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Why it’s Better to Be Interested Than Interesting to Avoid a Leadership Rut

You might think it’s nearly impossible to get stuck in any type of same-old, same-old ruts as a leader given the current work environment. Every day is different, challenges of all type flood us like the waters at Victoria Falls, and the only constant is that we have no time to dry off and catch our breath.

Change isn’t just an option, it’s the only option. How could we get complacent or bored as leaders? How could we get stuck in a rut?

And, yet, reacting to change, pivoting, and staying busy are not the same as growing, improving, and rising to the challenges of disruption. Indeed, the irony is that sometimes the busier we are the more we fall back on the most comfortable routines. As John W. Gardner once famously put it, we become “trapped in fixed attitudes and habits” that are the “secret ailment of large-scale organizations.”

Gardner was a Stanford professor and social reformer who founded Common Cause, helped create Medicare and public television, and chaired several presidential task forces. He was a mentor and advisor to some of the wealthiest and most powerful leaders of his day. And in business circles, his speech in 1990 to a McKinsey & Co., meeting quickly attained legendary status.

It’s as relevant now as ever because it addressed the toxicity of “complacency, boredom, growing rigidity, imprisonment by your own comfortable habits and opinions.”

When we’re overwhelmed as leaders, it’s easy to slip into survival mode and close our minds to anything that’s not labelled as “urgent.” Our response is to do what we’ve always done. That’s what got us here, and that’s what we can do with the confidence we believe a real leader must display. We might talk about change, flexibility, and adapting, but we’re in no hurry to leave our comfort zone. So we dig the rut deeper and deeper.

I love what Gardner called the secret to keeping “your zest until the day you die” – be interested.

“Everyone wants to be interesting,” he said, “but the vitalizing thing is to be interested. Keep your curiosity, your sense of wonder. Discover new things. Care. Risk. Reach out. Learn all your life.”

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And how do we do that? Here are three ways to start.

Embrace intellectual humility. Unless we accept the reality that we don’t know everything, we won’t truly take a proactive approach to pursing knowledge, nor will we willingly collaborate with others. This is as much a matter of the heart as it is a matter of the mind. We all know, intellectually, that we don’t know everything. But our actions often betray us and reveal our pride.

Be present. In Transfluence, I write about the importance of developing humility by asking, listening, and holding ourselves accountable. These actions all require that we are truly present with others in ways that build trust and foster the sharing of information, ideas, and feedback. If we are spending time with people but distracted by our phones, our thoughts, or anything else, then we aren’t really present. We aren’t learning anything, and we’re disrespecting the people we’re with.

Make a habit of capturing what you find interesting. The world is a fascinating place, full of wonder. Don’t let your teachable moments pass you by. One way I practice this is by writing down quotes that I find informative or inspiring. I have a long list of them in my smartphone – things I have heard on podcasts, speeches, and sermons or read in books, articles, or posts.

Periodically, I review the file. In fact, Gardner’s quote about being “interested” is in that file, and it inspired this blog. When I read it, I couldn’t help but think of how it still applies.

Everyone has a voice today, and that’s great. But all too often we value being heard so greatly that we silence other opinions or render other voices irrelevant. We aren’t interested in any opinions that don’t align with our own.

When that happens, we don’t learn or grow and the organizations we lead get stuck in the worst possible ruts. And so does our nation. That was what Gardner addressed in his concluding point to the group at McKinsey – a point that reads as if it were written today, not more than 30 years ago.

“The test,” he said, “is whether in all the confusion and clash of interest, all the distracting conflicts and cross purposes, all the temptations to self-indulgence and self-exoneration, we have the strength of purpose, the guts, the conviction, the spiritual staying power to build a future worthy of our past.”

He called on the leaders at McKinsey to meet that challenge. The challenge remains for us today.

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