… The value of models for leaders.


According to experts in the martial arts, the fastest way to react is to maintain “the empty mind.” The empty mind does not expect or predict, it quietly observes and reacts correctly when necessary.

I have been working fairly diligently at becoming better with pistol and rifle (relax, I punch holes in targets —not Bambi). In particular, I’m working on drawing a pistol and engaging multiple targets quickly. I have been pondering deeply (or as deeply as I ever ponder anything) about the “empty mind” aspect of this, and what it has to do with leading.

In the dynamic shooting I do, a timer randomly beeps to start the drill. I don’t actually know which targets will come up, what sequence I need to shoot them in, or how many shots to take at each target until the shooting starts. Before the beep, I do need to be ready with an empty mind, set to react, rather than stressing in a coiled up fashion, straining for the buzzer to go off. But once the shooting begins, I need a clear way of thinking and reacting—not a plan, but a way to move forward.

A plan is not that useful since I don’t know whether I need to shoot at the circles, or the color blue, or two colors, or the odd or even numbers, or the specific numbers to make a total (e.g. 5, 4 and 1 to make a total of 10). In other words, I don’t know exactly what I will be doing during that few seconds of shooting after the beep. But I do have some principles to follow, and the physical practices—muscle memory—that I need to engage competently to decide what to do, then do it.

So what is the application of this to leadership and to leaders?

When interacting with a group I am much more helpful if I actually LISTEN and OBSERVE, rather than react. I need to pay attention to what’s happening as it happens. I need “an empty mind”. Having my head full of a plan going in just is not that useful. That plan may not fit the moment, and would certainly bias my view of what’s happening.

So how will I know what to do and when to do it?  How does any leader know?  That’s where I think simple and clear “models” are of great value for a leader. A “model” is a framework of ideas or principles that you understand and have found useful in the past. The best models help you structure your observations, suggesting what to look for, not what you will see. They help frame your response to unexpected situations, offering possibilities for moving forward rather than prescribing exactly what you should do.

changeFor instance, one model that we use is this one about change. It’s useful when working with teams needing to think about giving up old ways that USED to work but now don’t so well.  It helps a leader pay attention to the communication needs of the group, better understand how to position their messages, or help the team look at their situation differently.

No model is universally useful. I have a quiver of oh, maybe twenty that have proven regularly useful and simple enough to actually remember and explain quickly. They allow me to have an empty mind, and yet be prepared.  Any leader can benefit from having a number of these models at hand, ready to bring up as needed, either to choose their own actions or outline useful ways of seeing the situation to others.

hudThink “heads up display” or HUD as a useful analogy. These are transparent displays that present data without requiring users to look away from their usual viewpoint. They allow a pilot to view information with their head positioned “up” and looking forward, instead of angled down looking at lower instruments.

The key is to be able to bring up a model in your mind, and well, see through it. Even if your goal is not to explain it, you can use it to make sense of what is happening right now and react in the moment.

Models, simple and powerful, rather than theory, have long formed a central part of our leadership training and mentoring here at Key. I’m becoming more and more convinced that their value for a leader is huge.  They  provide a way to interpret what is going on and react in a powerful way.

We’re all clear our models (and those great ones of other leaders that we find useful) are not “right”.  There are many ways to see situations. I’m not clear that “right” is a useful concept but “useful”  sure is.  When I think about our best ones, I can explain them in a minute or two to anyone sufficient that they can then play and experiment with them to see if these models are of use for them. You don’t have to be an expert to get some usefulness from them. The more you work with any good model the more value that it has—providing you don’t believe that it fits every situation.

What are some of your favorite models? What can you “bring up” and use to understand and act while staying in touch with the moment. Share some of yours with us.

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Author: Robert Craddock

Robert, a Partner in Key Consulting Group, has spent the last 35+ years working to make organizations better places to work. A serial entrepreneur with training as a Social Worker, you can count on Robert to be direct, but polite, with his advice and guidance.

Learn more about Robert here...

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