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Leading change: Start with a creative mindset

There is no safe way to be great, and, there is no great way to be safe. The safe paths have all been taken. The paths left to us require risk.

7 min read



When we try to lead change from a reactive mindset, we perceive problems as threats and fear of failure drives us toward a quick fix, as evident in our annual penchant for making (and breaking) New Year’s resolutions to “fix” bad behaviors. This vicious cycle yields low results.

In contrast, a creative mindset sees problems as opportunities and seeks solutions via vision, action, and passion. The Creative mindset, or “operating system,” plays to win; the Reactive mindset, or OS, plays not to lose.

How can we transcend the reactive and opt for the creative approach to leading change?

Over the years, we’ve witnessed thousands of people receive multi-rater 360 feedback using The Leadership Circle assessment. For many, it’s a gut-wrenching experience, one that can be either a catalyst for growth or impetus for inertia. Negative feedback challenges our sense of self or core belief. It’s challenging to reframe that belief, change it and move on. We all wrestle with reactive responses daily as we face fear, doubt, criticism or inner conflict.

Having run our own company, we know how easy it is for leaders to be reactive. When we are managing all the time, we struggle to see our patterns of thought and feel at risk when we are challenged. However, when we interrupt the reactive response and start seeing deeply into our inner operating system, we start seeing our pattern. We realize that we don’t have to continue along that track any more — we can be free from it and move on. But every time we meet a new edge, that fear resurfaces again as strong as ever. We can gain perspective on it by noticing it sooner and managing it, not taking it so seriously, but that doesn’t mean we’re not scared. When we’re caught in reactive mode, it has us. We sense that everything’s at stake here.

When we operate in a creative mode, we see that our fear is unfounded. We show up differently, more effectively, when we recognize the pattern to be reactive and choose to be creative. Our impact and influence on others and the organization increases.

Without this awareness, the more leaders rise in position and the more complexity they face, the higher their fear level grows — even to the terror level. Awareness of the fear is critical to move through the reactive stage or operate well in it. Since most leaders aren’t aware of how much fear is inside them, when they face challenge or change, their old self and old way of operating are threatened.

As leaders, we tend to define our life on other people’s expectations of high performance, or technical wizardry and genius, and never stop to ask ourselves what we really want — the heart of the creative operating system. Self-authored vision is the central organizing principle: “This is what matters to me.” “This is where I stand.” “Here’s the organization I believe in and want to build.”

In creative mode, we stop chasing short-term results long enough to ask, “What would you do if you could?” In creative mode, we play to create the future we want or believe in versus trying to move forward by playing not to lose — it’s a very different approach to life and leadership.

To boot up our leadership capabilities and operate consistently in creative mode, we need to run on a self-authoring mindset. Making that shift is challenging, and it’s where many people get stuck in sort of the schizophrenia between the inside self-definition versus the outside definition, and the fear that might be attached to declaring that inside-out definition.

When we move to creative mode, we face uncertainty — everything seems questionable and up for grabs. Old definitions simply don’t work, and new ones may not have arrived yet. So, uncertainty and fear are prevalent in the early creative stage.

If we’re not accustomed to that open space or lack access to a coach who knows that terrain, we find it easy to fall back or slip back into a more reactive, less effective way of leading.

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It takes courage and resilience to stay in creative mode and advance. If the questions — “What do you want?” “What would you do if you could” — continue to haunt you, you’ll stay in the game and proceed; but if you lose sight of those questions, you will likely give into the fear and caution and revert back.

Your organization is likely designed for and supports the reactive style. When you move into creative mode, you become an alien, without the old support community.

As we coach leaders who are in transition from reactive to creative stage, we find that they all experience two major shifts:

  1. Optimizing the tension between purpose and safety
  2. Shifting identity from the outside-in to the inside-out

As we orient on what we most want, we face what we most fear. Always, our purpose and passion await our commitment. Always, fear lurks inside, cautioning us not to move toward — it seems too risky. But if we do not live at the edge of our creativity and passion, we become toxic to those around us and to ourselves. Our biggest wants are met with our biggest fears. We either move through the fear toward our passion, or we slowly and inexorably die.

Most of us are looking for a safe path through — a safe place to be great. There isn’t one. There is no safe way to be great, and, there is no great way to be safe. The safe paths have all been taken. The paths left to us require risk. Leadership is inherently risky because leadership is the act of creating outcomes that matter most.

If we orient our lives on safety, we remain constantly insecure. If we orient on that which seems to want to have its way with our lives, we live into the futures we were born to create. And that brings with it its own security.

In leadership positions, more people get fired for their caution than for their courage. If we play for purpose, we accept the inherent risk of leading, of living full-out, and that brings with it a sense of security that is not rooted in powers outside ourselves, upon which our future seems to depend, but in our capacity to create the future to which we aspire.

If we orient primarily on safety, we live and lead reactively. If we orient on the pull of purpose and vision and accept the inherent risks, we evolve the Creative Mind. The core of the creative operating system is a play-on-purpose game based on faith and love. In this game we orient on what we love enough to risk for. It is designed to create the future to which we aspire.

Outside-in leadership is focused not on vision, but on removing, fixing, or reducing problems and threats. It is run by fear, motivated to reduce the internal conflict generated by the problem. Behavior is a reaction to this internal conflict, and the focus of behavior is to get rid of the problem.

Reactive Leadership is like a balancing loop that creates an oscillating pattern of results around a set point to maintain equilibrium or homeostasis. We set goals and then act in ways contrary to our commitments because we have competing commitments, which are often run by internal beliefs that drive behavior designed to maintain current equilibrium. Beneath our pattern of results are powerful unseen beliefs, operating on autopilot and structured from the outside in (how other see us defines us). We are the effect of the assumptions we adopt earlier in life — because they made sense at that time.

Since these assumptions may not match the complexities of our life, they become the structural limit to what is possible for us. They seek to maintain a state of equilibrium and often drive behaviors that compete with our vision and commitments.


Bob Anderson is chairman and chief development officer and Bill Adams is CEO of Full Circle Group. They are co-authors of “Mastering Leadership” (Wiley).

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