Leadership 102: Leading the Thinking

By Mike Figliuolo

Continuing on our theme of articulating your leadership philosophy on one piece of paper (your leadership maxims), we now need to move on to leading the thinking. This concept is the second major section of my upcoming book “One Piece of Paper”.

Once you’ve taken care of defining how you’ll lead yourself, you need to create some maxims that get you leaning forward and taking your organization to new places. The status quo is never good enough.

I can’t think of a single leader I’ve ever met whose strategy was “Don’t change a thing! Everything is perfect!”

In fact, the best leaders I’ve worked with continuously challenged the thinking, blew up business models, and constantly questioned how they could get their organization to a better place. This is what leading the thinking is all about. This approach is all about thought leadership (and lucky for you, we not only cover the topic on this blog, but we also teach a course on thoughtLEADERSHIP as well — click here to learn more about bringing the program into your organization).

Obviously the benefits of leading the thinking are that you’ll see new trends and opportunities (or risks) before your competitors. You’ll shape the market, rather than have the market shape you. You’ll uncover those huge new breakthrough opportunities that get your team excited and energized about their work.

To do all these great things, you need to establish some maxims that force you to think about new opportunities and set a vision for where you’re headed. On top of that, I highly suggest you set aside some “think time” every month (at least a half day) to take a step back and evaluate how you’re thinking about the business.

Now let’s dive into making leading the thinking practical and pragmatic.

Articulating a vision

I don’t care what level you’re at in the organization — you need to articulate a vision of a future state for your team. Usually we leave this high falutin’ work up to the C-suite, but doing it at any team level can be powerful.

Out of all your leadership maxims, this one will change the most frequently. It will change every time you take on a new role or move to a new organization.

To create the maxim, simply look out five years and ask what your organization should look like. What new skills will it have? How big will it be? How will the way you work with other groups change? Be sure to push this vision out far enough beyond where things are clear but not so far that your vision won’t be realizable in a reasonable time period.

For my organization, the vision is “Provide distinctive leadership training taught by unique executives to world-class customers around the globe.” Aspirational? Absolutely. Possible? We’re already making it happen. What’s your future vision for your team?

Setting the course

As in leading yourself, you also need to provide some guard rails for your team. They can be focused on how you treat customers or how you uphold team standards. These guard rails ideally point your team to the aforementioned vision but don’t have to do so directly.

Ask yourself, “How do I want my team behaving when I’m not there to give guidance? What are my expectations of how they perform?”

A couple of maxims I’ve used over the years on this point are, “Is this right for the customer?” and “In God we trust. All others bring data.” Obviously, both focus on how I want my team to behave.

Generating breakthrough ideas

Business can be boring when it’s business as usual. But I know you — you’re not usual. You want to change the world. You want to make your organization as great as it can be. The trick is, how do you break through the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” dynamic and create something brand new?

For me, I’m not satisfied with the “way we’ve always done it,” so I ask “why?” five times (that’s the maxim: “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?”). By the time I get to the fifth why, I usually have found an insight or an opportunity to improve something.

Once I’ve found that insight, a second innovation maxim kicks in. It’s called “The Seven ‘So Whats?’.” Basically, take that insight you just found from the five whys and ask “so what?” seven times. You’re asking yourself to define the implications of that insight and the next and the next and so on. By the time you get to the fifth or sixth “so what?” you’ve likely identified a new idea to pursue. Between the whys and the so whats, I’ve found more than my share of innovative ideas.

How will you remind yourself to think beyond the status quo and challenge the way you do things? How will you articulate this belief to your team? That’s your maxim.

That wraps up some thoughts on leading the thinking. Coming up in our next post is leading your people.

Check out the other articles in Mike Figliuolo’s Leadership 101 Series:


Mike Figliuolo is the author of “One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership.” He’s the managing director of thoughtLEADERS, LLC — a leadership development firm. An honor graduate from West Point, he served in the U.S. Army as a combat arms officer. Before founding his own company, he was an assistant professor at Duke University, a consultant at McKinsey & Co., and an executive at Capital One and Scotts Miracle-Gro. He regularly writes about leadership on the thoughtLEADERS Blog, read the full original post here.
Originally published: Sep 22, 2011

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