Why Leaders Need A Beginner’s Mind

January 19th, 2014 by LaRae Quy
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After twenty years as an investigative agent, I was asked to be the spokesperson for the FBI in Northern California. It sounded like fun—even a little glamorous since I would be interviewed by local and national news media. So why did I hesitate when offered the job? 

Teamwork - puppies

I realized that I would be moving from being the senior agent on my squad, and knowing everything about my job, to a new situation where I knew absolutely nothing. None of my former skills as an investigator had prepared me to handle probing questions from reporters, represent the FBI in news conferences, or prepare for live television interviews where I needed to come across as witty, credible and polished.

I am the type of person who comes up with the best retorts about twenty minutes after the question is asked—I needed to learn how to think quicker on my feet.

I was a beginner, starting over with a manual and basic training. My pride balked at being referred to as a trainee—my secretary, assistants, and clerks knew more about handling the media than I did!

I had to learn the ropes from the bottom up. It was tempting to feel humiliated by my lack of experience; instead, I felt humbled by all I had yet to learn. 

There was no resentment, only a slow understanding that we are all students of life. Like all leaders, I needed to understand why having a beginner’s mind was important to my future success.

Here are four reasons leaders become great when they keep learning:

Keeps Ego in Check

The ego is always asking “How will this make me look? How will I benefit?” Ego looks for ways to prove it is right and others are wrong.

The beginner’s mind does not need to prove or disprove anything. It has the humility to hold “what I do know” with “what I don’t know.” Holding this kind of tension leads to wisdom and not just easy answers.

When we keep ego in check, there is room for the wisdom of others to get in (click to tweet).

We are able to listen more deeply, learn with an open mind, and adapt new skill sets. 

When we allow ourselves the luxury of trial and error, like a child learning to walk, we experience a feel-good neurological response that can be stronger than the ego. When tackling new and difficult challenges, we experience a rush of adrenaline, a hormone that makes us feel confident and motivated.

Summons Courage

It takes courage to move out of your comfort zone and into your zone of discomfort, where you feel awkward, clumsy, and alone. This can be especially difficult for leaders who feel they need to continue to hone their core competencies, but our comfort zone is a tremendous enemy of peak performance. 

When leaders get into a comfort zone, they strive to stay right there—where they have found success. But it is the average leader who stops at success, because success and peak performance are often two different things. Whole lives are spent reinforcing mediocre performance.

It takes courage and mental toughness to continually move in the direction of your biggest goals and ambitions and not stop at success.

Avoids Stagnation

The more accomplished we are at something, the harder it is to learn (click to tweet).

Once we become experts in our field, the need to learn is no longer either urgent or necessary. This, in turn, increases the likelihood that we will fuse our skill with our identity. 

Walking into a discomfort zone and risking failure threatens to unravel our identity. Our reaction to learning something new is often fierce and visceral because it can strike at the core of who believe ourselves to be. 

Once we choose not to learn, however, we risk stagnation. Unfortunately, the only difference between a rut and coffin are the dimensions.

Enlarges Core Competency

Moving out of our core competency leaves us feeling vulnerable and weak as leaders. We’ve become inured to having the right answers and confidence in our choices. 

A beginner’s mind, on the other hand, is flexible and agile as it leaves behind old assumptions and gropes for new ways to move forward. 

This is exactly the mindset we need when confronted with obstacles and adversity! We may not be able to rely upon our developed skills when facing a new barrier or challenge, but if we’ve continually and deliberately placed ourselves in situations that are beyond our core competency, we are more prepared to deal with them.

With experience and practice, we can predict our response to the unknown with greater accuracy. This is another important component of mental toughness—the ability to choose our response when confronted with the unknown rather than simply react to our circumstances.

A beginner’s mind is opening up to the possibilities of what might be. It is a non-grasping, patient, and confident understanding of what it means to live our fullest potential. It is having the mental toughness to always be humble, and always strive to reach peak performance.

How you do anything is how you do everything (click to tweet).

How do you motivate yourself to move out of your comfort zone and into a zone of discomfort where you can learn new skills?

© 2013 LaRaeQuy. All rights reserved.

 

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19 Responses to “Why Leaders Need A Beginner’s Mind”

  1. doug penn says:

    longer we live, longer we work, we tend to focus on sophisticating ourselves and businesses. Alas, as in sports – which are great teachers by the way – most breakdowns occur in fundamentals. Like a football team that does not tackle; a business owner that forgets to manage cash flow … the homemaker who forgets that debt results from spending money you don’t make … and so on. It’s about basics. We need constant refresher in the basics for what we do now, and understanding the importance of fundamentals, we embrace gladly training in fundamentals when we transition into something less familiar.

    • LaRae Quy says:

      I love that input, Doug! You are right: going back to the beginning is going back to basics.

      As a beginner, we refresh our minds with the things that are really important…before they get lost in all the stuff that makes up life.

  2. Great points, LaRae,

    I’ve always found that leaders who keep their ego in check are always the most fun to be around. Because it’s not “all about them”, they find a way to make YOU feel better about yourself. And BTW, you’ve got a great looking website!

    Thanks for the insights,

    Robb

  3. Chris N says:

    LaRay,

    The past few years I continually feel like a beginner every 6-12 months what with graduating college, initial Marine Corps officer training, presently my job training, and in a few weeks a new duty station and the first time I will be responsible for a platoon of Marines, so this post resonates with me and helps me remember to appreciate all the new beginnings I’ve been getting.

    Your blog posts always resonate with me, but I had a particular question that can lead off this post in particular.

    I always try to look back and take stock of the leadership and life lessons I have learned and developed throughout whatever stage of beginner-hood I am in, but as I near the end of my job school, I was extremely disappointed when I found out about some of my peers perception of my actions while I was in leadership. Some of the things that they mentioned I genuinely need to work on but other things I felt were in large part due to the perception they had about how I was doing things. My heart was in the right place but their perception of my action was entirely inaccurate and made me look selfish, lazy, and self-serving.

    My question is how can a leader manage other’s perceptions of them when they are trying to do the right thing as a leader, but at the same time, not deliberately draw attention to themselves (trying to keep that ego in check)?

    I would appreciate any advise you may have on this topic, and thank you for sharing your wisdom!

    • LaRae Quy says:

      Chris, what a great question! It’s often been said that “perception is reality.” In part, that is what makes advertising so effective. A product is perceived to be of benefit and we pay for that “perception.”

      At the heart of this question is trust – do your team members trust you to pull your fair share? In this case, the answer was no. At first this answer is going to sting…your ego is bruised and there is nothing more isolating than feeling you’ve been misunderstood or misinterpreted. Once past that, however, the real healing can start.

      Those comments, as uncomfortable as they were, is where to start because they provided you with honest feedback. It may not have been accurate, but it was honest from their point of view.

      Mental toughness is putting hurt feelings and bruised ego behind you and welcome the feedback of others. Once you “own that intelligence” you can begin to be aware of how you come across to your team members. Perhaps a simple explanation of your own thought process with them might help…or one-on-one conversations. Find people YOU trust, and then ask them for their honest feedback on your actions so they can help guide you as you move forward.

      Awareness of how you come across is key. That gives you the power to change, amend, or tweak those actions that are not correctly interpreted by your other team members.

      All best!

  4. Terri Klass says:

    Loved the idea of a “beginner’s mindset”, LaRae as it really helps us keep an open approach to new concepts. We really need to embrace a welcoming thinking pattern so that we don’t get stuck in just doing what we always do.

    I am a believer in lifelong learning and think that leaders who thirst for new knowledge will be highly successful. We just can’t allow our fears to dissuade us from growing.

    The attitude we need to take is: Just Do It!

    Terrific post!

    • LaRae Quy says:

      I know you are a lifelong learner…that’s one of the things I love most about you!

      You make a great point – it’s often our fear that keeps us from growing.

      Great to hear from you :-)

  5. LaRae, i love your emphasis on how learning keeps us humble. …And all of the benefits of being humble and able to learn! You and I were on the same page today, as I spoke words like these to new expats hourse before reading your blog! Thank you! Consider yourself hugged!

    • LaRae Quy says:

      I think staying humble is the primary reason we all need a beginner’s mind. About the time we think we know everything, it’s the time to start over.

      And consider yourself hugged right back!

  6. Alli Polin says:

    I LOVE that instead of being intimidated by all you had to learn, you were humbled. Talk about a powerful place to be – open, engaged, excited, hopeful, committed.

    By the way, as I read through the beginning of this post, you wrote you needed to be witty, credible and polished. You are ALL of those things.

    Really appreciate learning through your experience.

    • LaRae Quy says:

      Thanks, Alli! I appreciate you kind words…but even though I’d spent 20 years as an FBI agent, I never really knew fear until I stood in front of a TV camera and did a live interview! No matter how smart or polished you think you are, that HD resolution shows everything :-(

  7. Bill says:

    Great post, LaRae.

    I can easily relate. I don’t think I’ve ever been so humbled as I have working in technology. Once you become an expert in something, it’s often been replaced by newer and better – Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows XP, Windows Vista……

  8. Jon Mertz says:

    LaRae, I agree wholeheartedly! When leaders stop learning, they become very stale. Getting out of our comfort zones by going to different conferences, trying out new practices, and thinking about new concepts is what will keep us relevant and leading forward. Thanks for some great ideas here! Jon

  9. Karin Hurt says:

    I’ve made a career of doing things I had no idea how to do ;-) It’s so important to jump in and try new things.. and as you state… start humbly… and with confidence… it’s important to know you are a beginner… but also have diverse experience that may be more handy than you think.

    • LaRae Quy says:

      Isn’t it rewarding, though, when we jump into something totally different and learn how to land on our feet. It doesn’t usually happen the first try, but with practice and determination, it does come eventually. The best part is when the unexpected is thrown at us, we don’t have to wonder how we’ll respond…we already know!

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