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Leaders, bring out your audacity

Bob Dylan was right: the times they are a changin’.  In order to succeed - or even in some cases survive - many organisations and individuals are being asked to ‘re-invent’ themselves.

Leading or managing in times of ambiguity often feels like striding boldly forth without a working GPS.  Surely ‘audacious is the last thing we want to be? How about ‘safe’ … please would that do?

How do we reinvent ourselves when trying to keep or find our footing?  After all, our brains and genes are not really geared for radical change; we don’t like it and it goes through the same neural channels as physical pain.

Yet the only way forward is to find the strength and support to keep learning, innovating and evolving.

" The only way forward is to find the strength and support to keep learning, innovating and evolving."

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Photographer: Sonya Thé

We need the optimism to imagine and keep trying new things, even if they don’t work right away. We must envision and pursue new possibilities for ourselves as well as for our teams and organisations.

New ways to stay enthused, inspire others and gain buy-in and commitment. Today’s buzzword for this is ‘growth mindset’. 

Way of being

But how do you achieve—or enable others to develop—this way of being?  How do you find the courage and conviction to be audacious, to generate new visions for yourself and those around you?

Unfortunately, you can’t just turn on a growth mindset at will, just like you can’t be happy or brave or have a particular belief on demand.

Genetics play a role in optimism, the expectation things will probably turn out all right and the ability to bounce back from disappointment or loss.  Optimism can also be learned within a context of supportive, trusted relationships.

Learning - and the habit of continual learning - also relies on support from others who look for what you do well and encourage you to try new things even when some of them don’t work out as hoped for.

Impossible things

As a speaker, facilitator and executive coach I am inspired by the people whose transformation and enormous courage I am honoured to come to know.

One story stays in my mind.  “Alice”, a senior-level Risk executive in New York, worked at a global organisation undergoing radical change.  Her division was in the heart of the storm, ready to be spun off.  

Alice was a steady achiever, dependable, considerate, loved by her team and respected by her internal clients.  She saw her role as ‘mother’ to the business, clucking at them to do the right thing.

Six steps to audacity

How do you bring out your audaciousness? How do you achieve an optimistic, forward-looking and learning focused mindset?  And help others do the same?  The principles are simple:

  • First, remember you can’t do it on your own—learning and optimism are galvanised by a network of trusted, supportive relationships.
  • Second, work out with the help of others what assumptions or beliefs, based on your former experiences, might be blocking you or holding you back.
  • Figure out ways to check out and go against these assumptions. Think: what would I do if I didn’t have these blocks, beliefs and assumptions.
  • Start where you feel safe and are fairly sure to succeed. For example, if you want to learn something but aren’t sure if you can, pick a small part of it you can learn. If you need to be better at difficult conversations, start with a mildly difficult one with a supportive or non-critical relationship.
  • Figure out what you do really well and what enables you to do so in those situations. Then work out how you build on your ‘island of competence’ and expand those elements to other areas.
  • And when helping others … use your curiosity, empathy and praise to help them achieve clarity and guide them through these steps.

The one thing everyone agreed on was if Alice was ambitious, you would never know it.

Yet Alice’s division was looking for a potential new Risk leader, one who could inspire people to be committed, to vigorously and enthusiastically pursue new opportunities in unchartered waters while maintaining firm guidelines around compliance and risk appetite.

Almost as a second thought they asked me to work with her and see if by any chance I thought she had the capability—or even the desire—to be a candidate.

When I heard about Alice I was struck by one anomaly. This mild-mannered, petite, middle-aged woman was a high-ranking black belt in taekwondo. She spent her holidays in global tournaments and won many of them. On weekends she taught at her own dojang (school).  

When she spoke about her discipline, with its values of ethics, respect and confidence (which as it happened aligned well with the stated values of her company), and her students’ progress, her eyes shone.

How could Alice show such conviction, determination and leadership in one area and not another? Was it just she wasn’t interested?

The truth was in her past. Alice came from a conservative Asian family who felt girls should not put themselves forward. Her father recruited her from a very early age to help teach at his highly successful dojang. So she compartmentalised her life, doing well at school but never, as she said, “putting her head above the parapet” or self-nominating for positions of authority and status.

I finally convinced Alice to take the plunge and begin to explore how she might take the emotional risk of breaking down the wall towards putting herself in positions of public scrutiny at work, as she did in tournaments.

We spoke about developing her team as she did her students. Her boss, a woman with a passion for continuous learning and self-improvement, jumped at this opening and began passing on opportunities to Alice to speak, to take on projects which would showcase her skills more broadly.  

A new woman emerged on the corporate stage to the delight of her colleagues - and when Alice did get the new position she took on the mantle of responsibility and decision-making with the same strength applied with grace and consideration for others she demonstrated on the mat.

What do you need to challenge in yourself or others to bring out audacious?

Dr Alicia Fortinberry is a writer, speaker and the best-selling co-author of such titles as Creating Optimism and Raising an Optimistic Child.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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