Unlearning to be a better leader

Being a leader in the 21st century requires a fair amount of unlearning. As a point of departure for this unlearning journey, the Whole Mind Strategy framework I have developed from multiple sourcesprincipally Doug Krug, Julio Olalla, and J. Krishnamurtidistinguishes among three domains of the human mind:

  • I define thought as the application of a learned logic to break things down, define constructs, and map the relationships among them.
  • I define emotions as the bodily experience of feelings that predispose a person toward a certain attitudinal or behavioral response.
  • I define intuition as the capacity for awareness of the whole of a situation and of the actions that are precisely appropriate to that situation.

We typically spend our time in the domain of thoughte.g., trying to be “data-driven” and “evidence-based,” learning from “experts” and following “best practice.” This has generally been the focus of leadership development activities over the last couple decades.

But thought is inherently from the past. It may offer useful tools for navigating situations you have seen before, but it cannot take you somewhere you have never been. So leaders must be able to step outside the domain of thought, particularly in a world that is changing as fast as ours.

As humans we have a tendency to stay in our patterns of thought because we are held there by the emotions we carry with us, often from long ago. Because we do not feel safe expressing our emotions, or because we do not know how to express them truly, we often translate our emotions into statements that sound like knowledge or expertise.

For example, “I’m angry!” becomes “We need to hold people accountable!” since anger is not always welcomed in a professional setting. “I feel disappointed that my idea was not accepted” becomes self-talk along the lines of “I’ll know better next time not to stick my neck out.”

If we can address and express our emotions, we can release ourselves from the patterns of thought we adopt to avoid them, and that otherwise lead us to shape our shared future to look like our individual pasts. So long as we are locked in our own thought, all we have available to us is the set of possibilities that someone like us, with our past conditioning, would have in a certain situation. Once released from the emotions that constrain us to that set of possibilities, we enter the domain of intuition, where we can be fully present to what is and where we find the full set of possibilities that any human being would have in that situation, regardless of past conditioning. In the 21st century, leadership is an invitation to spend much more time in that far broader possibility space.

For this reason, leadership development is as much about unlearning as it is about learning. Of course there are still skills to learnbusiness planning, negotiation, conflict resolution, etc.but it is even more important to develop the human being who will possess these skills. Otherwise, what we call “leadership” can easily devolve to the mechanical application of technical skills collected along the way.