Great leaders view the world through “beginner’s mind,” seeing things much like a child does with curiosity and wonder and no fixed point of view. Beginner’s mind means to view the world and our experiences with an innocent mind devoid of preconceptions, expectations, judgments, and prejudices.
Contrasted with beginner’s mind is expert’s mind, where we think we know all the answers, and are therefore closed to new possibilities. Expert’s mind kills innovation in organisational culture.
Whereas the expert’s mind is a default state, beginner’s mind is fostered through mindful meditation.
In contrast to the expert’s mind, beginner’s mind does not position itself as all-knowing. In fact, it uniquely prepares the brain for greater flexibility and learning, in short, for an innovative mindset.
Writer Bernard Beckett observed,
“Human spirit is the ability to face the uncertainty of the future with curiosity and optimism. It is the belief that problems can be solved, differences resolved. It is a type of confidence. And it is fragile. It can be blackened by fear and superstition.”
The fear of failure is poison for organisational culture. If you’re not failing, you’re not innovating.
The challenge for leaders is that on one hand lip service is paid to innovative thinking, but on the other hand, leaders feel extreme pressure to “get it right.” This makes them scared to try new things.
Or, if they do try new things and fail, they easily fall into the blame game to take the pressure off themselves.
Both approaches are antithetical to the beginner’s mind, and to real achievement and growth in your organisational culture.
In a famous article, “Teaching Smart People How to Learn,” business theorist Chris Argyris, of Harvard Business School, explained why the smartest, most talented leaders are often those who are the least open to failure and capable of learning from failure.
People profess to be open to learning, he explained, but their actions betray very different values, including:
• the desire to remain in unilateral control
• the goal of maximising ‘winning’ while minimising ‘losing’
• the belief that negative feelings should be suppressed
• the desire to appear as rational as possible.
“Taken together, these values betray a profoundly defensive posture: a need to avoid embarrassment, threat, or feelings of vulnerability and incompetence. This closed-loop reasoning explains why the mere encouragement of open inquiry can be intimidating to some.
“And it’s especially relevant to the behavior of many of the most highly skilled and best-trained employees. Behind their high aspirations are an equally high fear of failure and a tendency to be ashamed when they don’t live up to their high standards. Consequently, they become brittle and despondent in situations in which they don’t excel immediately.”
Mindful leaders stop the blame game and don’t get caught in the trap of defensiveness.
When I asked Paul Foster, Sales Director at George Weston Foods in Sydney, to explain how mindfulness has helped his ability to innovate, he said,
“Before engaging in a deeper mindfulness practice around my sense of self-worth, I was very quick to defend my ideas and my mistakes. I would also get reactive when people contributed ideas that conflicted with my own, instead of staying open and curious and asking them to elaborate on their ideas—an old pattern I still fall into if I am not mindful.
“Given the complexity of our business challenges, it is important to experiment in the market with new ideas and approaches. You can’t pick the ideas that are going to work without giving them a go in real life. In order to do this, we run experiments that are safe to fail rather than fail-safe. This allows us to celebrate failure as a great learning experience without fear of a big loss.”
The greatest threat to innovation in organisational culture is expert’s mind, which makes leaders fear failure and want to be right.
By letting go of the need to be right and the fear of failure, leaders can create an organisational culture that is much more conducive to innovation.