization and does this (whatever it is) really serve that purpose? If not, why are we doing this?
  2. How might I assemble a team or invite an individual to address this? How can I invite and lead others to deal effectively with this instead of robotically taking it on myself?
  3. What is my role in this, if any?
  4. Is this strategic or tactical? If merely tactical, this is better delegated. Who can I invite to take this on as a tactical partner?

Asking these questions before immediately taking on yet another task yourself is one of the most effective approaches of a true leader. This line of inquiry will help you stay focused on what really matters and what truly fits your leadership role: leading by systematically inviting others to step up and be great. That is the real leadership mindset and the one that is most often missing in organizations.

Some might think, “But these Western ideas don’t fit in with Asian cultures.” Contrary to what you may hear, this kind of mindset is not culture-bound and is applicable anywhere in the world. It is true that some cultures have a reputation for resisting them more than others. Having lived and worked in the Greater China region since 1976, I have of course experienced such leaders and the people who have worked under them, including some wonderful examples and quite a few horrific ones. But for every local company led by a clueless leader, you will find a mirror image in a French, German, or American company. I have come to believe it is more of an individual issue, rather than a cultural one.

In Taiwan, for example, I know several seasoned CEOs who skillfully model true leadership mindsets, and as a result, have given their companies a real competitive advantage. Their employee engagement is remarkably high, and turnover is low. People look forward to coming to work and are willing to “go the extra mile.” The spirit of teamwork is tangible, and the companies have a reputation as a great place to work – purely a result of word-of-mouth advertising. They never have a problem recruiting the best people and retaining them. And in the companies that I’m referencing, promises are kept, and you won’t find empty slogans. So much for “Western ideas.” Properly understood, these are “human ideas” because they come from what works in the human dimension.

At the same time, I’ve seen so-called leaders from the full range of Western nations who have absolutely no clue about leading people. They automatically shoulder all the responsibility themselves, leading to the kind of stress that makes them incompetent at leading and cultivating people. It’s not their fault. They simply misunderstand what leading is all about. Somewhere in their careers they had role models who also had no clue about powerful partnerships and how to create them. So, as the saying goes, they were simply “bitten by the vampire” and are now spreading the virus to a new generation. But there is hope, if (big if!) such leaders can open their eyes to the vast power that emanates from an organization based on partnership. When the blind spot is removed, a different world comes into view.

The Partnership Mindset

This is the mindset that truly separates the sheep from the goats. It requires the ability to see the organization as a web of potential partnerships, enthusiastically devoted to serving one another as well as customers and other external stakeholders. And it involves leaders asking one question, persistently, day in and day out, forever:

“How might I, through visible actions and authentic speaking, inspire and support a web of effective and satisfying partnerships throughout this organization to serve our business purpose? How might I model the Partnership Mindset today?”

Asking this question is highly effective because it underlines the reality that without such a web of effective partnerships, with all the players 100% committed and engaged, a major competitive advantage has been lost. And the cost of that lost potential is enormous. In the U.S. alone, it runs to $350 billion per year, according to Gallup’s annual Employee Engagement survey.

Without a real sense of caring, partnership, and connection, people lose interest, feel unsupported, disengage, and do not enjoy coming to work. Invariably they end up in conflict with each other and thereby give an advantage to the competition. And when organizations are distracted by internal warfare, they lose focus on the mission. Sound familiar?

By ensuring that organizational partnerships are effective and meaningful, the true power of a group of people can be harnessed and focused on achieving the purpose of the business, instead of engaging in internal warfare.

Business is a team sport, and the most effective leaders see that everyone is a part of the team, and everyone is a potential partner. This mindset is radically different from the one that thinks, “It’s all about me and how much I can personally do.”

Leading by example does not mean doing everything yourself as a kind of organizational hero. It means inspiring others to be heroic in their roles as partners who focus on serving the purpose of the business. And it means routinely inviting others to take on big chunks of responsibility and empowering them to succeed. When people see you inviting others to rise to the challenge, they will copy you and do the same, creating a virtuous cycle.

So, potentially, the mind of a leader is focused on three things:

  • Staying clear about purpose.
  • Focusing on what truly matters in a leadership role.
  • Modeling and inspiring effective partnerships.

All this is of course easier said than done. And any day you spend feeling overwhelmed, burdened, and burned out is not going to contribute to the success of your mission, your purpose. You have a choice about where your attention goes, but only if you see that you have a choice. Not seeing that you have a choice leads to overload, stress, burnout, and ineffectiveness. This “blind spot” is what typically leads to leadership failures, in my observation.

So what can you do? Take ownership of your attention, what your mind is addressing (ask the four questions), and find out what happens when you start modeling an effective mindset that sees solutions in terms of partnerships in which people look forward to taking on big challenges together. This means demonstrating the Partnership Mindset in all you do as a leader.

Remember that people do “follow the leader” and if you are leading from an overwhelmed and ego-driven mind, your followers will copy you. You are perfectly organized to achieve the results you are currently getting. The pathway to getting different results lies not in changing external circumstances but in changing how effectively you address the things that show up at your door. So, when stuff shows up, what is your mindset? Think about it.

You can be a hero, not by taking everything on yourself, but by systematically inviting and leading others to form and maintain powerful connections with one another as they focus together on the purpose of the business.

That is the true mindset of a leader: Inviting others to step up and make a difference in a context of meaningful ongoing partnerships. At the same time, it involves understanding the barriers that prevent powerful partnerships from becoming the norm and working to eliminate those barriers.

As a leader, it is “normal” to assume responsibility for every challenge that shows up at your door; it is far less typical to cultivate a mindset of powerfully distributing responsibility throughout a network of effective and enjoyable partnerships. One path leads to being overwhelmed and stressed, while the other leads to effectiveness, satisfaction, and performance. I think I know which path you prefer. If you are not on that path, consider asking a trusted adviser for help. It can save you years of grief.

As a leadership mentor of mine likes to say, “Asking for help is a great way to get it.”

Note: The insights in this article are derived from my experience working with organizational leaders over the past 25 years and from my own experience leading organizations in the Asia-Pacific region. In addition, these insights have been shaped by my work with the Seeing Systems Workshop, for which I am a certified facilitator. For many Fortune 100 companies, this workshop is a prerequisite for anyone on a leadership track. For more information, contact me at [email protected]