Improve Your Leadership Skills By Thinking Up

Gain an appreciation for freedom of thought and innovative possibilities that come with vertical development.

By Patrick Malone | Jun 15, 2015 | ARTICLE

By Patrick Malone

Local government managers have plenty on their leadership palettes: navigating the challenges of smart economic development, building sustainable tax revenue bases, and providing public services to residents with fewer resources and greater demand than ever before. They live in a goal-oriented, mission-driven government climate, and the attention to providing knowledge and service is a necessity to succeed even by the most minimal measures.

Government workforces respond in kind. An organization’s elected officials find themselves valuing the experts who bring quantifiable results to bear. Efficiency, procedure, cost-effectiveness, and process matter most. And when evaluation time rolls around, managers are able to look at observable data points and finished products presented by employees to make informed programmatic and promotion decisions.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Is it possible that in the chaos of managing communities, managers tend to depend too heavily on traditional indicators of success?

What about the dreamers who are part of any profession? Are people being allowed to see beyond the immediate spreadsheet or the way it’s always been done to reveal new patterns of thought and practice? Have we made room for thought and reflection that may open new doors to innovative programs for residents?

Thinking Sideways

Thinking sideways refers to our natural tendency to stay within the realm of thought in which we find the most comfort. Psychologists use the term horizontal development. Individually, this means we rely on pre-established perceptual filters and ways of doing things that give us a sense of comfort about the world around us.

Professionally, thinking sideways may play out in a number of forms. A county parks specialist may seek a certified park and recreation professional certification, a city planner may strive for recognition by the American Institute of Certified Planners, or a manager might seek a designation similar to ICMA’s Voluntary Credentialing Program.

Not that these are bad. When we think sideways, we draw on our existing knowledge base. This provides validation of individual mastery in an area of expertise, professional growth and development, advancement in the organization, and self-confidence. This may provide a noticeable measure of prestige for the organization.

A good example of translating this concept into the workplace is well-articulated by Harvard Professor Ron Heifetz1 in his description of technical challenges in the work environment. These include the need to understand and use processes, rules, standards, and subject matter.

Essentially, these are the skill sets we all employ at one time or another. Mastery of these skills is often the baseline prerequisite for employment or advancement in a given profession.

But there is a deeper connection to our comfort with thinking sideways, one driven by our innate human necessity for constancy and predictability. We often embrace this practice as individuals because success allows us to maintain a stable sense of self.

We validate our current way of thinking. We’re able to stay in a place we recognize, enriched by familiar sights, sounds, and experiences. When we’re able to clearly list the success we’ve had on this imaginary horizontal plane, we remain content with goals that may stretch us but seldom challenge us to any significant degree.

Managers and leaders can find sideways thinking successes an easy way to measure and compare staff skills. Personnel decisions become simpler because the completion of a certification, project, or task can be documented. Meeting a measurable performance goal or obtaining a professional one can place an employee ahead of another when competing for promotion or merit increases.

Despite the personal and professional coziness offered by the horizontal mindset or sideways thinking, the downsides are many. Agreeing with comfort levels, limiting ourselves to only what is visibly measurable, and hiding behind pre-established rituals of thought may rob us of our ability to recognize and effectively perform in a volatile and ever-changing workplace.

It is in the unpredictable world of local government where depending on sideways thinking may leave the manager short-handed in his or her ability to effectually lead.

Thinking Up

In the complex climate of local government, managers can’t allow themselves to be chained to a horizontal mindset defined by sideways thinking. They must embrace the challenging task of vertical enlightenment outside their comfort zones and reward those who do. This is thinking up.

Thinking up—once again, vertical development in the psychology scene—is about making new meanings and increasing your perspective. And here’s the bad news: It’s not easy.

The sideways thinking inclination that gives people comfort in consistency, completion, and knowing the answer is precisely what prevents thinking up. And it manifests itself in real ways in the workplace.

The parks specialist seeking certification may have trouble obtaining approval for a course in emotional intelligence. And most worrisome? The individual’s supervisor would struggle to justify the cost of that certification.

The fact is, if managers were pushed to these new levels of development, they would be better prepared to confront what Professor Heifetz refers to as “adaptive challenges,” which refer to those more complex organizational dynamics that tie to something more vague than what is experienced when we depend on expertise alone.

Managers succeeding in the adaptive world are able to take a broader perspective on the work at hand and understand the interplay of more complex systems; they also avoid getting trapped in an either/or frame of mind. But this takes thinking up.

While this change to a vertical perspective is difficult, it’s achievable if approached with an authentic desire for change. Thinking up can lead to better engagement, deeper connections, greater self-awareness, and enhanced collaboration with others—all needs in the world of public management.

The journey encompasses four steps: a willingness to begin with a beginner’s mind, embrace negative capability, learn to unlearn, and envision the visioning. While they may sound somewhat mystical, they open the door to innovation and creativity.

Start with a Beginner’s Mind

Coming to work with a beginner’s mind might not be the first thing that pops into your psyche as a city or county manager. In fact, it may sound odd. But the mindset that accompanies such a perspective creates an energy and enthusiasm unmatched by the latest how-to in leadership literature.

The concept of a beginner’s mind represents a childlike curiosity to meet the challenges of leadership without preconceived assumptions, beliefs, expectations or judgments, and it allows us to learn to think of things in ways we’ve never considered before. The experts who are blinded to new ways of interpretation, unwilling to acknowledge fresh and innovative concepts, or deeply rooted in their own biases can create organizational barriers to new ideas and enhanced performance.

While a beginner’s mind may be difficult to achieve, especially in long-standing teams with significant history, the benefits are tremendous. Once accomplished, individuals who bring this perspective to the workplace can fuel boundless passion and creativity, laying the foundation for the next step in vertical development.

Embrace Negative Capability

Sometimes it’s okay not to know. What we don’t know can be more important than what we do know. Yet, managers might avoid addressing, even admitting that they don’t know the answer to a question or issue.

This is understandable because most of us have been taught from an early age that having the answer is tantamount to success. How are we rewarded in high school? By knowing the answers. In college? By passing the exams. In government? By demonstrating decisive action, with little delay, at low cost.

Part of this tendency toward avoiding what isn’t known is due to our need for certainty and for definition. This certainty has been important for accomplishments over thousands of years. Being uncomfortable with not knowing, however, has also yielded poor decisions.

At the turn of the previous century, for example, scientists knew definitively that mental illness was the work of demons. More recently, “science” tagged cholesterol as a deadly killer, spawning a multimillion dollar anti-cholesterol industry. That is, until the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee eliminated cholesterol as a “nutrient of concern,” spawning scientific debate about the real danger.

Not knowing does not mean you don’t know, it simply means not being limited by what we know. When open to this possibility, the potential for better, more innovative decisions is enhanced.

Learn to Unlearn

A popular psychological test known as the Stroop task is a classic method used in neuropsychological evaluations to measure mental vitality, flexibility, and a person’s ability to unlearn.2 During this test, the subject is asked to read the color they see in a list of words.

Each of the words is a color, but each word is printed in a different color that does not correspond to the name (i.e., “red” may be printed in blue ink). Subjects attempting to name the color struggle because of their learned behavior of recognizing the spelling of the word.

The reason this simple exercise is so difficult is because reading a word is an automated task that is rooted in our upbringing, and it takes relatively little mental effort. Taking the time to ignore our impulse to read the word first requires concentrated and deliberate thought.

By comparison, leading in the public sector can easily become an automated process that requires less effort. Government agencies are harbingers of customs, many of which have existed for years, sometimes generations. Once in place, such mores are hard to undo.

Perhaps a department or team has always held a meeting every Monday at 8 a.m. or an organization prepares the same annual report year after year because “this is the way it’s done.” While there may be value to the practice itself, maybe there’s a better way to practice, and a new and better way to achieve a goal.

This act of challenging past practices and relearning them in a new context can often be the first step down the difficult, albeit rewarding, path of unlearning.

Envision the Visioning

Unlike organizational vision or vision related to a mission statement, visioning is simply the verb that ties vertical development together. It includes starting with a beginner’s mind, embracing negative capability, and learning to unlearn.

The philosopher Peter Koestenbaum3 effectively describes visioning as the ability to shift from the natural to the reflective attitude; from being who you are to reflecting on who you are; from acting out who you are to observing and evaluating who you are; from seeing the world from within your subjective ego to seeing yourself objectively within the world; and from acting to examining your actions.

This is a great challenge for us all. We live and work in a fast-paced environment, fueled by the Internet, with more data, metrics, and information than we can possibly assimilate. We typically consider this to be a good thing. But as far back as 1983, author Donald Michael4 hypothesized that while this influx of intelligence leads to more knowledge and more power, it may not yield the results we hope for.

Leaders actually feel overwhelmed, sense a loss of control, become mistrustful, and question the legitimacy of institutions and organizations. Leaders should therefore acknowledge that they do not always have control and that they may not know the answers.

When they do, they open the door for accepting uncertainty as the common denominator. All of a sudden, they are gracefully accepting that they don’t have all the answers and a reflective mindset ensues.

Taking time to shift to a reflective attitude takes just that, time—something that people don’t have. Visioning is a purposeful decision, one that takes a tremendous amount of commitment and dedication.

Leaders must have a strong sense of emotional intelligence, including an innate sense of self-awareness, sensitivity to social and organizational forces, and being able to control their actions via self-management skills.

How to Get There

It’s easy for leaders to enthusiastically assume that they have created environments that nurture thinking differently. In reality, most don’t. The fact is that a focus on performance, metrics, and expertise pervades our local government organizations.

At times thought and reflection can be secondary to production and efficiency, when vertical development would allow teams to explore unknown and unseen possibilities. Perhaps, for example, a public park could be built adjacent to a water treatment plant. Maybe funding sources for a struggling community could be obtained from a new partnership with unexpected partners.

And who would have imagined that one of the most effective ways to improve organ donation would be to link it with obtaining a driver’s license? In order to create an environment where vertical development is valued, leaders must establish a climate of trust, vulnerability, and acceptance.

Trust is the lubricant of any well-functioning organization and absolutely imperative to vertical development. It’s a popular sentiment that trust is earned. In fact, trust is given, and it’s only given when one of the parties extends the offer—when one of the parties trusts first.

Once the climate of trust is introduced, team members feel comfort in being vulnerable and the advantages of negative capability begin to emerge. Previous convictions disappear as individuals admit struggles with uncertainty. Imprisoned mindsets are less likely to stay confined, and new ideas begin to emerge.

Ultimately, workers become more accepting of ambiguity, embracing the adaptive nature of the workplace as a given. Diversity of thought, inclusion of varied opinions, and engaged discourse is welcomed.

There’s a sense of flow and playfulness present in the work climate. Team members take solace in knowing they can be themselves while they feel what it’s like to be authentic and accepting of others. This creates the seeds of true organizational culture change.

Going Beyond the Old Ways

Embracing upward thinking can be a frightening experience. As we let go of those comfortable horizontal tendencies, we may feel a sense of loss as we move to newer levels of development and perspective while simultaneously leaving old ones behind.

The good news is, we never truly leave the old ways behind. We simply go beyond them. They’re still a part of us in deep and meaningful ways. They continue to inform our development, but they do so in an expanded mindset that sees and appreciates more possibilities.

There’s consolation in recognizing that vertical development is something that people value—even if they don’t know it yet. Few, if any, workforce surveys point to the need for leaders to be more technically proficient.

In fact, managers have generally already demonstrated an acceptable level of expertise to get where they are. State and local employees are actually looking for leaders who can be adaptive, build authentic relationships, and provide vision—all products of the vertical mindset.

Endnotes and Resources

1 Heifetz, Ronald A. (1994). Leadership Without Easy Answers. Harvard University Press.

2 Williams, J. M. G., Mathews, A., and MacLeod, C. (1996). “The Emotional Stroop Task and Psychopathology.” Psychological Bulletin, 120(1), 3.

3 Koestenbaum, Peter (2002). Leadership, New and Revised: The Inner Side of Greatness, A Philosophy for Leaders. Jossey-Bass. pp. 80–81.

4 Michael, D.N. (1983). “Competence and Compassion in an Age of Uncertainty.” Reflections, December 1999, Vol. 1, Issue 2. pp. 8–16.

Patrick Malone is director of the key executive leadership programs, American University, Washington, D.C.


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