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.

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.

‘Learners’ Make The Most Effective Leaders

Originally posted by Business News Daily 12-18-15.
By Nicole Fallon Taylor


One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a leader is thinking you always need to have the answer. Yes, people look to you for guidance, but part of guiding a team means helping them learn and discover solutions for themselves, rather than feeding them the “right” answers — which may not even be right at all.

Instead, you should strive to be curious, open-minded and inquisitive, which will in turn drive your employees to do the same.

“Any leader knows he or she sets the tone for the culture,” said Rick Rome, CEO of on-demand laundry service WashClub. “When that culture starts to resonate in employees, it builds bigger, better, brighter companies.”

In their book “Out of the Question: How Curious Leaders Win” (Advantage Media Group, 2014), co-authors Guy Parsons and Allan Milham discuss two types of leaders: knowers and learners. Knowers draw their authority and strength from their titles, education and experiences — they allow their background to speak for itself. Learners, on the other hand, are more vulnerable. They know they don’t know everything, and are willing to collaborate with their teams to find the answers.

On their website, The Curious Leader, Parsons and Milham break down some of the defining qualities of each type:

  • Directs
  • Micromanages
  • Gives step-by-step instructions
  • Tells
  • Is closed to input
  • Manipulates
  • Demands obedience
  • Discovers
  • Guides
  • Has a framework for finding an ideal path
  • Asks
  • Values input
  • Orchestrates
  • Demands ideas

Milham believes the split between the two types is partly generational. Millennials recognize the fact that they don’t have the years of experience their older counterparts have, but they want a seat at the table to learn, he said. On the other hand, baby boomers and even Gen Xers may feel more pressure to demonstrate their knowledge. [What Kind of Leader Are You? Traits, Skills and Styles]

“The previous generations [felt they had] to know the answer,” Milham told Business News Daily. “If they didn’t, their ego had to mask it, [because] if they didn’t have the answer they were perceived as ineffective. Learner leaders are the ones who say, ‘I don’t know the answer, but we’re going to find out.'”

Parsons agreed that generational differences have pushed modern leaders toward a learner mindset, noting that corporate loyalty isn’t what it used to be.

“Before, leaders could do an adequate job and people would stay out of loyalty to the [company],” Parsons said. “That’s not the case anymore. [Millennial] employees have watched parents, friends and peers get laid off for seemingly no reason, so loyalty has really shifted. It is now the job of a leader to be a magnet for people, to make them want to stay. If people don’t feel respect, they won’t stay.”

“Millennials are free agents,” Milham added. “If they’re not happy, they’ll move. Companies need to shift their mindset.”

Leading with a learner mindset opens you up to a wealth of different perspectives that may help you find the most effective solution to a problem — because your way may not necessarily be the best way.

“When you’re driving, if you could see in every direction, you wouldn’t get into any accidents,” Rome said. “When you have … passionate, considerate, value-added employees, they shed light on things you just can’t see.”

Walt Rakowich, a leadership speaker and the retired CEO of Prologis, said that teams want a leader who is empathetic enough to listen and decisive enough to act. A learner mindset demonstrates these qualities, and, more important, creates an environment of trust.

“Trust is the single most important ingredient to successful leadership because it creates the conditions for teams to work together in a supportive and open culture, ultimately increasing employees’ confidence in the leadership and the success of the company,” Rakowich said.

Additionally, learners tend to create a positive, collaborative environment where all employees feel like valued contributors.

“When leaders have a learner mindset, their employees are more open to learning and accepting new ideas from co-workers and management,” said April Zhong, president and CEO of SilRay solar firm. “In doing so, you have created an innovative, risk-taking culture that will help your organization continuously innovate and grow. Teams that perform under this mindset are more motivated, efficient, productive and creative.”

Ready to embrace the learner mindset? Here’s how to lead with a more open, curious attitude.

Practice self-awareness. Being self-aware is the first step in moving toward learner leadership.  Parsons advised using the “fishbowl technique” — remove yourself from the moment and look at your words and actions from an outside perspective.

“Think about how you deliver your next interaction, and [ask yourself], ‘How did that really turn out?'” he said. “Instead of going from meeting to meeting, give yourself some space [to reflect].”

“[You need] a genuine desire to notice your impact and quality of leadership,” Milham added. “Do you feel compelled to be controlling and micromanaging, as opposed to inspiring and open-ended? Shift from a ‘me’ to a ‘we’ orientation.”

Value honesty. Charles Silver, CEO of data analytics platform Algebraix Data, said leaders should be focused most on reality, and the best way to do this is with brutal honesty, where everyone is encouraged to challenge orthodoxy and others’ opinions if they don’t agree.

“If you embrace honesty, everyone on the team is encouraged to have facts to back up their views,” Silver said. “This is how you truly get to a learning culture.”

Get comfortable with not knowing. One of the hardest things for leaders to say is, “I don’t know,” Zhong said. But uncertainty about a situation isn’t a flaw or a shortcoming — it’s an opportunity.

“Management sometimes forgets that leadership is not about knowing all the answers,” Zhong said. “[It’s] about being able to motivate your team to find the right answers, and create an environment where employees and management can work together as a team.”

– See more at:

The Knower Mindset

Two generations ago, during a time when college education and professional training was sparse, contributors who met both requirements were often the ones filling out leadership positions throughout the country. Hierarchy was well defined through top down management systems, meaning decisions were concentrated and centralized, leaving only a handful of individuals in charge.

[Read more…]

Introduction to the Knower and Learner Mindset

The pace of business has clearly accelerated in the last 15 years. Instantaneous communications, technology and collaboration tool combined with an ever increasing percentage of college-educated workers has truly changed how leaders can and should interact with their employees.  Leaders can choose to evolve as their employee base grows and evolves, or they can continue trying to lead with a traditional command and control style.

[Read more…]