A Sense of Wonder & Awe

You have paused and reflected. You are grounded. Now you can initiate some structured thinking which activates your learner mindset. As a learner, you are willing to explore the edges of what you do know and do not know.  Your goal is to turn on the curiosity and wonder in your brain.

We use the word wonder because curiosity can seem a bit flat for what we’re trying to describe. You might be curious about a fact or a detail, but what we really want people to say is, “I wonder what if . . .” and “I wonder how . . .” There’s a deepening, an expansiveness, when you talk about wonder. It has an open, childlike feel, with few limitations on your thinking, few restrictions limited by past experience or even assumptions. What you’re really trying to do by activating the learner mindset is turn on that internal sense of wonder and then help turn it on in others. (In the next chapter, we’ll talk about what you can do to orient your team or audience to the same way of thinking.) That, in a sense, is what Walt Disney did.

When people are in this state of mind, the traditional boundaries of seniority, roles, and rigid social structures disappear. When everybody’s looking at the sky in a sense of wonder, they’re not thinking about who the boss is and who the employer is. They are truly on the same side of the table because they’re peers in what they’re exploring.

A leader certainly has some responsibilities that are different from followers, but the truth is that, when we’re being creative and curious, we’re all equals. A leader’s humility can help create that sense of creative wonder, which allows everyone to move forward and think differently about a given circumstance. When that leader is in the learner mindset, something wonderful happens. We’ve said before it’s like a positive virus. Status evaporates. Hierarchy evaporates. The differentials evaporate. All of a sudden, you’re in this place of incubation, where everyone is focused on finding solutions and possibilities.

There are specific actions you can take to get yourself ready for broader thinking. The following are four things you can do to activate your learner mindset.

1. Challenge Your Assumptions

Start by looking at the assumptions you bring to a situation. Push the edge of those assumptions to see if they’re real, or if they’re just things that you’ve quietly or tacitly agreed to, only to find that they have narrowed your potential.

When business leaders fail to question these assumptions, they cannot break through to new levels of performance in their organization because they shut down organizational thinking. The act of questioning assumptions creates energy and has been demonstrated to achieve significant engagement and increased performance.

2. Bring in Fresh Eyes

The second technique for activating a learner mindset is to involve what we call fresh eyes—that is, outside people who have a different point of view, or equally important, customers who are receivers of the work. It’s amazing what can happen when you listen to outside people who don’t know all the rules and haven’t been soaked in your work tradition. They’re willing to think completely differently about problems and solutions.

Bringing fresh eyes to a situation can activate a creative learner mindset because the last one to see water is the goldfish. When you’re in the goldfish bowl, everything looks fine. You don’t notice you’re in water.

3. Involve the Group

A third technique is to have that fresh-eye conversation by means of a group rather than a one-on-one discussion. The knower might use the idea of gaining another perspective in a one-on-one interview. He’ll gather a bunch of facts and come to a conclusion on his own. By doing it that way, the outcomes are limited 1) by the leader’s ideas, and 2) by the nature of a one-on-one dialogue.

A learner leader, who’s not trying to control the situation or own the outcome, will bring a group of people together and create an active dialogue. What happens is that participants start feeding off each other. The set of ideas people come up with expands. One small comment gets amplified by a second person, and it zooms out much further than it ever would have in a series of one-on-one interviews. The whole thing just amplifies itself, like a deeply-resonating drum.

4. Be Open to the Answers

When you ask questions in a learner mindset, you are open to other people’s answers and even open to the fact that people’s answers and ideas may be better than your own.  These techniques are part and parcel of respecting others and what they have to offer.

Accessing Your Optimal Operating State

Learner leaders understand how to achieve a place of calm and flow in their daily responsibilities. They know when they’re in their optimal operating state and when they’re not. They take time to reflect on what conditions allow them to be in an optimal state as opposed to a weakened or depleted state. You can do this by instituting regular mood checks throughout your day and asking yourself, “How is my operating state? Am I feeling empowered, strong, and confident, or am I in a bad mood, not feeling on top of my game?”

We all get thrown out of our optimal operating state from time to time. We land in a vulnerable state where our sea legs are a little wobbly and we’re not standing on solid ground. When this happens, the important thing is to recognize the condition and know what to do to get back into our optimal operating states.


What are some of the things to watch out for, hazards along the way that can jeopardize a smooth engagement? When you get thrown off your game, there are two categories of pitfalls that are likely to interfere with powerful leading.

There are internal pitfalls, or things that come from your own mood or beliefs, and external pitfalls, or problems that arise because of the environment, conditions, or team dynamics.

Internal Pitfalls:

  • You are triggered and you lose control.
  • You are triggered and don’t recognize you’re increasing your chances of moving to a knower mindset.
  • The trigger(s) produce limiting beliefs that throw you off your game.
  • Your mind enters the F.U.D. zone (fear, uncertainty, and/or doubt).
  • You create a sense of “urgency” when it is not required.
  • You create a false sense of urgency that you have to push through regardless of perceived difficulty.
  • You zoom in, or have tunnel vision, so you’re focused on details, prescriptions, and directives instead of the big picture.


External Pitfalls:

  • The environmental conditions are bad for conversation.
  • Other individual(s) are not in shape for the conversation; they may be triggered, coming from a knower mindset, or trapped by limiting beliefs.
  • Decisions are being made from a vulnerable operating state.
  • You may fail to recognize the historical precedents.
  • You do not have the authority or permission to make changes you and your team identify.


These are all circumstances that weaken leadership and put us on an unproductive path.  Our ability to identify this misdirection is attributable to the brain research we discussed in previous chapters. When you are triggered, when something catches you off guard and starts to generate fear, uncertainty, or doubt, when you are not careful, your automatic brain, the part that tells you to fight or run, will take control. In this framework of asking genuine, creative questions, it’s important not to let yourself slide down that slope.

We need to avoid managing reactions that are based solely on patterns, which is what the lizard brain will do. It will say, “Uh oh, I’ve seen this before. I’d better take action.”  Imagine, that you went to the doctor, and as soon as you walked in, the doctor said, “Nice to meet you. Here’s your prescription for cholesterol and blood pressure medications.”  You would probably say, “Wait a second. You haven’t tested my blood or checked my blood pressure.” To which he’d reply, “Yes, but you’re 45 years old, you’re not as thin as you used to be, and the last three people who were in here needed those prescriptions, so I’m going to give them to you, too.”

You’d be shocked, wouldn’t you? Yet, that’s what happens when you rely on automatic, pattern-based responses to situations. If we don’t spend a little time zeroing in and getting real facts and information, the only thing we can do is give a response based on old patterns. In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow (mentioned earlier), Daniel Kahneman describes how “thinking fast activity,” the stuff that happens in your automatic brain, is relatively effortless. It takes extra active energy to think, plan, and work your way through difficult situations. The key challenge is to think slowly. We suggest you do this by pulling yourself back, zooming your perspective out a little to look at the whole scene, and then saying, “I can manage this, I have control, and I’m driving this situation.” Think about how athletes on ski slopes literally envision each of their moves before they compete. The same can be true for the leader. If the leader can recognize the negative voices or thoughts in his head and grab hold of those thoughts, he can then manage them and try to see things from a different perspective. Remember you’re not just an actor on a stage reacting to what is happening; you are the director. You can redirect the situation and create a clear, positive path forward.

The Power of the Pause

Originally seen in Smart Blogs 12/3/15.


With our seemingly never-ending to-do lists and 9-to-5 back-to-back meetings, we are navigating at breakneck speeds in our work days to attempt to keep it all together.

The ability to prepare and carefully take aim before firing (in making the right decision or taking the right action) has collapsed into a default of constant action, with little time to reflect and pause to create a more accurate course of action.

The speed of business for many has created a culture of fast-paced decisions and actions often resulting in leaders missing the mark because they have no time to reflect or ponder prior to taking action.

Imagine having access to a remote control where you (metaphorically) hit the pause button to gain more clarity on the situation or issue before moving to action. Who else may benefit from being a part of the solution? What other information may be required prior to pulling the trigger to an action? With many people having a tendency towards extraversion, there is a natural energy for this part of the population to be in action, as taking action provides a kind of adrenaline rush. We can learn from our introversion counterparts to slow it down, reflect and inquire before taking action.

In other words, remember to hit the pause button.

Evoking a pause — be it for a minute or 24 hours — provides time for deeper reflection on issues, allowing you to listen to your intuition and then respond. Consider downhill skiing and the chairlift. The chairlift moves quickly up and down mountains transporting skiers quickly to their desired destination. However, as it approaches the skier, it slows down to ensure the skier is able to properly get seated and secure before picking up speed to the desired destination.

Using the power of the pause helps to guarantee the same precision in daily decision-making.

Reflect on your daily pace at work. How fast do you move and how often do you evoke the pause? Many times, what is being asked of you is important, but not necessarily urgent, and a pause allows time for reflection. How prone are you to be in action for action’s sake? If we arrive to our work with our foot on the accelerator and do not release until we get home, not only will it result in our reserve tank flashing red as we arrive home, but we will possess less energy for our personal lives.

The power of the pause allows for better energy management throughout the day. Pauses can have a huge impact on our decision-making capability, with increased judgment, more reflective thinking and better results.

The Courage to be Curious

Originally seen in Careers in Government 1/9/16.


Leaders being asked to do more with less resources sometimes default to a “just get it done” attitude when tackling daily tasks. As a leadership tool, the willingness to evoke curiosity in these times often falls to the sidelines in one-on-one dialogues and team meetings.

The courage to be curious implies a willingness to step away from the head-down-plow-through mentality we sometimes default to, and, instead, pause to reflect on what has not been asked about the issue that could bring greater clarity or benefit. What open-ended question(s) could be asked that would result in innovative, creative, and possibility thinking before springing into action?

When evoking a curiosity-based mindset, the results are powerful, therefore leading to positive engagement and satisfaction in your workplace. As a leader, having the confidence to ask genuine questions of your team (that may slow down the action process), requires courage. However, in doing so, the process and end game improve.  When leading with curiosity, you are ensuring that everyone is with you and your vision. When we assume “everyone gets what I am saying,” before springing into action, it can be very costly. Instead, take a moment to be curious, and ask for confirmation from your team. As a team member, having the courage to ask a clarification question will lead to better and more productive relationships. To contrast, by nodding positively, you’re indicating that you fully understand – but don’t. Imagine if the very question you are thinking would significantly add value to the issue at hand by having the courage to clarify.

Curiosity Readiness:

  1. How courageous are you to be curious in your work?
  2. How often are you pausing to evoke curiosity in a team meeting vs. moving through the agenda of actions?
  3. What conditions stop you from being curious:
    1. Confrontational situations?
    2. Big team meetings?
    3. When authority is in the room?

By reflecting on what may derail, you can allow yourself to work new muscles for greater impact and personal authority.

Is the Digital World Making Us Less Curious?

Our continued dive into the digital world of emailing and texting to move our projects forward is blocking us from human face-to-face interactions where we can pause to ask the curious questions. Powerful open-ended questions starting with “what” or “how” with the right tonality of curiosity invite collaboration and fresh thinking to any issue. Yet, if we are relying on email vs. live conversation – does it not reduce our ability to lead with curiosity?

Have you ever texted someone sitting near you vs. getting up and engaging in a conversation? With more workers emailing someone who is sitting next to their cubicles vs. engaging with them, it is resulting in an increase of work depersonalized. It’s time to have the courage to increase one-on-one exchanges to stimulate richer dialogue for possibility thinking and new ideas.

A generation ago, curiosity in conversations was more prevalent because of the face-to-face time where we heard the tonality behind the words and could read the body language at the same time. Workers spent more time being curious and crafting what they said and how they said it. With the absence of tonality and body language with emails and texts, we are often prone to misunderstanding or forming a false assumption. Worst, we then act on the misunderstanding or false assumption, and it can make the situation worse– resulting in poor outcomes, derailed relationships or stalled results.

Having the courage to be curious, regardless of newer or older work generations, fosters increased collaboration, innovation, and a sense of connection allowing the workplace to move forward with a greater appreciation as a “we” culture vs. a  “me” culture.

Five Tips for Accelerating the Journey from Knower to Learner

Originally published on 11/25/15 on Smart Business Online.


Someone once told us that the day you quit learning things is the day you die.

Morbidity aside, the more we reflected upon this, the more we agree that’s how it ought to be. Leaving room to learn means leaving room to improve.

Companies should have the skills and abilities to continuously improve their performance year over year by engaging People, focusing on the Process, and delivering superior Product to their markets. Steps in the journey for a leader from Knower to Leader include these:

  1. Use the Power of the Pause in thought and in conversation. As discussed in Out of the Question, How Curious Leaders Win, using the Power of the Pause — be it for a minute or 24 hours — provides time for deeper reflection on the issue allowing you to listen to your intuition and then respond with better and broader impact.Necessary for anyone in today’s fast-paced world, a pause in one’s day, or even just in (especially in) important conversation provides the needed breathing room for reflection and intentional action.
  1. Reflect, inspect and expect. Consider this framework: reflecting is focused on the past; inspecting is focused on the current situation; and expecting is thinking on the outcomes we are going to achieve together.
    By preparing to engage on a topic using this framework, we find the likelihood of exploring novel solutions is expanded. Together, in a creative and open-minded way, you built your understanding of the history and key assumptions and ask all the questions you can about the current situation, which is how you arrive at a new place together.
  2. During the pause, carefully evaluate: How urgent is this? Are we sure we understand the entire situation? Think through goals before speaking or acting, and determine your desired outcome before telling people how to get things done. Think about the kind of questions you could ask your team to make them owners of the solutions.
    Look at the team/people working, and make sure you have the right people in place. Have you brought in the full set of people whose feelings and impressions need to be considered?
  3. Start small, and practice. One action to become a Learner Leader that we learned from the book Multipliers by Liz Wiseman is the following simple trick: start the day with five pennies in your left pants pocket. Whenever you give a directive, as opposed to asking an open question based on genuine curiosity, or whenever you start telling people what to do, move one penny to your right pocket.
    See how far into the day you can get before you have an empty left pocket! The goal here is to be aware of our “command and control” behaviors and shift toward the Learner Leader mindset.
  4. Try asking a few questions without a known or assumed answer: Leaders often find asking questions of others without a rough concept of the solution mind to be an intimidating hurdle. We often fall back to the safety net of asking questions where we feel we can provide guidance or have a preconceived notion of the answer.
    Try asking a genuine question like “What are the top three drivers of our customer purchase decisions?“ or “How could we become such an attractive workplace that we have excess resumes?”
    By asking questions with genuine curiosity, your team will respond with a new kind of energy and engagement. Take the brave step of preparing and asking a few “real” questions and see how the team responds.