Jakarta, 20 June 2018 — Are you on a mission? And you want to lead your mission? Then there are three traps to avoid.
It happened two years after I joined the Asian Development Bank. I remember vividly how I felt when I was invited to join the training program to become a Mission Leader. This training was a big deal in ADB, as the bank and its clients expected a lot from mission leaders to create new projects and arrange the necessary financing to get the projects approved.
I felt like a rookie, small and inexperienced, as the trainer was challenging us relentlessly and in a confronting manner about the expected high levels of proficiency in the skills we had to learn.
Different voices spoke up in my head. Was I going to make it as a mission leader? Would I be good enough?
Another voice was more enthusiastic. The trainer's words inspired me with his powerful vision of the positive changes that we would influence through the projects that we would lead. I felt excited as well as challenged and uncertain.
After completing the skills training, becoming a mission leader still felt like diving into the deep end of a swimming pool when the time arrived. It took courage, and my classmates and I mustered that courage. And, over the years, we grew a mission leader mindset for driving change.
What I learned about becoming a mission leader at the ADB is very similar to what the leaders I work with today are learning to do. They take on challenges and get clear about what their mission is. They invest in learning the necessary skills to become successful in their role as a leader. And they learn to embrace an assertive and courageous attitude for leading change, both in themselves and in the people they work with.
The Mission Leader Model is about investing in skills and adopting an assertive attitude. These are essential keys to success for leaders to bring about transformational change through their work.
Of course, there are pitfalls too. I will mention three.
First, with an overemphasis on learning new skills and knowledge and insufficient opportunity to practice, we can fall into the trap of becoming a well-intentioned expert, a nerd or armchair traveler who 'knows it all' yet is unable to make change happen where it matters.
Second, with an overemphasis on adopting an assertive attitude, we can fall into the trap of becoming a rebel who becomes confident to challenge the status quo yet hasn't done enough homework to gain the essential skills and knowledge to make a positive change happen.
Third, once we have tasted success as a transformational leader in our mission, we are at risk of falling into the trap of thinking that what we learned will be enough to be successful in the next mission too. We forget to make space for unlearning, followed by learning new skills for the next mission.
The Beginner's Mind
After each mission, we need to revert to a beginner's mind and become a rookie again to create space for new learning. Each time we take on a new mission, it is time to return to 'the classroom' to review what skills we need in order to perform our next responsibility successfully.
Leadership gurus like Marshall Goldsmith remind us forcefully of this need: "what got you here will not get you there." In many companies and organizations, it is this unlearning that proves to be a tough challenge for successful leaders, managers, and executives.
By adopting a beginner's mind—or Shoshin in Japanese, taught by Zen master Shunryu Suzuki—the leaders I work with discover what their next mission is and get more clear about it during their training, mentoring, or coaching work.
WIth an open mind for learning, the leaders also give themselves space to make mistakes and to learn valuable lessons from getting up after experiencing failures. They sweat both the big and the small stuff.
They learn to listen, reflect, unlearn, and learn new skills. They embrace teamwork and take turns to lead from behind, lead from the front, and lead by working together shoulder to shoulder.
Becoming the leader of your mission is just about the biggest thing you can do. And as you deliver on your mission, the next mission will be waiting for you to take the lead again, with a beginner's mind that is wide open for unlearning and new learning.
Our world today is full of unprecedented changes, including the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) that will alter all our jobs and may cause some jobs to disappear sooner than we think.
As many routine tasks and procedures will increasingly be taken over by AI, we do have unprecedented opportunities to create new jobs that add more value to people's lives and the economy. This can only be done by having a beginner's mind, and by learning new skills.
Researchers agree that there will be more demand than ever before for leaders who are skilled in emotional intelligence, effective communication, and creating transformational change through people.
We can call them Mission Leaders. Will you be one of them?