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“Everybody at some point in their life should ask themself the question: what would be the bigger stage for me? People really do have infinite potential.”
Andy Craggs is talking about change. It's a topic he knows plenty about. The Programme Director at London Business School has just published a book, The Change Mindset – The Psychology of Leading and Thriving in an Uncertain World. Engaging, insightful and practical, it explores what it takes to successfully embrace and navigate transitions, in life and as leaders. Combining case studies with inspiring stories and toolkits, it demonstrates that we have the power to affect change at any age, from teenager Greta Thunberg to 80-year-old writer and founding LBS professor Charles Handy CBE.
The genesis for the project came in March 2020. A time when, like most of us, Craggs was thrust into “the new normal”, or what the US military would call a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous).
“That was the trigger,” Craggs says, “the pandemic hit and I found myself uncertain about client work, about LBS, about what I was doing. It was a total shock to the system and I suddenly found myself with free time. Nobody in government or business could figure out what to do – a deer-in-the-headlights situation. As somebody who works in leadership and change, I started wondering if there were any new insights we could learn about having a better response to this turbulent world.”
After kicking around the idea with friend and former colleague, Adi Ignatius from Harvard Business Review, Craggs “politely cajoled” leaders from different sectors, backgrounds, professions, countries, cultures and disciplines to tell their stories about significant transitions they had made. His interviewees ranged from a one-man NGO who had cycled across the Himalayas to “increase cross-cultural empathy”, to global executives, such as Ken Munekata, former MD of Sony Pictures Japan.
Having had over 30 years’ experience in leadership, at Dow Jones, Walt Disney, Sony, Apple, BBC, ING, Dyson, and Novartis, Craggs was already well-versed in what makes leaders tick. But his interviewees threw up some interesting curveballs.
“The lack of ego and willingness to admit, to often being uncertain came as a huge surprise,” he says. “Despite being super-successful, they were also incredibly humble, curious, open and didn’t always search for answers. They also realised they are part of a human system, and can’t affect change on their own.
One such person was Fred Prysquel, an international swimwear entrepreneur who created his brand, Vilebrequin, 50 years ago. “Fred is known for being ruthless, direct and decisive in his business model,” says Craggs. “But when I asked him how he had become so successful, he talked about constant uncertainty, constant insecurity, needing to get ideas from everywhere and listening to others. He said, when faced with uncertainty or dead ends, we mustn’t dig our heels in. His motto is ‘Il faut toujours avoir un plan, mais sans avoir un plan’ [have a plan but keep your options open].”
Barry Oshry, the 90-year-old behavioural scientist behind the Power Lab, also surprised Craggs. “He told me, ‘Look, I’ve been doing this for 60 years and I’ve yet to create a social movement.’ He still wants to find a way to get the world to understand how we relate to other people, and why there is so often conflict and confusion in human dynamics.”
The book is interspersed with quotes from leaders and influencers (“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly” – Robert F Kennedy; “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced” – the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard). You can’t help but smile when you read Winston Churchill’s maxim: “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
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“This book gives people a chance to practise courage and empathy and bring the two into equilibrium”
“Quotes are nice because they force people to think about those figures who stood for something,” says Craggs. “The interesting thing about Churchill is he’s quite flawed. He had little foibles, he drank in excess, he was obnoxious. But he would be fascinating to interview, particularly now. In his time the world was also completely uncertain, as it is today.”
Another leader Craggs would like to meet is Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.
“He’s such an interesting character. He’s very open to ideas, yet he has a killer instinct in business. He made the decision to let a whole bunch of people go who weren't willing to change, then architected one of the best recognised transformations in modern corporate history with a combination of firm courage and high empathy.”
Courage and empathy are recurring motifs in The Change Mindset. Two, quite contradictory skills that are tough to balance.
“Some of the leaders I’ve worked with are extremely courageous; they’re decisive, they charge the barricades, and that’s effective. I put Jeff Bezos in this category, almost as a cliché – he’s very ambitious, aggressive, egocentric, super-successful. But do you get the sense he brings people with him? Probably not. Elon Musk is in the same camp: super-creative but a law unto himself. I wouldn’t be particularly interested in interviewing either of them. I think they’re one-trick ponies… super-courageous with no empathy. In this VUCA world, you need more.
“I’ve also worked with leaders who are super-empathetic. They check in with the culture, they role-model and are authentically interested in their people. But if they’re only that and can’t make tough decisions like Satya Nadella did, at critical moments, they won’t be very effective during change.
“You’ve got all that knowledge in your head. You need to throw away your cue cards, trust your instincts.”
“The truly effective leaders have that clear decisiveness along with thinking of the human element. This book gives people a chance to practise courage and empathy and bring the two into equilibrium – something that could be really beneficial.”
Something else that could be a game-changer is knowing when to “drop your tools”. Craggs illustrates this via a case study from 1949 shared by Prof. Niro Sivanathan of LBS during their interview, in which a bunch of firefighters in Montana were told by their leader to drop their heavy kit so they could move faster through a wildfire to safety. Those who followed this order survived, while those who disobeyed it perished.
“The leader of that group had the instinct that, if you go against all the rules – which is to hang on to your kit at all costs – it can save your life, while sticking to how we normally do things can kill you.”
For a metaphor in leadership, Craggs cites top-level business consultant Martin Lutyens. When giving presentations, Lutyens always carried cue cards, as a kind of psychological crutch. One day a presentation coach said to him, “You’ve got all that knowledge in your head. You need to throw away your cue cards, trust your instincts.” Lutyens decided to try the experiment and never used the cards again.
“In business,” says Craggs, “when faced with existential change we have to be willing to drop the tools, lose the cue cards, crowdsource ideas and lower our ego.”
It’s possible to have some fun along the way, too. Craggs references Nikos Kazantzakis’s classic tale of Zorba the Greek – the story of a man who follows his instincts, regardless of the consequences. In the words of Zorba: “A person needs a little madness, or else they never dare cut the rope and be free.” Craggs says most of the people he interviewed are modern-day Zorbas. Does he have any tips on how the rest of us can inject a little madness into our lives?
“It could be a very simple daily practice, a micro-habit, such as ‘Just say yes’. Remember that Jim Carrey film, Yes Man? He plays a guy who attends a seminar in which he promises to say “yes” to everything that comes his way. It came with a huge risk of ridicule and failure, but then amazing things happened to him. Most of us instinctively say ‘Yes, but,’ and add lots of caveats to protect ourselves. So just saying ‘Yes’ is a very simple thing to experiment with. Try that for a week, see what happens.”
And don’t forget to dream big, too. Failure to do so is among the common transition traps highlighted by Craggs. He cites TE Lawrence: “The dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they act on their dreams with open eyes, and make them possible.” What this is really saying, says Craggs, is “How might we...?”
Among those who acted on their dreams is Gillian Tett, US editor-at-large of the Financial Times. “After growing up in a sheltered environment in the UK and wanting to explore the world she "gave herself permission roam and to collide with the unexpected", which created a bigger stage and led to a series of events that have made her into one of the world's pre-eminent financial journalists,” says Craggs. “And Jeff Bezos, to his credit, thought, ‘What if we could have the world’s biggest online store?’ I admire the guy incredibly for his business model and the success of that company.”
The book concludes with a dramatis personae. Each interviewee gives their top three lessons learned on navigating change, and one crucial piece of advice for those seeking to build their own change mindset. What are Craggs’ learnings?
“My first: I’m a big proponent of ‘you can’t do this on your own’. You can be lucky once in a while, for a short time, doing something alone, but if you’re really dealing with uncertainty and trying to make a difference, you’ll trip yourself up. My second: be open and constantly curious, like Steve Jobs. My third: failure is inevitable, but don't let that stop you trying.”
“And my one piece of advice? Re-educate yourself every five years and reinvent yourself every 10 years. Learn new skills, cultivate new mindsets and willingly change your behaviour. Free yourself up and tear up the cue cards.”
The Change Mindset by Andy Craggs (Kogan Page, £19.99) is out now