The Right Mindset
It may be said that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work. And that when we no longer know which way to go, we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.
Poet, essayist, novelist and farmer Wendell Berry captures for me the conundrum leaders find themselves in during this pandemic. How do we begin to reopen the American economy while still paying attention to the health crisis that precipitated its’ closure in the first place? What is the right mindset to have when faced with any leadership dilemma, especially one like this where decisions have enormous and life altering personal impact? Mindsets are sets of assumptions or beliefs that belie our philosophy of life. For most they come from inherited traits as well as their knowledge and experiences.
Recently, I spoke to the graduate students at Ohio University to commemorate their appreciation week. In preparation for this talk, I contacted folks with long successful careers in myriad fields to ask them what current advice they might now give themselves as a twenty something graduate student. That advice, culled from over 500 years of their cumulative experience, resulted in mindsets that might be helpful for today’s leader in our pandemic or an emerging leader. Here are three they told me.
(1) The road with no obstacles doesn’t lead anywhere.
Simply put, you have to take risks. Of course you want to increase the probability of success but if you wait until there is no risk, you’ve probably waited too long. They reminded me that you don’t control everything and know which things you can and which things you can’t. I remember going through a particularly challenging winter season as a school superintendent when I called school off repeatedly to bad weather, not to the pleasing of everyone. I saw an unknown lady in our grocery store who asked me if I was the school superintendent and when I acknowledged I was, she remarked, “With all the school closings and opinions, I sure wouldn’t want your job!” I thought now that is job security for me. And so it is with leadership and decisions. It comes with the territory and your mindset expects obstacles and is not defeated by the consequences of your actions.
(2) When you’re through learning, you’re through. Will Rogers
A retiring cardiologist I interviewed said he would tell his medical student school self from fifty years earlier to be a sponge. Soak it all up. Be curious, he suggested. He explained that throughout his long career, learning has been his anchor. Now consider the pandemic. Every day we are learning new things about this deadly virus, promising therapies, and heroic approaches to saving people. We are learning different ways to do business, hold meetings, and teach school children. But our mindset has to be open to learning. Knowing the difference between noise and signal. And thinking about how to apply new learning in ways that help you and those around you. Seems like pretty good advice for leaders of any profession and challenge.
(3) Iron sharpens iron.
Still another retiree offered this Biblical example. It comes from Proverbs 27:17. “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” His meaning was a corollary to the cardiologist’s mindset of learning. Find someone to learn from. The passage is usually interpreted that one tool can’t become sharper without the presence of another. Seek relationships with those you can learn from and who aren’t afraid to be honest, even harsh with you at times. Watch others during this pandemic. Who is making you better as you watch how they lead. This mindset recognizes you need to find mentors and allow yourself to learn from them, even when it isn’t always pleasant. I remember asking a class of graduate students to raise their hand when they had a person in their mind that they had learned the most from in their life. Once all hands were up, I said, “keep your hand up if they ever made you mad.” Nobody lowered their hand. And the iron most people find early and cherish often remain their family members.
Your mindsets for this pandemic are the ones you need to have for all challenges. What are they? How do they contribute to your effectiveness? These mindsets are perhaps your most important tools ever.