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In Search of Sustainable Leadership: An Opportunity Mindset

Alexander Fleming in his lab. | Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This is the fifth in a series of articles examining the many facets of ‘sustainable leadership.’ Find links to earlier posts in the paragraph below.

Our search for sustainable leadership has shown how defining vision, values and purpose helps organizations to adapt seamlessly to change. This brings competitive advantage that grows stronger with each challenge, built on courage, enthusiasm and the passion of the human spirit.

But before we can define an inspiring vision, we first need to choose a way forward. We will do that better if we first identify a range of options.

This article describes how sustainable leaders are able to identify more opportunities to move forward during times of change. (The next will describe how they choose between them.)

Change brings challenge, and opportunity

A time of radical change brings challenges for organizations. Change increases the pressure for new solutions but it also makes implementation more difficult. A time of radical change also makes our standard approaches to problem-solving and opportunity discovery less likely to work.

But a time of change also brings new opportunities. Often these are hidden inside what at first sight look like problems.

When Alexander Fleming discovered one of his experiments had failed (growing mold instead of bacteria), he could simply have thrown it away or made sure it was cleaned properly next time. Instead, he looked closer, discovered penicillin and saved millions of lives.

When bullet train engineers, digging a tunnel through a mountain in Japan, faced a problem with flooding, they could simply have pumped the water away or sealed the tunnel. Instead, they bottled the mineral water, sold it and built a $50m brand.

When Georges de Mestral returned from a walk to find his clothes and his dog covered with burrs, he didn’t just remove them, he looked closely at how they attached themselves, then invented Velcro®.

And when Travis Kalanick and a friend couldn’t get a cab in Paris one day, they didn’t just complain about it, they founded Uber. The rest, as we know, is history.

We’ve all faced similar problems but not created similar outcomes. The question is, what was it about these particular situations that led to these innovations?

The situations were all different, but the people all shared one thing in common: an attitude that led them to look for the opportunities inside the problems they faced.

This is the attitude that defines leadership. Like any attitude, it can be learned.

We will never know exactly what happened in the cases outlined above, but it must surely have been one of three things:

  • Chance, Synchronicity or Serendipity: Kalanick might have given up all hope of ever getting a cab when suddenly he noticed his friend using a smartphone to order something online.

  • Intuition: James Cameron had the ideas for Terminator and Avatar during dreams. The inventor of the sewing machine solved the problem of how to make the needle work in the same way. Perhaps intuition played a role in these examples.

  • Actively Treating the Problem as an Opportunity: If we reframe and generalize a situation, we can ask where or for whom it might be an opportunity. Instead of thinking, “My experiment has failed,” Fleming might have said: “Something prevented the bacteria from growing.” Then, “Who would find it useful to have ‘something that prevents bacteria from growing’?”

We can all train ourselves to develop these perspectives. We can take five minutes at the end of each day to remember the things that have gone well. We can get into the habit of praising or thanking others. We can use various techniques to connect more deeply with our intuition. And instead of simply reacting to a situation, we can pause and ask ourselves what it would have taken to prevent the situation from arising in the first place or what opportunity it might present for us, or others, to develop new leadership skills.

Altogether there are ten different types of opportunity, we can look for several tools or techniques we can use to find them. They don’t guarantee that we will find a world-changing transformation in every crisis we face, but the more we develop these skills, the more options we will uncover and the more likely we will become to make the best of whatever situations arise.

Whichever way forward we eventually choose, engaging an attitude that approaches problems as if they contain opportunities brings us five important side benefits:

  1. Enthusiasm, Morale: Looking for opportunities rather than problems is more enjoyable to be around.
  2. Understanding: Searching for opportunities forces us to understand more deeply what is really going on. This deeper understanding will be useful no matter what direction we choose.
  3. Impact, Durability: When John Cleese was writing sketches with the Monty Python team, his colleagues would often stop when they got to the first punchline. Cleese would keep working until he found the second, third or fifth level of comedy. Looking for the opportunities beyond the quick fix will bring outcomes that are more remarkable, last longer or work at a deeper level than your competitors.
  4. Control: By choosing to look for opportunities you put yourself back in control. Whichever direction you eventually move forward in, you do so from a deeper knowledge that it is the best alternative for you. This brings more confidence, focus, and momentum to your implementation.
  5. Antifragility: By combining all these points, choosing to look for the opportunities in a situation makes you more certain of your priorities and more able to put them into practice: it makes you more antifragile.

In a time of change, when all ways forward will be difficult and unpredictable, success depends less on the particular path you choose and more on the levels of inspiration you are able to generate (in customers, employees, and investors) to sustain that direction over time. Having an attitude to look for the opportunities hidden in a crisis makes you more likely to find that inspiration.

Sustainable leadership takes this attitude, grows it, then wraps it into a framework and tools that convert it into antifragile competitive advantage.

Our next step towards achieving this is to choose between the opportunities we identify, which I will address in the next article.


Finn Jackson (@finnjackson2) is an author, consultant, facilitator and coach who is working to create a generative world. His first bookThe Escher Cycle, was called "a blueprint for winning any game your business chooses to play" that “describes… [Read more about Finn Jackson]


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