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In Search of Sustainable Leadership:
Keep Your Head When They Are Losing Theirs

This is the seventh in a series of articles examining the many facets of ‘sustainable leadership.’ Find links to the entire series below.

Our search for sustainable leadership has shown us how to find the opportunities in a crisis and turn the best of them into an inspiring vision.

To help ensure successful implementation of that vision, sustainable leaders add two final abilities to their skill set.

Make Clear Sense of the Situation

As we work to implement our chosen way forward, difficulties are bound to arise. A world that no longer works the way it used to makes it easy for us to misinterpret what these events might mean. It also makes it difficult to spot the new solutions that might be emerging.

Sustainable leaders enhance their abilities to do both these things – to spot mistaken assumptions and to ‘think outside the box’ to find new solutions – because they know that both will dramatically increase their chances of getting the results they want.

For example, it used to be normal business practice to register patents as a way to prevent others from copying your business. But in 2014, Tesla realized this assumption was holding it back from achieving its strategic goals and opened up its battery patents to competitors.

It used to be normal business practice for hotel and taxi companies to own or lease buildings and vehicles. Letting go of this assumption enabled Airbnb and Uber to develop radically new business models and transform their industries.

Altogether, there are eight common types of mistaken assumption we can easily make, especially in a time of change. By learning to spot them, sustainable leaders empower themselves to find other, more realistic interpretations, reallocate resources, and increase their likelihood of getting the results they want.

Sustainable leaders also know that in a time of change new opportunities will be emerging. To our conscious minds, habituated to the ways the world used to work, these new paths will be invisible or might even seem ‘wrong’. But our unconscious intuitive minds will be spotting these new patterns as they emerge.

We’ve all watched sportspeople in a split-second leap and dive to put the ball exactly where they wanted it to go. We’ve all experienced a solution suddenly popping into our heads out of nowhere or unexpectedly remembered something critically important that we thought we had forgotten. At these moments it is not our rational, thinking minds that bring us the answers but our unconscious intuition. Sustainable leaders develop structured ways of accessing this intuition at will.

By learning to spot mistaken assumptions and connect reliably with their intuition, sustainable leaders enable themselves to make better sense of a changing world and to find their best ways forward.

Center, Ground and Deepen Our Connection with Ourselves

A changing world brings us more issues to deal with and a greater sense of urgency for doing so.

Faced with these multiple competing priorities, sustainable leaders develop one final skill: the ability to remain centered and grounded at all times.

At one level this can involve simple techniques for releasing stress, anchoring desired states, or maintaining the mindfulness that has become so popular in recent years.

But the ultimate way of remaining steadfast in the face of multiple conflicting priorities is to connect deeply with the priorities that matter most to you: who you are and what you care about. Then you quickly know which issues to ignore, which to pay attention to, and what outcomes to create.

Sustainable leaders set aside time daily, weekly, and monthly to review and connect with their personal priorities. They use three types of activity: exercise, creativity, and meditation.

“Exercise,” says John Ratey, psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, “is the single best thing you can do for your brain in terms of mood, memory, and learning. Even 10 minutes of activity changes your brain.” Richard Branson, for example, says he gets four additional hours of productivity each day from a variety of workouts that include swimming, rock climbing, running, weightlifting and yoga.

Science has shown that meditation also physically changes our brains, generating higher capacities for concentration and managing our emotions. Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple, was well known for practicing Zen Buddhism. “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice,” he said. Meditation connected him with that inner voice. Ariana Huffington calls her early-morning yoga and meditation sessions ‘joy triggers’. Walt Freese, former CEO of Ben & Jerry’s and now the Sterling-Rice Group, starts and finishes each day with 15 minutes of meditation, exercises for at least an hour three days a week, and at weekends goes hiking, climbing or skiing.

Finally, in a world where everything is changing, the ability to innovate is an increasingly important part of every leader’s toolset. Innovation is applied creativity, so participating in the arts – either by being creative yourself or by engaging with the creativity of others – is a powerful way to recharge your batteries, connect with what inspires you, and strengthen your creative muscle, your ability to innovate.

Time spent in nature enhances all three.

Like a tree putting down deeper roots, the self-connection developed by whatever combination of these three activities is right for you will not only keep you stable when storms are raging but will also enable you to spread your leadership ‘branches’ out into larger challenges and roles when times are calm.

Switching the metaphor, Abraham Lincoln famously said, “If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my ax.” Meditation, exercise, and creativity sharpen that ax. They bring a clarity and focus that enables us to deal with our workload more efficiently and effectively.

For sustainable leaders, connecting deeply with who we are and what matters most to us lays the foundation for everything else that follows.

Next Steps

Our search for sustainable leadership has led us on a journey that started with the possibility of designing a new approach for leadership that makes existing leadership models obsolete and has ended with the need to connect deeply with who we truly are.

The final article will review all these steps and examine their implications.

In Search of Sustainable Leadership, the series:

  1. In Search of Sustainable Leadership
  2. Building Antifragile Competitive Advantage
  3. Managing Transitions
  4. Creating Inspiration
  5. An Opportunity Mindset
  6. Choosing a Way Forward
  7. Keep Your Head When They Are Losing Theirs
  8. Infinite Growth on a Finite Planet