The Greatest Potential Lies in the Less Obvious

My husband and I just got back from a two-week motorcycle trip. With plenty of seat time to think, I discovered four unexpected leadership lessons that seem particularly relevant as we are preparing for life in the Next Normal. This is lesson #3. Links to previous lessons can be found at the bottom of this post.


Like most everyone else, I enjoy seeing famous sights when I travel. But sometimes the truly memorable experiences happen off the beaten path.


That was the case during our recent motorcycle adventure riding through six western states: California, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Utah. We kept to the backroads on this trip and were rewarded with many unanticipated pleasures. A few of my favorites:

  • Riding "the real Bigfoot Highway" (Highway 299 in northern California) and snapping a pic of a 30-foot tall masked Sasquatch statue
  • Meeting a motorcyclist in the Oregon Badlands who'd been on the road for five months
  • Eating blackberry pie at Minnie's Montana Café in Thompson Falls
  • Catching a glimpse of two Bighorn sheep that ran right in front of us in Glacier National Park
  • Seeing the view from the Continental Divide south of Butte
  • Watching it snow one morning (in August) in Big Sky
  • Meeting "the bear man" in front of a gas station in Seeley Lake, Montana
  • Visiting with a café owner from Oklahoma who missed home

Seeing these sights helped me recognize a third leadership lesson from this trip: The greatest potential lies in the less obvious. (You can find links to lessons one and two at the bottom of this post.


There are many benefits that can come when you take the time to focus on the subtler, less noticeable aspect of your business and your leadership. In these often-overlooked places, the greatest potential might lie.  And right now, we are all looking for potential, for that special something that will give us a competitive advantage or help us discover our next best idea. This is especially true as leaders are planning for 2021 and the future is starting to become a little clearer.


Here are a few suggestions for how to take a closer look at the less obvious to help you find new potential for the Next Normal.


Shift your focus

Too many times we focus on the wrong things simply because they're jumping up and down right in front of us -- the "squeaky wheel" team member who always has an excuse, the client who is never happy, that part of your business that constantly needs propping up.


While it's your job to address problems as they arise, you must be careful you're not always running to the loudest voice. Doing so might cause you to run right past an opportunity more deserving of your attention. Your time might be better spent shifting your focus to look for new potential in less obvious places.


Here are a few questions that might help you determine where to put your focus.

  • Is this a problem I should be addressing, or is it better handled by someone else on the team?
  • Am I spending enough time thinking strategically?  Or am I getting stuck in the weeds? 
  • What new product or service could help us grow in 2021? How could we use a test-and-learn approach to put some new ideas out there and see what works?
  • Is there a part of the business that needs to be respectfully shelved?
  • Is there a future star on our team who has been quietly getting things done and deserves more responsibility?


The most overlooked leadership skill

Decades of research shows successful leaders are accomplished in three areas:

  • Leading work – Getting things done
  • Leading others – Establishing and nurturing effective relationships
  • Leading self – Observing and managing yourself


Most leaders focus on "work" and "others" and give little attention to leading self. Why? Because the internal battle is the hardest. Managing your emotions, overcoming fear and self-doubt – these are the toughest battles a leader can face. But excelling at self-management will help you stand out, precisely because few leaders focus on it. 


One of the most important times to lead yourself well is during times of uncertainty and change. This is when anxiety runs high, situations seem complex, and answers are less obvious. Undoubtedly now is one of those times.


If you're ready to do a little work on leading self, you can start by taking inventory of the core capabilities associated with self-management.  You can find a self-assessment, action plan and 10 tips for leading self in "The It Factor" guide.


Spot "weak signals"

As you look toward the Next Normal, you must anticipate what's coming to make good decisions now.  Some of the most valuable clues as to what's shifting in the marketplace are the most overlooked.


"Weak signals" are early trends, innovations, inventions, information or other phenomena that can be interpreted as indicators of strong change.


When you know how to spot weak signals, you are in a position to make crucial business decisions and seize the opportunity before the competition. The trick is learning where to look and how to predict the potential for change.


A few suggestions:

  • Broaden your inputs – Don't rely strictly on tried-and-true sources of information for your research.  Keep a few less obvious channels on your radar, such as futurist blogs, "super users" or the art world.  These are places weak signals often appear, and you'll miss them if you're not plugged in.
  • Remain "furiously curious" – Encourage yourself and your team to stop and take notice when you see something unusual.  Look for those moments when you think, "That's interesting…" That's when you know the treasure hunt has begun.


If you'd like to hone your future-thinking skills as you plan for 2021, you can find out more here.


Get a fresh perspective

My final suggestion on how the less obvious could help you the most is to challenge your own thinking more often. It's easy to convince ourselves we know what we need to know as leaders, and we don't need help from anyone else.


But smart leaders are willing to broaden their thinking and invite diverse points of view to the conversation. If you don't, you'll be much more likely to make mistakes out of ignorance and succumb to confirmation bias, which is trying to prove what you already think. You need to regularly seek new ideas.


A few questions to ask yourself that can help you get a fresh perspective:

  • Who on my leadership team haven't I heard from in a while? What unique viewpoint could they offer? 
  • What's a different option I haven't considered that could help solve a pressing problem?


If you're willing to look beyond the attention-grabbers in your life, you may find the greatest potential often lies in the less obvious. You also might find that some of your best moments come when you are uncomfortable. That's our final lesson, coming soon.


In the meantime, I encourage you to read part one, 4 Unexpected Ways to Navigate the Next Normal, and part two, We Grow Most When We Are Challenged: Practical Ways to Expand Your Leadership Skills For the Next Normal

Written By

Elise Mitchell

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