Research Paper By Ali Farahani
(Leadership Coach, AUSTRIA)
A leader, as defined by Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, is “a person who leads a group of people, especially the head of a country, and organization, etc.” (OLD, n. 1.d.). Irrespective of the sociopolitical circumstances leading to one’s selection for a leadership position, such a person must exhibit specific behavioral characteristics. These traits shape one’s leadership style and help direct, motivate, guide and manage others. But which style is the most effective one?
According to a survey performed by Rooke and Torbert, it is not the personality, leadership philosophy, or management style which contributes to leadership effectiveness, but rather the leader’s internal “action-logic” – perception of reality and behavior once leader’s authority and security are threatened. They argue that from less effective “Opportunist, Diplomat, Expert, Achiever, and Individualist” leadership traits to more transformational “Strategist, and Alchemist” styles, it’s only through self-awareness and self-development that one can transform herself and her organization (Rooke and Torbert, 2005).
The way we perceive our abilities, circumstances, options, and those of others shapes our mindset. Our mindset dictates our actions, and if we believe that our mindset is “the fixed reality,” a “fixed-mindset,”it’ll limit our imagination, take away our choices in life, and is disempowering. Empowerment is “the act of giving somebody more control over their own life or the situation they are in” (OLD, n. 1.d.).
For leaders to exhibit specific leadership behaviors, they need to let go of their old habits, develop new skills and change their mindset around self-identity, conflict, risk-taking, power, influence, warfare, and the sociopolitical nature of the organization.
The purpose of this research is to explore the influence of executives’ fixed mindset on their leadership style, specifically the service-provider mindset of IT executives, and how coaching intervention can empower them to change their mindset and transform into elevated leaders.
What is Reality?
Real isn’t how you are made… it’s a thing that happens to you. – Maurice Sendak
The reality can be “the true situation and the problems that actually exist in life, in contrast to how you would like life to be” (OLD, n. 1.d.). So to know if something is real or not – that is to say, to know for sure that something is true, one needs its proof of existence. We experience life through the sensory data provided by our sense organs: seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, and touching. According to the above definition, a phenomenon, that is, an experienced physical object or situation is perceived through our senses and can be considered real. But what if something perceived by an individual is yet to be experienced by someone else or is no longer in our perception? Does this make it unreal? You saw a bird flying. Suddenly it disappears behind the clouds. Is that bird still real? Or the reality is that the bird no longer exists?
Alan Wilson Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity
From philosophical thought experiments such as the question “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” to the famous Schrödinger’s cat quantum theory (Erwin Schrödinger, 1935), these and other similar questions have fascinated scientists and philosophers alike for centuries.
According to the Buddhist theory of the two truths (bden pa gnyis), truth exists at two levels: the conventional and the ultimate truth, and the phenomenal world, that is the world as it appears to us; the world as experienced, is neither real nor unreal because it is logically unprovable. In Chinese Buddhism, the conventional truth exists at a relative level, whereas the ultimate truth is absolute. Interestingly, in Zen teachings, the absolute reality is considered to be present in the relative world’s daily encounters. However, it is not possible to prove it. According to quantum theory, observing a phenomenon affects reality, and the observer and the observed are entangled, one affecting the other.
That’s how one can conclude that our perception of the outside world is nothing but a convention; an agreement among observers. It is all made up. It could be whatever we want it to be as long as we all have the same understanding of it.  It is this version of reality that we’re going to explore throughout this document.
Are our Thoughts Real?
In the philosophy of mind, modern philosophers argue that the mind, irresectable of its substance or properties, is not something separate from the body. This agreement has influenced various branches of science, including neurosciences and computer science (specifically artificial intelligence) . So the same way that the outside world, the world of phenomena, can be observed, the properties of our inside world, that is, our mind and intellect can be observed and measured.
Our thoughts are the action of that intellect, and those thoughts govern our behaviors. And it is through our efforts that our thoughts become real. But what if we never act upon some thoughts? Aren’t they real? And if not, what makes us act upon some thoughts and not the others?
Sadhguru, Life, and Death in One Breath 
At any given time, our mind is busy generating thoughts. It continually processes and compares the real data (sensory-data) with past reality (memory) to predict possible pathways towards future realities. But what makes it to choose one path over the other one? If you believe that something that has happened in the past is a fact and could occur in the future and that you have the ability (now) to make it happen again(future), it’s more probable that you chose that path. However, if you doubt your ability or believe that the current and future events won’t happen in your favor, it is less probable that you go down that path. Let’s face it: what is possible and what is not possible is not essential. The important thing is whether you believe in your thoughts. It is as simple as that.
Power of Mindset
Our mindset, which is how we think about ourselves, our abilities, our circumstances, and our options, is of no consequence. No matter how real they may seem to us, they don’t exist. However, once believed in and acted upon, they can manifest themselves and become real.
But can a simple belief shape our reality? The short answer is: Yes!
Oxford languages define the belief as “an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof.”It means that there are no arguments as to “how,” “why,” or “if” something is possible or real. In your mind, there is no doubt. Such a laser-focused mind is highly organized. Once your mind gets organized, your emotions, your body, and life energies get organized. Now your actions and thoughts are completely aligned. Once you think of something as possible, you’ll make it happen, and if believed impossible, you’ll take no action. It will not happen. Such a state, in Yogic science, is referred to as Yoga or unity. In Zen philosophy, it is known as “Wu Wei” or effortless action or “being in the zone.”Whatever you think of you’ll do that. A united being who is in the zone can effortlessly fulfill her desires.
Our belief is a powerful instrument but, if used unconsciously, could do more harm than good. In her book, “Mindset,” Dr. Carol S. Dweck draws upon his 30 years of research to prove that “the view individuals adopt for themselves has a profound impact on how they lead their lives.” This indicates that our views are not entirely our own, but we adopt them. So what we assume for ourselves and how strongly we believe in our creation could change our lives. Fundamentally, those views, or so-called mindsets, could be grouped into two categories: fixed and growth mindsets.
To hold a “fixed mindset” is to believe that our natural tendencies, intellect, talents, and qualities are immutable; that is to say, we are what we are, and there is nothing that we can do about it. Limited by our own beliefs, we become even more limited; it becomes our reality. People with fixed-mindset don’t like to look stupid and strive to look capable and smart(Dweck, Mindset). But since they don’t believe that they can improve themselves, they lose their confidence and find themselves powerless when confronted with situations beyond their perceived capabilities. That’s how they come to accept their circumstances as unchangeable reality and blame others.
But if you believe that you can grow beyond your current self, that is, your current reality, it gives you the power to draw upon your strengths and become even more powerful. Suddenly the future is no longer fixed because you’re not fixed. Dweck’s “growth-mindset” underlines the American psychiatrist William Glasser’s (1925-2003) choice theory. According to this theory, individuals only can control themselves and have limited power to control others.
Carol S. Dweck, Mindset
At any given time, an individual holds a mixture of fixed and growth mindset, and the true potential of an individual is unknown and cannot be known (Dweck).
Fixed or growth, which one is the right mindset for a leader? There are several qualities that one must masterfully exhibit to become a transformational leader. Among them, the ability to inspire and influence followers and leading by example makes a leader’s style truly transformative.In Jaggi Vasudev’s words, a spiritual and leadership guru, leadership is the ability “to empower people doing what they would not have imagined possible.”
To do so, one must believe in people’s potential for growth, support their efforts and prove her belief by her actions. Such a leader is inspirational by nature: she is the living proof that the impossible is possible. Transformation must start with the leader.
Looking at fixed vs. growth mindset, it is clear that a transformational leader’s attitude is of a growth mindset. However, some of the executives don’t realize that they hold a fixed mindset.
Spiritual Short Stories, Heart of a Mouse
The mouse’s mindset is the “heart of the mouse,” and the hunter is the mouse’s desire to grow. The moral of the story is: just by telling people that they can achieve great results, we can’t empower them.
Unlike the above story, leaders are capable and resourceful individuals who don’t need someone else to do the magic for them. However, generating awareness around the fallacy of their fixed beliefs is the first step towards shaping their desired reality. By engaging in a coaching conversation, leaders can benefit from professional coaches’ skills and competencies to raise awareness, identify limiting beliefs, and consciously create a new mindset that is liberating and inspiring.
A Coach’s Mindset
According to International Coach Federation (ICF), Coaching is partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. Unlike the magician in the story, it’s not up to a coach to transform one’s mindset. Coaches believe that their clients are capable individuals. They’re responsible for their choices and have the knowledge and strength to grow and achieve their goals. A coach“develops and maintains a mindset that is open, curious, flexible and client-centered” (ICF’s Coaching Mindset, 2021). A close look at ICF’s Coaching Mindsetmakes it clear that Coaches must hold a growth mindset.
Therefore, competent coaches use their skills and deploy powerful tools to facilitate client’s growth. They create a non-judgmental trusting space that helps the client learn more about their view of reality (self-awareness), help identify the limiting beliefs and perspectives (fixed-mindset), assist them in reframing those perspectives (shifting the mindset), and partner with them in creating SMART action plans that help clients realize their new mindset. Masterful coaches perceive coaching conversation as an opportunity for their self-growth and believe in their clients, in the coaching process, and themselves.
IT Leader’s Mindset: a Light vs. Dark View
Our mindset does change with time, for better or worst. High achievers, like IT leaders, through years of experience, have adopted a mindset that works for them; until it doesn’t. Although “all coaching is life coaching,” knowing the work-reality, common beliefs, and professional circumstances shaping one’s perspective will help coaches effectively facilitate the client’s awareness.
Traditionally, IT’s role within an organization was defined as the provider of technology, guardian of information, and sole provider of business solutions across the organization. Operational excellence and cost control was the primary concern of IT executives (CIO, CTO, CISO), and they played a “command and control” role. They were seen as service providers rather than strategical leaders. This perspective has led them to believe that IT executives are not good communicators, have limited people skills, are not aggressive enough, lack political prowess, and can’t change. This fixed mindset affected their self-esteem and limited their leadership role.
Now, more CEOs recognize the transformational role of digital technologies and their impact on business models. They want their CIOs to lead digitalization initiatives, drive innovation, and use technology to win the competition. Such a role requires collaboration across the organization and strong leadership skills. It demands technologists who are great communicators, inspiring influencers, and persuasive salespersons. So what strategies could help CIOs to elevate their leadership mindset?
In her book, “The Wolf in CIO’s clothing,” Tina Nunno takes a deep dive into the mindset of hundreds of CIOs. She suggests that for CIOs to be successful leaders, they must change their mindset around power, conflict, and risk-taking by deploying various tactics.
She describes those strategies as “the light side” and “the dark side” of leadership behavior. Although technologists tend to think in binary mode, black or white, effective leadership usually happens in the middle, in the grey zone, rather than at the extremes. CIOs tend to avoid the dark side and lean towards the light side of power irrespective of their situation or the opponent. They love to be liked and admired and tend to make everybody happy.
The light side of a leader is positive, creates loyal followership, supports creativity, and helps motivate stakeholders to gain their support21. Transformational qualities like integrity, empathy, transparency, selflessness, inclusiveness, insight, generosity and positive incentives belong to the light side.
Unfortunately, some may interpret these qualities as weakness or may not share the same sentiments and pursue their own agenda. When the light side fails, Nunno believes a leader must deploy the dark side to strike fear and demand obedience. A leader sets negative incentives to ensure compliance, protects followers, punishes intruders, protects and expands her territory, uses manipulation tactics to scare enemies off, takes a calculated risk when engaged in large-scale attacks, and promotes herself as a strong leader, worthy of a powerful 21.
Nunno explains that a typical IT leader tends to avoid conflict, dislikes being aggressive, dishonest, wrong, manipulative, and unfair, and this is how non-IT C-level executives treat IT. These behaviors make them look superior in the eyes of IT. But this is not the reality. Business units are not customers, and IT is more than a service provider. CFOs don’t hold all the financial power. CEOs are not predators, and IT is not prey. Although the dark side seems very negative, IT leaders need a balanced mindset.
Coaching iT Leaders
To gain that balance, IT leaders need power. Knowledge is power, and IT leaders are masters of analytical thinking and tend to apply a systematic approach, like the “Six-Step Problem Solving Model” to problem-solving:
Six-Step Problem Solving Model
By applying ICF core competencies (Nunno, 2006)to the above model, we can develop a coaching model that could support balancing the mindset and transform them into elevated iT leaders. One such proposed model is the Elevate iT  coaching model:
Know iT– Creating Awareness around Mindset
A coach “Facilitates client insight and learning by using tools and techniques such as powerful questioning, silence, metaphor or analogy” (ICF, Evoking awareness).
What a client brings to a coaching session is rarely the real problem. They may want to become more confident facing the board of directors, improve their communication skills, or even contemplate their next career move. There is a good probability that their fixed mindset is the root of their problems in all of these situations. To create awareness around mindset and its contribution to their problem, a coach may deploy various tools to help them gain more knowledge about their real strengths, light-side behaviors (behavioral traits) andtheireffectiveness, and their personal characteristics & drivers.
Self-assessment is often as powerful as other tools. Powerful questions like “What makes your heart sing? What aspires you?“, “How do you see yourself as a leader?”, “How your peers and upper management see you as a leader?”, “What is it that bothers you most?“and “What is your preferred leadership style?” help clients draw a conscious picture of their perception of reality, hence making it easier to map out areas of improvement or obstacles.
A coach “focuses on what the client is and is not saying to fully understand what is being communicated in the context of the client systems and to support client self-expression” (ICF, Listens Actively).
If the client knew that the source of her problems may be her fixed mindset or that she is too much at the light side of the force, she probably would not have hired a coach. A coach should listen “for the client” to see where and how her mindset sabotages her efforts. By inviting the client to consider her observations, a coach can help the client shed some light on the blind spots.
Questions like: “What makes your preferred style so appealing?”, “When you’re talking about your peers, what is it that you don’t say?”, “When you look at the board members, what is the first thing that comes to your mind?” “How does it feel when your direct reports don’t follow your lead? What is your reaction? How does it impact your leadership?”, “How not keeping your peers accountable helps your leadership?” and “What makes you think that you have no power over upper management and your peers?” help the client to examine her current mindset and see the fallacy of her limiting beliefs.
Plot iT, Elevate iT: Setting Goals for Mindset Shift
A coach “partners with the client to transform learning and insight into action. Promotes client autonomy in the coaching process.”(ICF, 8.Facilitates Client Growth).
By inviting the client to look at the other extreme of leadership behavior, the dark side, we support the client’s learning process, which will lead to discovering new perspectives and imagining other realities, realities in which the client has the power to manifest her desires. Techniques like visualization and role-playing can be deployed to cement those perspectives into a probable reality.
Questions like: “If you were to fire yourself as an IT leader and hire as CEO, what would you do differently?”, “What if next time that they change IT strategy without your involvement, you put up a fight instead of accepting it?”, “How can you be proactive instead of reactive?”, “What if you don’t approve their IT budget?”, “What would happen if you use CFOs past weak performance against him?” What is so wrong about coming late to a board meeting?”, “How could you agree with someone but reject their request?” helps the client to look to the other side of the force, see the power of the dark side and consciously deploy those tactics when deemed appropriate.
A coach “partners with the client to design goals, actions and accountability measures that integrate and expand new learning”(ICF, 8.Facilitates Client Growth, p.2).
The problem with a fixed mindset is that it sticks to us like chewing gum that sticks to our hair; the harder you try to remove it, the messier it gets. Similarly, the negative aspects of “the dark” leadership qualities make them difficult to like and adopt. Even if our client realizes that she can grow beyond self-imposed limitations and become a grey leader, her old tendencies will still pull her back.
Shifting the mindset takes time. It demands precise goal setting and deliberate action planning. Trying to change everything at the same time will result only in chaos. Coach partners with the client to create a list of light and dark behaviors that need adopting or dropping. This practice, combined with an exact priority setting, will shape the client’s mindset-ship blueprint. Next, for each behavior, a set of SMART actions must be designed to replace old habits with new behaviors. The intention is to reach the desired balance between the light and the dark side of leadership powers.
Lead it: Support Structures that hold Mindset in Place
A coach “invites the client to consider how to move forward, including resources, support and potential barriers” and “partners with the client to summarize learning and insight within or between sessions”(ICF, 8.Facilitates Client Growth, p.5, p.6).
Executing a good plan is as essential as having a good plan. The SMART actions, designed to help the client successfully adopt a new mindset and transform her leadership style. In reality, though, no design is perfect. People and situations may not cooperate, and if left unattended, the old mindset will prevail. By closely observing the effectiveness of actions and comparing the observed reality with the desired reality, the client will stay conscious about the direction. Through self-assessment and coaching conversation, the client can alter the plan, tweak the mindset, and adapt goals to the new situation.
Any leader needs a support team. She needs people who are aligned with her values and hold the same sentiments almost everywhere: in low and high places, inside and outside the organization. They help the leader market her brand and protect her image. These people are crucial to a leader’s success in changing her reality and must be chosen wisely. Coach partners with the client to identify her support team, their competencies, and roles.
LandiT: Recognize Mindset Shift and Celebrate
A coach “celebrates the client’s progress and successes” (ICF, 8.Facilitates Client Growth, p.7).
It’s easy to lose sight of reality as one gets entangled with actions. Until the old mindset subsides, the old and the new behaviors could clash, causing stagnation. Being in action is the key to moving forward, yet it drags our energy, and energy is what we need to stay in motion. This is a winding-up spiral that leads to no action.
Recognizing the mindset’s shift by observing behavioral change is an excellent way to measure and acknowledge one’s progress, no matter how insignificant, provides a new energy source. Now vitalized, the client has no difficulty honing in on her goals and reach them.
Sometimes, fear keeps us from crossing the finish line. Let’s say you’re piloting an air balloon. You’ve come a long way, and the landing site is just a few meters away. Suddenly, doubt creeps in: “What if I miss the spot? What if the wind’s direction change? What if my ground team can’t catch the cord?”. You’ll lose your self-confidence, and so you fail; a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Questions like: “Looking back, what are you most proud of yourself? What are you grateful for?”, “What did you learn about yourself and your journey? How do you think you can use iT?”, “How would you like to celebrate your success?” and “Looking forward, what’s the next celebration point?” invite clients to reflect on the choices and decisions that have led them to this joyful moment and helps them own the success. This reinforces the belief that “Yes! I can succeed – no matter what”.
Mind the Mindset: Final Thoughts
“Nothing is the problem, as long as you’re not the problem”(Sadhguru, Inner Engineering).
Most of us don’t suffer “the reality” but our “own reality.”We create it, and we cry about it. We call it names: point of view, perspective, mindset, and we’ve given it so much importance to the extend thatRené Descartes claims: “Cogito, ergo sum” – I think, therefore I am. “This is the height of human ignorance. Your thoughts are nothing but the impressions you gathered. What you gather can be yours, but it can never be you”(Sadhguru, Inner Engineering).
It doesn’t matter who we think we are or what we believe to be the reality. If it works for us, we must keep it; if not, we should pluck the dam thing and build ourselves anew. This behavior is on its own liberating. We can do this on our own or seek out support from an elevated coach. Having a coach who has already transformed her reality could make our journey much less challenging and much more pleasant.
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