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March 2019
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TD Magazine

The Mentally Prepared Leader

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The Mentally Prepared Leader

Cognitive readiness—a higher-level critical thinking skill—is the new must-have.

When we work to develop leaders who are stepping into a higher-level position or more complex responsibilities, one of the first things we ask is what in their background has taught them how to do this. If there is nothing, then we must build the learning structure to get the leaders prepared as fast as possible. In the past, that may have consisted of competencies such as advanced business or financial acumen, high-impact communication, and influential leadership. But technology advancement along with global shifts in commerce, politics, and security have upped the game, and a new game requires new skills.

Possibly the most important of the new, advanced skills needed is cognitive readiness—the upper echelon of critical thinking. Developing cognitive readiness equips leaders, their organizations, and even individual staff members with the mental preparedness to face whatever dynamic, ill-defined, and unpredictable challenge that may arise.

Former 3M CEO George Buckley once said that leaders "often face unpalatable choices ... it's not about good choices and bad choices but making choices that are bad or worse." Sometimes, leaders must choose between the unpalatable and the unthinkable. Referring to the 2008 era bailout of the U.S. financial system, Buckley said, "The unpalatable is supporting the banks. The unthinkable is the collapse of the banking system. Leaders aren't given the choice between dandelions and roses. It might be dandelions and chickweed. They are forced to make choices with too little time and too little information. It requires courage and a strong stomach. ... The job that leaders have is difficult, and there are increasingly few people capable of doing it."

The competency of cognitive readiness

The concept of cognitive readiness has military underpinnings; however, its relevance to nonmilitary environments—including business, government, and education—are obvious. There is a saying among members of the military that "The most important six inches in the field are the ones between your ears." In other words, the key to victory lies in one's decision-making prowess, interpersonal acumen, attentional abilities, and overall mental preparedness.

The validity of this saying is now widely recognized in military circles, but that wasn't always the case. Military leaders have only recently embraced the idea of thinking soldiers, where each person from the commanding general down to the most junior private is expected to exhibit superior decision-making skills. The acceptance of this idea (and slow breakdown of the outmoded concept where only the leader exhibits any independent judgment) has increased during the past decade as military personnel face more volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA).

Business leaders must make a similar shift. While talked about for years, empowerment is slow to implement. In fact, as we go from company to company, we rarely see a truly empowered workforce. A major piece of our work is to research and observe leadership trends and then translate what we see to the leaders we develop. And what we see is that companies that do not transition to an empowered, decision-making capable workforce down to the lowest-level employee are likely to die. Some may die slowly, but they will most likely cease to exist if they continue a top-down leadership approach.

Perhaps you are not convinced. Let's say a woman, Ann, goes into a store, where she finds a purse she would like to buy. Just before the person behind the counter rings up the purchase, Ann does a quick check on her smartphone to see whether there are any ways to get the same purse for less than the store's purchase price. She finds the same purse for 20 percent less online, and it includes free shipping. Still, Ann would prefer to have the purse today, so she asks the salesperson if the store can match the online price. At that moment, the salesperson has about two minutes to get Ann's business before she purchases the purse from another vendor while standing in the store's expensive real estate.

That is just one example of the shifting landscape that leaders must be able to navigate today. Business trends indicate that the higher-level critical thinking skills of cognitive readiness are now on the forefront of necessary competencies for collaboration, safety, and winning in today's marketplace. Technically, cognitive readiness is the mental preparation an individual or organization must establish and sustain to perform effectively in the complex and unpredictable environment of modern business. But what does it look like and how do leaders prepare themselves?

Mental preparedness

Mentally prepared, or cognitively ready, leaders may not always look like they are working. These leaders understand that they are paid for their brain and that work using the brain doesn't look the same as work using one's hands. In the past, young high potentials may have been told to walk fast and always look busy. Today, they should be told that time to think, brainstorm, and analyze is what's important. Whether a person walks fast or slow has nothing to do with output or success. Let's compare and contrast:

  • Mentally prepared leaders look outward, seeking weak signals and monitoring the environment; traditional leaders look downward, actively directing their staff's decisions and actions.
  • Mentally prepared leaders value thinking time—they ask for debates, perspectives, and trial runs; traditional leaders push for results and expect immediate action.
  • Mentally prepared leaders take time to look back, revisit failures, and capture lessons learned; traditional leaders move from one goal to the next with little time for review and reflection.

So, what are the skills mentally prepared leaders must learn to be effective? As we designed a development program for executives, we took the extensive research and narrowed the skills down to the six most critical aspects of mental preparedness.

Attentional control (mindfulness). This is the skill of actively managing attention as a finite resource. It is the conscious control of your own attention. People or organizations with high levels of attentional control pick up on weak signals. They can direct and sustain their attention deliberately, without being diverted by distractions, and they can stay focused, even if that sustained attention becomes unpleasant.

Sense-making. This is the ability to quickly connect the dots to gain understanding. It is pattern-based reasoning. In other words, it's the process of developing an understanding of an event or situation, particularly if it's complex and you lack clear, complete, and orderly data.

Good sense-makers put the pieces together quickly and effectively overcome gaps in information. They discern meaning from complex patterns and recognize how parts of a system fit into the bigger picture. This enables them to notice potential opportunities or problems before they become fully apparent.

Metacognition. This is the ability to control your mental and emotional processes and, in turn, manage your behaviors and maximize your performance.

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Metacognition involves self-awareness (for example, incoming email distracts me and hurts my performance) and using intentional strategies to regulate your cognition, emotions, and actions. Metacognitive individuals and organizations engage in reflective practice. They take time to plan before situations, actively reflect in the moment, and allocate time to honestly reflect on past performance.

Intuition. This comes from your fast-thinking mental system. Everyone uses intuition—especially under VUCA conditions—but a person's intuition is not always reliable. It's important to know when you can trust it and how to best integrate it into each situation.

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Expertise-based intuition is rooted in domain-specific expertise that individuals can learn to use in support of their decision-making processes. Experts build their intuitive skills through experience and implicit learning. They learn to regulate their intuitive feelings by paying attention to potential biases, actively seeking feedback, and selectively attending to intuitive thoughts based on the characteristics of the problem space.

Adaptability. This is the ability and willingness to change based on shifting conditions. It is the consistent willingness and ability to alter attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors to appropriately respond to actual or anticipated change in the environment.

For leaders, adaptive performance entails not only change to self but also developing others' adaptive capabilities, establishing a climate conducive to adaptive performance, and leading change efforts. Specific variants of adaptability include:

  • flexibility (remaining effective despite changing tasks and conditions)
  • resilience (remaining effective despite challenges, loss, and other stressors)
  • responsiveness (reacting to dynamic events in a timely way)
  • agility (maintaining a focus on strategic goals despite changing conditions).

Problem solving. This is an analytical approach to systematically resolving difficult issues. Problem solving relies on three factors: subject-matter knowledge, motivation, and problem-solving meta-skill (a mental list of problem-solving techniques and decision strategies).

Critical thinking training frequently focuses on this aspect of the decision-making cycle. You can build problem-solving meta-skill by those critical thinking processes as well as the corresponding decision analysis tools, such as force-field diagrams, decision-making matrices, deviation analyses, and decision diagrams.

Communication. This is about conveying deeper intent and understanding—not just surface-level meaning. It is the conveyance of information and sentiments. Its purpose is fourfold: to be heard, to be understood, to be believed, and to inspire to action. Clear, honest, and frequent communication facilitates team performance. Beyond that, you can use linguistic tools to help increase your communication's saliency, clarity, relevance, and persuasive value.

A mentally prepared culture

Making this shift is only the beginning. You must then shift the culture to be empowered and mentally prepared. Using a simple definition, if culture is "the way we do things around here," then the idea of "thinking employees"—where each person from the CEO to the janitor is expected to exhibit superior decision-making skills—becomes a part of the culture. The importance of culture cannot be emphasized enough. According to the National Association of Corporate Directors, "the oversight of culture must be a key board responsibility, as it is inextricably linked with strategy, CEO selection, and risk oversight."

Given that, what does a mentally prepared culture look like? Google is a great example of a company with a mentally prepared culture, and the results speak for themselves. In Fast Company's 2014 list of the Most Innovative Companies, Google earned the top spot. Since then, it was number 4 in 2015 and number 2 in 2017.

Google's culture fosters cognitive readiness in that it insists on every employee taking time to think and act on ideas. The company gives employees a voice—encourages them to share it with others, try it on, collaborate, and potentially bring new things to the marketplace. Does it work? Some of the company's game-changing innovations include Google Fiber, the driverless automobile, wearable computers, autocomplete, Google translate, and universal search.

Again, let's compare and contrast:

  • Mentally prepared cultures embrace experimentation continuously and seek to identify new and varied ideas; traditional cultures experiment in limited capacities for incremental improvement to existing ideas.
  • Mentally prepared cultures tolerate a certain amount of failure to learn; traditional cultures seek to avoid failure at all costs.
  • Mentally prepared cultures celebrate people who fail forward, especially when they get the process right for their decisions even though the outcome didn't result as planned; traditional cultures remember and continue to highlight past failures.

Shifting the culture means that leaders implement, personally practice, and encourage employees to think and behave differently. They may implement reflective practice where they encourage employees to fail forward, promoting active debrief of failures and supporting criticism and self-evaluation.

In addition, leaders can create a culture where:

  • there is space for attentional control, enabling employees to get away from distractors with blackout times from emails
  • there are organizational mechanisms for informing on weak signals where anyone can put in an idea and offering incentives for identifying problems and trends early
  • there are paths to allow for adaptability, enabling people to test their perceived constraints.

Leaders and cultures can make the shift to face today's changing marketplace by implementing mental preparedness through cognitive-readiness programs, processes, and strategies. These are the necessary preparations for leaders and organizations to handle the unexpected, to know when and how to act, devise independent solutions that will work under complex conditions, and learn and adapt as the situation changes.

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About the Author

Bonnie Hagemann is CEO of Executive Development Associates, a global leadership consulting firm that specializes in executive assessment, development, and coaching.

About the Author

Sae Schatz is an applied human-systems researcher, professional facilitator, and cognitive scientist.

2 Comments
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Great article; the concepts highlighted apply to any type of unit (business, sports, military, familial, etc...). Thank you to the authors!!
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LOVED this article so much - I shared it on LinkedIn. Thanks to both Bonnie and Sae!
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