Three ways to develop the key attitude of leadership

Woman drinking cup of coffee

We know that in a time of change there are no intrinsic opportunities or threats — there is only what happens and the way we choose to respond.

We’ve also seen how this means that the key attitude that defines leadership in a time of change is the ability to see problems as opportunities. This is the attitude that enabled Alexander Fleming to turn a ‘failed’ lab experiment into life-saving penicillin, that enabled Levi Strauss to turn a stack of ‘unsellable’ tents into the world’s first blue jeans, and that enabled Travis Kalanick to turn the apparent ‘problem’ of not being able to get a taxi in Paris into the multi-billion dollar opportunity that is Uber and all its imitators.

And like anything else, this attitude is a skill that can be learned.

But how?

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

  1. Chance, Synchronicity, or Serendipity
    Levi Strauss might have been crying over his unwanted tents when a Californian miner wearing ripped trousers walked past. Travis Kalanick might have given up all hope of ever finding a taxi when he noticed his friend using a smartphone to order something online.
    The attitude that enables us to spot the opportunities that are all around us is called serendipity. And we can increase this attitude in ourselves if we take just five minutes at the end of each day to remind ourselves of what has gone well that day. (Just set a reminder in your phone or organiser.)
    This gets us into the habit of noticing what is going well. And that makes us more likely to spot the new opportunities when they arise.
  2. Intuition
    James Cameron had the ideas for Terminator and Avatar in dreams. The inventor of the sewing machine solved the problem of how to make the needle work in the same way.
    We might not be able to control what we dream but we can all increase our ability to call on our intuition by using a very simple tool called Morning Pages.
  3. Deliberately Treating the Problem as if it was an Opportunity
    We can also change the way we respond to a situation by explicitly looking for the opportunities.
    Alexander Fleming, for example, might initially have thought, “Oh no! Disaster! My experiment has failed!” But by changing his emotional response to, “That’s interesting… Something has prevented the bacteria from growing…” he enabled himself to ask, “Who would find it useful to have ‘Something that prevents bacteria from growing’?”
    And Travis Kalanick might have asked himself, “I wonder how many other people are struggling to find a taxi right now?”
    When we change our emotional response to a situation we open up new possibilities for the actions we can take.
    To do this, first reframe the way you describe your ‘problem’ to make it more general. Then ask yourself where or for whom this might be an opportunity.
    For example, when engineers in Japan were building a tunnel through a mountain they found themselves facing a massive problem with water leaking through the mountain. When they asked themselves, “Who would find it useful to have ‘water that has leaked through a mountain’?” they created a multi-million dollar mineral water business.

These three skills do not guarantee that you will find a world-changing solution to every apparent ‘problem’ you face. But the more you develop these skills, the more you will give yourself the attitude of mind that enables you to lead yourself and the people around you forward, no matter what happens. 

And this is another step towards becoming antifragile.

How often do you take the time to notice what is going well for you? How easily do you call on your intuition to find solutions? Are you facing a ‘problem’ that someone else would find useful? A year from now, will it be more useful or less useful to have these skills? What are you doing to prepare for that?

Adapted from Inner Leadership: a framework and tools for building inspiration in times of change.

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(And remember: you don’t learn to swim by reading about swimming, you also have to practice.)

Photo By Nicole Castanheira via

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