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Leadership Mindset Matters: Embracing Creativity in a Reactive World

creative reactive Oct 02, 2023

Mid-March 2020, my family and I were out in the middle of nowhere Texas wondering what this new virus was that seemed to be spreading throughout the world. At this point, we had very little understanding of what was truly going on, but the reports from back home seemed to indicate that the real crisis was a run-on toilet paper that was stripping the aisles of all Charmin Ultra-soft and even the generic paper that could double for sandpaper in a pinch.

What in the world was going on? A run-on toilet paper, are you serious? This was legitimately the question I was asking my friends back home. They assured me, this was no joke.

We returned home later that week, having stocked up on toilet paper from the Family Dollar in Nowheresville Texas. Sure enough, there was no toilet paper to be found anywhere. And we found ourselves fully thrust into the pandemic, and what would become known as the shutdown of 2020.

This reality brought out the best and worst in people. We all saw people respond in ways that we never could have anticipated or expected. Even those that we felt we knew so well seemed to respond to the situation in ways that surprised us. The Covid-19 virus was causing a worldwide phenomenon unprecedented in our lifetime.

Once the dust settled, there were two frames of mind that most people were considering as they were plotting their way forward – Is now the time to self-protect or is it a time to stay true to the ideal vision that I have for my life and the world around me?

Obviously, a global pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime event (hopefully), but complex and volatile situations happen all the time, in small and significant ways. Every day we are all faced with a variety of decisions that require us to view life through a lens that seeks to pursue purpose and meaning or to pursue self-preservation and safety.

Our mindset plays a significant role in determining the kind of environment we create for ourselves and those around us. When we embrace a creative mindset rooted in purpose and vision, we inspire trust and openness, encouraging innovation and progress. On the other hand, a reactive mindset can create a restrictive and insecure atmosphere. It's essential for leaders to set the stage for a creative mindset, understanding the importance of a long-term vision and purpose in decision-making. Having a clear purpose and vision is also crucial for effective leadership, as it provides motivation and alignment within an organization. By increasing self-awareness and inviting other perspectives, we can better understand our reactive tendencies and rewrite the narratives that drive our actions. Ultimately, purpose, vision, and self-awareness play a vital role in living a purposeful, impactful life.

To be clear, it is vital to pause and reflect during serious challenges to navigate the safety and security of those around us, but we can’t stay there. If we continue to live in a state of self-protection, reacting to the fear and anxiety brought on by our circumstances, we will stay stuck and not fulfill our purpose or vision.

Even understanding the source of the fear or anxiety can be instrumental in confronting and overcoming it. Some fear is stimulated by external realities and conditions beyond our control. But another, far more common source, originates from inside. This fear originates in our beliefs and narratives that are shaped throughout our lives, especially during our younger years. They serve as helpful guides to navigate challenging situations, starting in adolescence. However, the problem arises when these beliefs become so ingrained in us that they define our identity. This is precisely why self-awareness is crucial. By examining our thoughts and motivations, we can uncover the narratives that have been ingrained in us for years, allowing us to repurpose and rewrite them accordingly.

At one point in our lives, these narratives made sense and served us well. However, that day has most likely passed. They were formed to protect us in circumstances that are no longer present.  Dr. Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey call this your Immunity to Change in their book by the same title. At one point in your life, these narratives protected you, they created an immunity to some external threat. But in this current season of your life, that immunity is keeping you from changing and effectively engaging today.

The creative mindset is about embracing purpose and vision, looking beyond the present, and striving towards something greater. It is characterized by a willingness to take risks and make decisions that may not guarantee immediate success. It is deeply rooted in a long-term view and remains steadfast in the face of challenges. It's like having a target in front of you that you're constantly moving towards.

A creative mindset starts with a clear sense of vision or purpose. When a leader’s own sense of vision is congruent with the vision of the organization, there is a passion that arises within the leader to motivate and inspire everyone around them to act. That action is aligned and directed with focus and intentionality to see the vision become a reality. Every decision, with a creative mindset, supersedes the discomfort or fear of the immediate ramifications, knowing that the desired outcome is far more fulfilling. A creative mindset is playing the long game and playing with purpose. Instead of playing not to lose.

The reactive mindset, on the other hand, is focused on self-preservation and reacting to external circumstances by seeking to mitigate potential threats or losses. This may seem like a safe approach, but it often prevents us from taking risks and pursuing our greater purpose. For example, when faced with the complexities brought by COVID, many teams and organizations became trapped in a cycle of reactive responding, solely focused on avoiding negative outcomes. In so doing, they lost sight of their long-term vision and the potential for growth and advancement.

The impact of our mindset goes far beyond what meets the eye. When we show up with a creative mindset, we have the power to inspire courage, openness, and trust among those around us. We create an environment where people feel safe to share their thoughts and ideas, and information flows freely. This kind of trust and openness is a breeding ground for innovation and progress. If we show up with a reactive mindset, however, it can create an atmosphere of caution and insecurity. People will feel restricted in their thinking and become wary of sharing their thoughts. Eventually, this will lead to a desire to escape the environment altogether.

As leaders, we have the ability to shape the environment and set the tone for our teams. While it may be tempting to focus solely on achieving objectives and moving the ball forward, the impact of our mindset cannot be ignored. When we show up with a creative mindset, we inspire others to be courageous and open to new possibilities. Trust is built, making it easier for information to flow freely. Innovation thrives in this kind of environment. Failures and mistakes are no longer seen as disqualifications, but opportunities to learn and redesign for future goals and intentional experiments.

To transition from a reactive mindset to a creative one, it is essential to establish purpose and vision in each area of our lives. This means clearly understanding what we hope to achieve and why we are pursuing it. Whether it's setting goals in our personal relationships, defining our mission in an organization, or identifying our purpose in volunteering for a cause, we must have a solid foundation to make informed decisions. By doing so, we can avoid being reactionary and instead live with intention and purpose, constantly moving closer to our long-term vision.

Having a clear purpose and vision is crucial for effective leadership. It goes beyond just writing it down on paper; it needs to be ingrained in your psyche. When you face challenges and things don't go according to plan, having a strong purpose will give you the perseverance to keep going. This personal alignment with your purpose is also essential for building alignment within your organization.

When your purpose connects to your work, it creates a sense of meaning, and meaning leads to engagement. As a leader, your mindset should focus on the greater good and the purpose that your organization is moving towards. This will make you more effective in your leadership. It's not just about driving towards goals; it's about combining decisive strategic focus with good relational building and team dynamics. This way, your team feels supported and not just driven.

By paying attention to the thoughts and narratives that flow through your mind during meetings and conversations, you can gain valuable insights into your reactive tendencies. Taking the time to write out these narratives and understanding the underlying beliefs that drive them can be an excellent exercise in increasing self-awareness. It may seem like a complex process, but it is worthwhile to identify where these narratives come from and then rewrite them. It's about rewriting the stories you tell yourself and challenging your assumptions. This may involve taking small steps to test these new narratives and push yourself beyond your comfort zone. It's an ongoing process, and by practicing this exercise, you can gradually become more self-aware and less reactive.

When a leader chooses to stay captive to a reactive mindset, they will create an atmosphere of caution and insecurity. People may feel like they're walking on eggshells, afraid to express their true thoughts and ideas. When this becomes the norm, it's only natural for individuals to start seeking a way out. Knowing where you stand as a leader is important to understand your strengths and areas for improvement. Utilizing objective tools like The Leadership Circle Profile (a 360-leadership assessment) or hiring a leadership coach, can provide valuable data and feedback. Gaining self-awareness is challenging, as everyone tends to perceive themselves in a positive light. Engaging in such tools can help leaders overcome their blind spots and see themselves more objectively, exposing their reactive tendencies and their creative competencies.

When we all found ourselves immersed in the realities of a global crisis and had very little credible information to inform our decision-making, it was right to pause and slowly evaluate how to stay safe and move forward with appropriate caution. But there came a time to realize that the fears and anxieties that were being felt needed to take a back seat to the vision that needed to be accomplished. The choice between living after purpose or living after safety is a crucial one. Your mindset plays a significant role in determining the kind of environment you create for yourself and those around you. By embracing a creative mindset, you inspire trust and openness, encouraging innovation and progress. However, when you fall into a reactive mindset, you inadvertently create a restrictive and insecure atmosphere. Harry Gray once said, “No one ever achieved greatness by playing it safe.” So, let's choose to expose those reactive narratives and live a life of purpose and creativity, not simply seeking safety. It’s time to unlock your true potential as a leader because your people need it, and the world needs your best you!