As the Leader Thinketh
Written by Gregg Thompson
*This article is dedicated to the wonderful men and women who have not read the latest bestseller on leadership but still get up each morning committed to making a real difference in the work, careers and lives of others.
There is a hard truth about leadership development that many practitioners in this field prefer to ignore: Much of the work done promoting a particular set of leadership practices or competencies is for naught because it fails to influence the leader’s thinking. It falls on deaf ears.
Workshop facilitators and leadership coaches may as well save their breath to cool their porridge because any behavioral changes are short-lived unless there is a sustained change in the way the leader thinks. In fact, there is so much focus on practices and competencies these days that we neglect the leader’s mind and it is from here that all great leadership emanates.
In 1903, James Allen wrote a remarkable little essay entitled “As a Man Thinketh,” in which he encouraged the reader to seize the transforming power of thought. So profound were the ideas penned by Allen that they have been repeated by virtually every popular self-help author from Dale Carnegie to Stephen Covey, from Norman Vincent Peale to Daniel Goleman.
Allen asserted that people have the power to shape themselves (essentially, their character and motivation) by being disciplined and intentional in their thoughts. His was a message of hope and optimism in a time of strife and hardship. Leaders have much to learn from Allen’s message.
Thinking and Leadership
This is a very simple, straightforward concept, yet one many leaders would rather ignore. Good thinking creates good leaders and bad thinking creates bad leaders!
No rocket science here. This is easy to understand but pretty tough for many leaders and leadership development practitioners to accept. It is so much neater to define leadership as a predetermined list of practices and competencies. The truth is, however, that leaders create or diminish themselves by their thoughts.
Leadership is an acquired habit that flows directly from repetitive thoughts. For example, the more you think about the value of creativity and diverse ideas, the more you will be an effective leader of innovation. A leadership habit starts with a thought, and then becomes a choice, then a practice which becomes a permanent part of your repertoire (i.e. your leadership). This is how leaders create themselves. A repetitive thought ultimately results in a new leadership practice…for better or for worse!
(It is important to note that I am not advocating the self-centered “If I think it, I will get it” concept promoted in the book, The Secret, but rather suggesting that, to increase their effectiveness, leaders need to adopt an “If I think it, I will do it” approach.)
Are your thoughts your ally or your enemy?
- What are your thoughts about your organization? Do you think about it as a chaotic, messy institution or a diverse, creative community?
- What are your thoughts about leadership? Do you think about it as an entitlement to power, privilege and wealth or as a calling to serve others?
- What are your thoughts about others? Do you think of them as flawed pawns on your chessboard or as wonderfully gifted and unique partners?
- What do you think about your work? Do you think of it as an inescapable chore or as a way to live out your purpose and legacy? What are your thoughts about the future? Do you think about it as a road lined with countless perils and menacing enemies or as a once-in-a-lifetime adventure?
Cultivating Leadership Thought
Think of your mind as a garden. What are you cultivating? Allen asserts that “a man’s mind may be likened to a garden, which may be intelligently cultivated or allowed to run wild; but whether cultivated or neglected, it must, and will, bring forth.” Leaders who refuse to change their thinking are refusing to grow. I find it particularly sad to see leaders who invest a herculean effort into improving their organization (and everyone in it) but refuse to change themselves.
If they are being truthful, most leaders will admit that much of their daily effort is directed at trying to change others or accommodate their behavior. They are missing the point. As a leader, when you change the way you think, others will change the way they act! This is one of the most difficult lessons for anyone seeking to enhance their leadership. It all starts in your head! These leaders fail to recognize that all organization development starts with leadership development…and they cannot improve their leadership without improving their thinking.
The cool thing about this is that we, as humans, have the wonderful capacity to change our thinking. We are the masters of our own minds. I recognize that the deepest levels of our consciousness may be hardwired, but we are the authors of our day-to-day thinking patterns. Our thoughts are the source of our power.
Allen goes on to say that “if no useful seeds are put into it, then an abundance of useless weeds will fall therein, and will continue to produce their kind.” So how can the leader keep his or her mind weed-free? You need to be ever vigilant for the most toxic varieties: jealousy, spite, envy, entitlement and judgment… and rip these out before they take hold of your mind and diminish your leadership. We all have these weeds. Leaders who allow them to flourish are choosing a path towards distrust and weakness. The diligent gardener is rewarded with respect and admiration.
As a leader, what are you feeding your mind? And what seeds are you planting to create these new thinking patterns? Valuable seeds can be found everywhere; a great book, a rich conversation, a challenging coach, a quiet contemplation…the world is brimming with good seeds for the leader and not-so-great seeds. Are you stimulating your mind with Plato or with Angry Birds?
Allen wrote: “The wise man, by adding thought to thought and deed to deed, buildeth his character.” As much as we try to hide it, others have a pretty good idea as to what we are thinking. A leader cannot act, in the long run, according to his or her thinking. Thoughts will be revealed through actions. A leader’s character is always on display.
For example, how many times have you seen a newly-minted leader lather profuse compliments on their team members only to be met with ambivalence and disdain? The team members are likely thinking, “Do you think so little of me that you believe you can buy my loyalty and best work with shallow flattery?” The leader would do better to spend time in serious thought considering the wonderful talents and work of each team member and in doing so, develop a sincere appreciation for each.
Following this reflection, a simple, sincere, “thank you for being a part of this team. I am honored to be your partner,” will light up a lot of eyes and lift a lot of spirits.
To the leader who aspires to greater things, I will leave you with this thought: Your current thinking has brought you this far. What new thinking will create the leader you wish to be?
About the Author: Gregg Thompson is president of Bluepoint Leadership Development and author of several books, including “Unleashed: Leader As Coach.” He welcomes your comments by e-mail at [email protected]
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.