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, for example, that enabled Alexander Fleming to turn a ‘failed’ lab experiment into life-saving penicillin. It enabled Levi Strauss to turn a stack of ‘unsellable’ tents into the world’s first blue jeans. And it enabled Travis Kalanick to turn the apparent ‘problem’ of not being able to get a taxi in Paris one day into the multi-billion dollar opportunity that become Uber and all its imitators.

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.
    The attitude that enables us to spot the opportunities that are all around us is called serendipity. 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 an alarm on your phone.)
    This gets us into the habit of noticing not just the problems we face but also what has gone well. It 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.
    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 then enabled himself to 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 in 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 others out of any situation that 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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(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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