Three ways to develop the key attitude of leadership

A woman drinks a cup of coffee

We have seen how in a time of change there are no intrinsic opportunities and threats and how the key attitude that defines leadership is the ability to see a problem as an opportunity.

This is the attitude that enabled Alexander Fleming to turn a ‘failed’ lab experiment into life-saving penicillin and Levi Strauss to turn a stack of ‘unsellable tents’ into the world’s first blue jeans. It is also the attitude that enabled Travis Kalanick to turn the ‘problem’ of not being able to get a taxi in Paris into the multi-billion dollar opportunity that later become Uber and all its imitators.

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


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.
    Serendipity is the attitude of mind  that enables us to spot the opportunities all around us and we can increase this attitude by taking just five minutes at the end of each day to remind ourselves of what has gone well that day. (Just set an alarm on your phone.)
    This gets us into the habit of noticing what has gone well, instead of just the problems. 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 increase our ability to call on our intuition by using the 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 what the opportunities might be.
    For example, Alexander Fleming might initially have thought, “Oh no! Disaster! My experiment has failed!” But by changing his emotional response to thinking, “That’s interesting… Something has prevented the bacteria from growing…” he enabled himself to then ask, “Who would find it useful to have ‘Something that prevents bacteria from growing’?”
    When we change our emotional response like this we open up new possibilities for the practical solutions we are able to find.
    To do the same, 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 train tunnel through a mountain they faced a massive problem with leaking water. 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 transformation to every 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 others out of whatever situation arises.

This is another step towards becoming antifragile.

How often do you take the time to notice what is going well for you, as well as what is going badly? How easily can 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 three skills? Does it make sense to start developing them now?

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

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Photo By Nicole Castanheira via

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