Vanessa Fudge, Founder and CEO, Leading Well
In our current age of living and working, our attention span is continuously drawn to multiple sources of information at once. Our senses are assaulted, and our minds bombarded with large quantities of information from multiple sources and in different forms. And we often know very little about the origin or veracity of the data we are seeing. It’s up to us to practice the art of discernment and build our inner radar to prioritise what we consume, how we reason, what we choose to act upon and what we choose to discard.
Within this maelstrom of data, information and sensory stimulation, when it comes to ensuring that your organisation keeps pace with the demands of your market as well as the needs of your people it is vital as a leader to cultivate a reliable quality of presence in order to tune in, question and listen continuously to what is around you and what you are sensing within you. This no doubt sounds very obvious! The challenge is to ensure your “tuning-in” is grounded in a reliable quality of presence that can provide a good yield of insightful information on the ecosystem that you are leading.
So, how to do this? For the purposes of this article, we will leave the inner qualities of “beingness” for another time and focus instead on the attributes of “warm data”, systems perspective and pattern recognition.
Nora Bateson coined the term “warm data” to describe the nuanced information that emerges out of complexity. “Warm data is a specific kind of information about the way parts of a complex system, such as members of a family, organisms in the oceans, institutions in society, or departments of an organisation come together to give vitality to that system…”
Warm data illustrates vital relationships between many parts of a human organisational system that leaders can leverage to ensure teams are working effectively together to generate high performance based on a foundation of organisational, team and individual wellbeing.
A systems perspective surfaces warm data that generates insights based on considering multiple contexts. It requires you to zoom out as you tune in!
How do you zoom out to access this warm data? That may ask of you as a leader the most difficult step of all… to access beginner’s mind! Taken from the Japanese Zen term shoshin, “beginner’s mind” refers to a paradox: the more you know about a subject, the more likely you are to close your mind to further learning. As the Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki put it in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (1970): “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.”
As a leader you have most likely been promoted time and again for your “knowing” and here I am suggesting you drop all that, at least periodically! The good news is that beginners mind will ultimately transport you to a far sounder sense of “knowing” in the long run with far less risk of being blind-sided.
Consider what practices you rely on to clear your mind and you will reinforce the first steps to beginner’s mind. Going for a walk, taking a deep breath, building a regular meditation practice, anything that awakens fresh perspective will set you up for the rich array of warm data that is informing you silently on a daily basis.
A leader who has humility to truly listen also sends a vital signal to everyone else that questions and the quality of presence to truly listen is just as important as having answers, thereby forging a safe environment to fail fast, learn and grow for all.
One advantage of this approach of tuning into the needs of the organisation is the ability to discern incidents from patterns across the system as a whole. It is one thing for instance to respond to a staff member reporting that they are experiencing burnout, it is another to discover a week later that it relates to a whole department. The quicker you can detect patterns the more robust your organisation can become and the more impactful your leadership will be.
Like any ecosystem, an organisation has many layers of visible and hidden patterns of behaviour and mindset. Even within one team there can be a myriad of movements and undercurrents as people are repelled by certain conversations, events and individuals and drawn towards others. Across the organisation this is magnified exponentially. This nuanced data source can only be accessed by forging the conditions to share warm data with your people, not the fixed, black and white facts and figures although of course they too have a vital place.
The notion of Leader as Coach aligns with this concept in that it highlights the importance of questioning and listening. In this role you are more of a facilitator and a synthesiser of multiple sources of information across functions and roles internally and markets, partnerships and even societal trends externally to forge greater flow across your entire ecosystem.
A leader has two primary roles: to listen to the human and the company needs (balancing the two) and then to respond accordingly! It sounds obvious and simple, yet it is routinely the non-obvious patterns that tend to stump leaders and lead to poor leadership outcomes. How often have you said “well, with the wisdom of hindsight, I would have addressed X much sooner!” (insert any leadership regret as X).
The good news is that you can fast-forward this “wisdom of hindsight” by placing some fundamental principles for healthy human dynamics front and centre:
When we ask leaders to draw their organisation on a page it is a valuable exercise that reveals far more than the standard org chart! Common elements that are highlighted include functions, key roles, products, services, markets, purpose, values, vision, strategic initiatives all arranged from the mental map of the leader. This shows the visible and obvious organisational ecosystem but does nothing to get to the hidden layer.
What typically lies hidden within the system?
Here is where we often find founders, previous values and retired core narratives, failed ventures and partnerships, significant yet overlooked contributors to success, organisational traumas, previous restructures and those who left badly, missed market opportunities, failed projects, safety breaches, crises, exploited relationships, valuables lessons that tend to come with hefty price tags.
If there is an element of these hidden factors that has been the most excluded from your leadership narrative today, then that will likely be the factor that is influencing your core culture today. For example, when implementing a restructure even if there are no longer any staff from the last restructure it is nonetheless the most likely element to shape perceptions – well beyond the current messages crafted by your dedicated comms team!
The question arises, how do we access these hidden dynamics in real time?
It starts with cultivating a quality of presence and listening that goes beyond what you already know to be true! This vital and often overlooked leadership capability is built on curiosity and lack of ego attachment to what is already known. Each day, asking:
- What have I missed?
- What am I curious about?
- How will our planned future meet with what is still emerging?
- What don’t I know about my organisation and what will support success?
- What hidden obstacles exist beyond my vision of reality?
- What are my rebels saying?
- Where are we connected as an organisation and where does disconnection lie?
- What that predates my time here, are my people still loyal to?
- Where is there conflict and what lies at the source of it?
- Where is there an “us and them” dynamic internally?
It is vital for successful leaders to spend significant time orienting to the future, both in forging a vision for a brighter future backed by sound strategies, goals and objectives and to consider the myriad of unknowns that are likely to emerge and intersect with these plans. Yet it is also vital to be deeply rooted in the vital history of your organisation. You can imagine the future as one of your wingtips and the past as your other. By attending to both, you can fly straight but ignoring one could send you into circular motion for little gain.
History traces right back to the founding impulse of your company:
- What set it all in motion?
- What were the breakthroughs?
- What were the mistakes that served as vital lessons?
- Which vital contributors do we forget about today and who is no longer here who made possible what we have today?
- Are there any undigested significant happenings that could still be tripping us up today because we refuse to acknowledge our history adequately?
Being a history student as well as a futurist creates a strong balance of foundations as well as energy and motivation for growth. It is also far more likely that your narrative as a leader will speak to the reality of your company and resonate across teams as evidence that you are forging a learning organisation.