Five Leadership Shifts for 21st Century Success


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A boss creates Fear. A leader creates Confidence. ~ Russel Ewing

Yesterday’s leadership approaches won’t necessarily motivate employees and teams in today’s dynamic world. That doesn’t mean these leadership skills are ineffective. It’s just that humans in today’s world are responding to different stimuli that change the way employees and teams believe and behave. That means leadership must shift, too, if we want to fuel success.

Today’s fast-paced markets and fluctuating economy are triggering every human’s survival-based instincts. These instincts impact our behaviors and thinking in ways we haven’t experienced since caveman times. The push to do more faster than ever, financial concerns, shifting economies and markets, businesses in flux and media with it’s focus on fear-based news, movies, games and more all serve to trigger our threat responses. Today’s human lives and works in a continuous state of subconscious threat.

Our brains are programmed with a basic survival principle learned in our earliest days as humans. That principle says that a missed threat is much more dangerous than a missed opportunity. Now that principle made total sense to early humans. Who cares if there’s some food out there if a cougar is lurking in the bushes? Pay attention to the cougar!

That survival principle and the instincts it triggers significantly impact our minds and the way we process data and make decisions. The result? Humans in business are operating with our unconscious (and dominant) responses in full-on survival mode. Which means we’re hunkered down. We instinctually focus on maintaining our safety in the midst of what our Old Brain sees as chaos – as our markets move on.

The Impact on Leadership

Our unconscious human programming has tremendous impacts on how we successfully lead our teams in the 21st century. Many of our traditional leadership approaches and techniques were grounded in a reward and punishment paradigm. That paradigm serves to escalate our survival behaviors in today’s human mind. For example:

  • Motivating with fear or pressure only adds more fire to the survival reaction – and keeps us stuck in our unconscious, and ineffective, responses.
  • Team competitions create divisions and sets us up for infighting vs. innovation, as turf protection and fight or flight responses take over.
  • Pushing for innovation drives poorer results. When we’re stressed we can’t create. That’s because the survival response keeps us in our unconscious minds. Only when our Unconscious minds relax can we bring our new brain (the neocortex) online to drive creative thinking. That’s right – our Unconscious brain decides when our Conscious logical brain can engage – when there is no threat.
  • Punishment has no positive impact. All we get is a stronger survival (fight, flight or shutdown) response as the Old Brain shifts into overdrive to protect at all costs.

This list goes on and on, but by now you get the idea. The bottom line is simple.

Traditional leadership paradigms that trigger survival/fear responses will no longer fuel success in today’s world.

Shifting into 21st Century Leadership

So how do we shift our leadership styles? After all, leadership is about motivating our teams to meet goals and objectives. If we’re all so over stimulated by survival triggers that we are dominated by our unconscious brain – how can leaders be effective?

We can all become inspirational and successful leaders, by understanding the instinctual human behavior that’s rampant in today’s stress-filled world. We can change our leadership styles to leverage the human factor as motivation for positive results. How do we make that shift?

Shift #1: Be aware of your own current state and get Conscious. Slow down, take a pause and question your behavior and beliefs. Are you responding based on facts and today’s reality, or are you triggering from emotions and yesterday’s beliefs? Are you focusing on the future or are you reliving your own history of fear triggers? Be sure you’re leading with your conscious new brain to your teams, including its power for analysis, innovation and creativity. Whenever you feel yourself reacting vs. thinking – shift back into conscious mind again! To learn more about shifting into conscious thinking – read this post.

Shift 2: From Blame to Gain. Our human survival brain prides itself on looking for and finding problems, noting mistakes and placing blame. Today we see blame taken to the extreme in the form of lawsuits for spilled coffee and worse. Just to be clear, blame is not the best recipe for business success. Yet we’ve all experienced the seagull style of leadership – where a leader flies in, poops all over everything that’s “wrong”, lays blame and flies off into the sunset. Was it motivating for you? Probably not.

In every turnaround client I’ve ever experienced – blame was at an all time high. By focusing on the mistakes and blaming someone – our brains give us the feeling of being in control. The challenge is – when we’re focusing on the problem and who to blame for it – we’re ignoring the solutions and new opportunities that can make our business soar.

To shift into Gain – start focusing on what’s working well for your business. Look for what’s working for other businesses too. Be sure to look beyond your own industry. Some of the best ideas for Gain can be found in businesses that are dissimilar to yours. Seek out the processes, behaviors and approaches that are driving success for others. Then, consciously spend time mirroring those successful approaches in your own business.

The next time you find something that isn’t working in your business, instead of dropping into the habit of focusing on the problem, consciously shift into seeking a solution. Don’t waste energy on blame – find the opportunity for Gain. You’ll find the cause along the way – and resolve it as you shift to move forward. Also reward employees when they shift to focus on finding solutions and release the blame game, even as you visibly shift your own leadership focus to do the same.

Spending energy focused on who did what to whom won’t grow your business. Finding and implementing solutions is the path to Gain – and the path to motivating employees.

Shift 3: From Turf to Teamwork. Great leaders know that team is a foundation for success and turf is the enemy of team.

When our brain believes we’re under siege, we move into defensive mode and hunker down to protect our turf. Our ancestors had to protect their turf from predators and other cavemen. We carry forward that instinct – applying it to our physical territory and our roles and responsibilities. Have you noticed how contentious someone can become as soon as you tell them they “have” to do something in their job? That’s turf/protection instinct in action.

Traditional leaders are often directive – spouting out orders that can trigger a turf response. We’ve all been the subjects of the old wheel and spoke leader. They are the wheel in charge and we are all mere spokes with small portions of turf granted by the big wheel. That approach didn’t work for you either, now did it?

Humans can easily fall into protecting their individual roles and turf – losing sight of the business and overarching goals. I’ve seen many clients who had executives that met “their” objective even as the company failed to meet it’s bottom line. Success comes with the entire wheel – not a single spoke.

21st century leaders shift into new methods for motivating teams. For example – instead of telling employees they have to do something – modern leaders use open ended approaches and the “what if?” mode of communication. Instead of creating individual spokes – these leaders present their entire wheel as the teams’ responsibility. They focus on the overall goal and avoid creating a competitive environment within their teams. At every opportunity – they focus on team, team, team, creating new combinations for folks to work together and shifting assignments so people can understand others’ turf and have an over arching view of overall business vs. individual goals.

Shift 4: From the Rear View Mirror to Breakout Focus Our brains are literally wired to hang onto the past since the status quo is where we feel safe and comfortable. The more fear triggers we have in our environment, the stronger our status quo bias becomes. That’s true for leaders as well.

As I note in my book, Defy Gravity, pilots live in the most dynamic environment around. Do you think a pilot bases what he’s going to do next in flight based on what happened 100 miles ago? I hope not! That glassy air may soon be superseded by bumpy stuff – and I want that pilot focused forward. Similarly, pilots don’t look at a yesterday’s flight plan and automatically assume it’s appropriate for today. They check for the reality of today, dynamically shift the plan to match what’s true at this moment, and then move forward.

I personally believe that the status quo bias is the biggest enemy of growth. That’s why I wrote Defy Gravity – to provide a simple model for identifying and shifting out of status quo business beliefs.

The status quo bias can be seen in our dependence on the way we’ve always done it as our ‘go-to’ approach. We target customers based on our successes a year ago. We avoid markets because we failed to succeed in the past. We assume solution Value based on yesterday’s customer feedback and forecast our future based on numbers and trends from yesterday’s world. The past cannot predict or drive a successful future in today’s dynamic markets.

21st century leaders motivate and inspire their teams to focus forward – seeking out the next trend, the next customer opportunity or challenge, the next emerging market. They learn from their past but stay firmly rooted in their present and future. By questioning the knowns of the business, eliminating sacred cows and probing into the new and innovative – these leaders inspire a future focus and out-of-the-box thinking.

Shift 4: From Surviving to Thriving Have you noticed all the Eyore attitudes in our world today? Everywhere I turn I hear cries of doom and gloom. Use of the “can’t” word has reached an all time high. The permeating focus on hunkering down as we settle into defensive mode creates the perfect setup for failure. Or worse yet, hanging on by a thread and wondering why things aren’t getting better.

Getting stuck in the stress and trauma of yesterday’s economic shift won’t help you lead your teams in the new economy. What’s done is done. Our world shifted. We all have the opportunity to identify new approaches and capture new opportunities for business growth. Or we can hunker down and live in contraction mode. It is our choice.

Leaders can lead their teams into this shift by modeling and rewarding the attitudes they want to see in their teams. I had one client start a Change box. Every time a team member went “negative” – they contributed $1 to the box and then consciously re-stated their negative comment or approach with a positive, solution-focused statement and thinking. It didn’t take long for the team as a whole to shift into solution-oriented thinking and statements. From there, they identified a major new market opportunity and the business was off and running into new growth.

Here’s a little leadership exercise. For one week, make a mark on a tote board every time you or one of your team members uses negative words or statements. Look for things like “we can’t do that,” “that won’t work,” “we don’t do it that way,” and so on. That will give you a good feel for how much negativity is influencing your culture and teams. Begin to proactively call for shifts in attitude, as the negative comes up, and you’ll experience a difference within your team’s energy, productivity and results. Think it’s woo woo? Try it and you’ll think again. Attitude does influence results!

The Bottom Line

We are humans in business and our human survival instinct is on full force thanks to today’s dynamic markets and ever-shifting economies.

21st century leaders have an opportunity to fuel new levels of productivity, innovation and collaboration within their teams – if they choose to shift their leadership styles to take into account, and leverage, the survival instincts and behaviors that are driving today’s human behaviors and beliefs.

Leaders who shift their styles will fuel team success and business growth. What other shifts are you making?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Rebel Brown
Rebel Brown consistently challenges the status quo to deliver optimum solutions and high velocity growth for her clients. She combines the strategic expertise and tactical savvy of a global Corporate Strategy, Launch and Turnaround Expert, along with the leadership and motivational skills needed to get the job done.


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