Four challenges for Strategic Leaders

How to build the mental habits that enable you to  make a living while making a better world.

By Art Kleiner, Jeffrey Schwartz, and Josie Thomson

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The Strategic Leadership Career Path

Professionals tend to be ambitious. They want a lot from work: Money, recognition, a challenging (but not too challenging) career path, and a sense that they belong. Having lived during a time of pandemic, they also want to accomplish something significant: to make a contribution and be recognized for it. They want to become strategic leaders.

Strategic leadership is the ability to move an organization or group toward long-term plans and goals. It’s the kind of leadership where you face complex problems — in which the stakes are high, there are no obvious easy solutions, and you can’t get results by simple command. You have to influence and iterate your way to success. In our research on neuroscience and leadership, we have found that some people become more skilled at this over the course of their careers.

If you’re a strategic leader yourself, then you have probably developed the habits of mind through challenges at work. The twists and turns of an organizational career are like a roller-coaster of leadership skill-building; each new climb exposes you to greater, more complex hurdles. You’ll be assigned mentors, and find some on your own, but you’ll also develop an inner voice of self-guidance, a mental frame of mind that we call the “Wise Advocate.” This construct, which you get into the habit of summoning, helps you see yourself as others might see you. It operates with a high level of discernment and judgment, while also maintaining a loving commitment to your own growth and success. Over time, as you learn to tune in to this frame of mind, you’ll gain more ability to steer clear of pitfalls, overreach, and unintended consequences. You’ll gradually become the kind of leader who can handle the immense stakes and tangled complexity of our time.

Along the way, you’ll go through transitional moments. They are like passages; you emerge more capable, and different than you were before. They are triggered by challenges that face many business people. And you get through them by developing and summoning your inner resources. Here are four such challenges that you might face as your career advances – and four practices by which you can develop your Wise Advocate and strategic leadership skills:

Challenge

1. Impulse and Emotion

2. Deceptive Mind Reading

3. Low ground (purely short-term transactional) thinking

4. The Mentalizer’s Paradox (why leaders lose sight of the source of their true authority)

Practice

Executive Function (inhibitory control, working memory and cognitive flexibility)

Mentalizing (Thinking about what other people are thinking and what they’re likely to do next)

Wise expedience (integrating long-term and short-term thinking)

Applied mindfulness and the Wise Advocate

Challenge 1: Taming Impulse and Emotion

Early in your career, you might hear two contradictory messages when you take a new job.

First, “Bring your whole self to work.” The organization needs your creativity and energy.

Second, “Don’t cause trouble.” Suppress that creativity and energy.

Both of these imperatives are important. How can you reconcile them and still manage to show up for work every morning?

The answer is to exercise and strengthen the executive function of your mind. The word executive means similar things in neuroscience and business. It refers to the ability to marshal and coordinate many different resources in a complex, goal-directed fashion. In the brain, these functions are generally associated with the lateral prefrontal cortex. A well-developed executive function helps you channel spontaneous creativity and energy in a way that serves your long-term plans and goals.

Several life-long skills and capabilities are associated with this part of the brain:

  • Inhibitory control: the ability to override impulses and emotions when necessary;
  • Working memory: the capacity for mentally processing multiple levels of information at one time;
  • Cognitive flexibility: ease in shifting perspectives and adjusting to new challenges and opportunities.

These all help leaders become more capable at solving complex problems – and more influential and successful leaders. Executive function tends to correlate with achievement in general – including test scores and salaries, which helps explain why it has been studied so much.

If your upbringing and schooling hasn’t given you much skill at executive function, your first year in a typical workplace may be a trial by fire. You’ll be tempted to lash out when, for instance, a report is due, your computer shuts down, and you get a runaround from the company’s telephone help concierge. Later, you might regret the outburst; that isn’t the real you. You’re just doing what Michael Jordan did in The Last Dance: pushing people to do their best, lashing out at them if necessary. “You’re a loser. You’ve always been a loser.”

But the neuroscience of strategic leadership says this isn’t helpful. Outbursts of this sort, whether directed at yourself or others, harm the psychological safety of the room. You can’t overcome those impulses unless you build up your executive function.

Fortunately, it’s possible to do that – although most people don’t know how. Adele Diamond, professor of neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, has spent much of the last two decades tracking and assessing the many efforts to do this. She says that the most lasting results don’t come from computer games or physical exercise, per se, but from paying close attention while you move; and emotional commitment to what you’re doing. If you’re playing a sport you love, you’re much more likely to have your executive function increase than if you’re just doing calisthenics. The same is true for work; if you want your executive function continually activated and improving, choose a job you love, where what you do every day has intrinsic value to you. Intangibles like the character and tone of the trainer, and the fit between the type of training and the learner’s temperament, may matter most of all.

Best of all is working for an entire enterprise that supports executive function: an environment where people naturally encourage each other to manage inhibitions or look at multiple sides of an issue. For companies wrestling with complex challenges, such as digital platforms or ethical missteps,  this could be an extraordinarily high form of leverage: to immerse managers in a corporate culture where it feels natural, and rewarded, to cultivate executive function.

Challenge 2: Deceptive Mind-Reading

If you work at a typical big company, you’ve probably been in a room where people insist that other people agree with them. “We all feel good about this feature,” someone might say expansively about a new product design. They know everybody wants it – because they want it.

 This is a familiar type of cognitive distortion known to psychologists as emotional reasoning. A message pops up from the brain, as messages continually do. This one in effect says: My perception must be true. Because it feels true.

It’s like mindreading – but deceptive. You hazard a thought that misrepresents what someone else wants or believes. You find it persuasive. It guides your behavior. And it misleads you.

Other examples: Your boss wants you to finish every assignment right now, even though there are too many to track and you don’t know which to do first. Your employees all buy into that new mission statement. Your shareholders would rather hear you had a good quarter than get an early warning of a problem. It’s your job to intuit what people want, without asking them or listening.

Chances are that some aspects of your deceptive mind reading messages are correct. Some customers, employees, bosses and shareholders do indeed want what you think they want, at least sometimes. Others don’t. But the more vehemently you champion your perspective, the less others will speak up when they disagree. So you’ll miss important warning signals. You’ll plow forward with that assignment, that feature, that mission statement, or those adjusted numbers, and when there is a crisis, you might not even recognize your role in creating it. But others will see, and your career may stall, without you ever really knowing why. 

Some mid-level leaders never get past this challenge. They remain convinced that their own feelings and logic are a good guide to what other people are thinking. Others meet this challenge head-on. Instead of just thinking about what people want, and what they want, they practice a form of thinking called “mentalizing.”

To mentalize is to put your attention on what other people are thinking, and what they are likely to do next. Psychologists also call this “theory of mind:” the practice of building a perspective about other people. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin built her book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln around Lincoln’s gift for mentalizing. After his election as U.S. president in 1860, he recruited three former political opponents for his cabinet: William H. Seward as secretary of state, Salmon P.  Chase for Treasury, and Edward Bates as attorney general.  Then he paid close attention to what they thought about the pending civil war and other issues. The ability to share and frame their thoughts formed the foundation of close working  relationships. This was one of the most important factors in making Lincoln effective as a president.

It’s not easy to mentalize. But it is a foundational practice for any truly strategic leader. Practiced deliberately, it helps break the habit of deceptive mindreading. You begin to understand not just what someone might do or say next, but why. You may even find a way to discern which of those many assignments your boss actually cares about.

If you like this, you might be interested in our one-hour free webinar, How to Manage the Mind in Difficult Times

Challenge 3: Low-Ground Thinking

There are two patterns of mental activity associated with leadership. Each is associated with a different circuit in the brain. The first is low ground thinking, associated with the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, and connected to our brain’s habit center, contained within the basal ganglia: the center of automatic behavior. This circuit is oriented toward subjective valuation: consideration of what people want, including what you want yourself.

The second is high ground thinking, associated with the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex and the executive center (which we covered earlier.) This circuit is oriented toward long-term plans and goals: strategic considerations. It requires some effort to train the mind and brain: not just with executive function, but with mentalizing (thinking about what other people are thinking and what they may do next) and applied mindfulness (mentalizing about yourself, or becoming more aware of your own thoughts and habits).

You can rise quite far in your career with low-ground thinking. You become a tactical leader: Making deals. Pleasing higher-ups. Giving customers what they want. Returning investment. And though you might want to dismiss it because it’s focused just on expedience, this kind of tactical leadership has real value. Without it, your business would come to a halt. So would civilization. The low ground ain’t so low.

But sooner or later, tactical leadership hits a wall – especially when you need to inspire people to be creative, or you must deal with ethical dilemmas. As you rise in stature, you must think in terms of long-term goals and plans, and not just for yourself but for the enterprise as a whole.  

Then pure expedience must evolve to wise expedience. You can’t just practice high-ground thinking on its own: there are always short-term problems to solve. But you also have to look to the long-term. You may need to persuade people who don’t work directly with you, or bring together people who can’t see one another’s perspective. You have to show them the aspects of reality that will help them move the whole place forward.

Most people with broad aspirations — for themselves or the organization — discover the need for wise expedience, sometime in mid-career. Addressing this challenge requires sophisticated skills in self-management. You must simultaneously pay attention to what other people are thinking (a High Ground activity) and what they want (a Low Ground activity), what you want (Low Ground), and what you are capable of (High Ground). You create a new narrative, taking all of this into account, that can truly help the organization move forward and thoughtfully present it to others. When that happens, you’re on your way to becoming a powerful Strategic Leader.

Challenge 4: The Mentalizer’s Paradox

Roger, a young software engineer, was always the smartest guy in the room. He could code quickly, spot flaws effectively, and complement others’ work. He moved rapidly up, especially after his team developed a new approach to cybersecurity that helped the company avoid a multimillion-dollar liability. This happened in part because of Roger’s ability to mentalize: to think about what his fellow employees were thinking and what they were likely to do next. In this case, he thought about ways in which they might unwittingly let intruders phish them. On the strength of that triumph, he was promoted to an executive position, overseeing other software professionals.

But within a few years, he was on the verge of being fired. He started being brusque and disdainful with his peers in other departments, and even with senior executives. When Roger missed deadlines or made mistakes, he blamed his staff. Formerly, he had been lauded for his ability to think about others; now, it seemed, he didn’t want to bother.

“Nobody can stand to work with you,” his boss finally told him.

“That can’t be true,” he replied. “Everybody knows how valuable I am.” And they let him go.

Stories like this are all too common. They reflect the peril of the mentalizer’s paradox. Early in your career, you may, like Roger, master great challenges, thanks to your self-command and ability to mentalize. As you rise to be a strategic leader, the number of people you have to think about increases. The cognitive effort and discomfort associated with mentalizing becomes more onerous. Since mentalizing is often associated with diminished status – the administrative assistant mentalizes about the boss, but the boss doesn’t think much about the administrative assistant – you may come to feel you are too important for it. You paid your dues; now it’s time for others to think about how you think.

The mentalizer’s paradox sometimes manifests itself as a craving for other people to defer to you. The distractions of success take you back to the Low Ground: back to non-strategic, short-term, transactional thinking, focused on what you want rather than on what the situation needs.

Resisting the mentalizer’s paradox is difficult. It requires a high level of self-discipline. Douglas Conant, for example, during his 10 years as CEO of Campbell Soup Company, sent about 3,000 handwritten notes to employees each year, typically compliments related to something that helped a business priority succeed. He blocked out half an hour per day to do this.

One way to get over the mentalizer’s paradox is through applied mindfulness. The mind has a propensity to wander, and the act of refocusing your attention — bringing it back to the breath, time and time again — is in many ways the heart of mindfulness practice. It helps you become more aware of the continual flow of thoughts. As you mentalize about yourself, asking “What am I thinking, and why am I thinking this way?” and “What am I likely to do next?” you gain a third-person perspective on your first-person experience.

You develop this habit over a lifetime, and typically not just at work. We have written about this practice as “consulting your Wise Advocate:” seeking the inner voice that can help you see yourself as others see you, with a commitment to your own true self. It turns out that the habits of mind that enable executives to become strategic leaders, especially in times of complexity and turmoil, also enable them to stay in those positions, despite the temptations of their own mental activity.

Art Kleiner is a writer and management  thinker teaching at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, MD is a research psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles and the coauthor of several best-selling books, including You Are Not Your Brain. Josie Thomson is an award-winning executive coach based in Brisbane, Australia, who has pioneered the use of neuroscience principles in working with business leaders. They are coauthors of The Wise Advocate: The Inner Voice of Strategic Leadership, and their firm Wise Advocate Enterprises offers courses and practices based on these concepts.

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