Minds, like parachutes, work best when they are open. And this is even more true today in the era of learning and unlearning about racism, sexism, diversity, and inclusion, not to mention our ever-expanding global marketplace. Leaders are being pressed to challenge most things they have been so sure about.
- Having respect for other viewpoints
- Not being intellectually overconfident
- Separating one’s ego from one’s intellect
- Willingness to revise one’s own viewpoint
Intellectual agility is one of the five habits we encourage leaders to build. It’s about expanding what you see as possible, opening up to perspectives from inside or outside the organization. Welcoming diversity in thinking and approach.
In his book, Mindsight, author Daniel Siegel writes, “Openness implies that we are receptive to whatever comes to our awareness and don’t cling to preconceived ideas about how things “should” be. We let go of expectations and receive things as they are, rather than trying to make them how we want them to be.”
Leaders who master intellectual agility remain open to new ideas no matter where they come from, whether from the front lines, customers, suppliers or the board, or even their competitors.
The biggest shift for leaders is moving from “me” to “we.” Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t have all the answers. Instead, ask yourself, “Who on my team may be thinking totally differently about this issue than I am?”
Here are a few simple ideas for cultivating intellectual agility:
1. Suspend Your Judgements
Our minds are kind of lazy, when it comes right down to it. They develop shortcuts to make sense of our environment and what’s going on around us. These are often judgments and stories we tell ourselves that are unquestioned. Judgments can also be passed down from generation to generation – family truths. In our diversity work, we invite people to name some of their automatic judgments, like people from California are new-agey. Or, blondes are dumb. Or, women are bad drivers. These are all automatic thoughts or judgments. If you start paying attention to your thinking, you will hear the judgement that just rattles off all on its own. You don’t think them, they think YOU. Practicing mindfulness, coming back to the present moment without judgment is a way to become more intellectually agile.
2. Interrupt Your automatic Way of Doing a Thing
Again, our brains build shortcuts for everything that is done repetitively. Driving, participating in a weekly meeting, taking a shower, etc. We engage in these activities by rote – barely thinking at all. To build the habit of intellectual agility, you can start by interrupting habits that you barely notice, like how you dry your body off with a towel after you shower. It’s likely that you follow the exact same pattern, left foot, left leg, step out of the shower onto the mat, dry right foot and right leg, trunk, then arms and face. Or however you do it. Now, to practice intellectual agility, interrupt this pattern. Dry off in a new way. Start with your arms, for example. This gets your brain out of the fog of repetition and habit at the very start of your day.
3. Quiet Your Ego
In his book, “Humility is the New Smart,” author Edward D. Hess writes that “quieting ego” is how we deliberately work to reduce our reflexive emotional defensiveness; have empathy and open-mindedness; engage in reflective listening; and proactively seek other people’s feedback and perspectives.” In other words, become good at not knowing. This might directly fly in the face of your leadership training, which is to always have an answer, to be the one with a plan and always in charge. But intellectual agility means that you invite the wisdom and knowing of your team, your people. You don’t have to be the one that saves the day.
No one likes a know-it-all. If you build the habit of intellectual agility, you get to be the one who is refreshingly open in a conversation or an organizational change. It’s totally worth it.
Previously published on Forbes