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The leader is his own mentor: commentary with Mette Vestergaard

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Mette VestergaardThe competent leader must have a sense of his own ability to think and his own way of learning in order to be able to lead others.

It rarely happens that top executives apologize unreservedly. But in the wake of the financial crisis, it has almost become fashionable to apologize and initiate the surrounding world in one’s own self-awareness.

Thus, in October 2008, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, had to eat humble pie before the US Congress. However, we have also seen top executives who have acknowledged that the financial crisis has challenged their own view of the world.

Mette Vestergaard is the CEO of Denmark-based Mannaz A/S (formerly The Danish Leadership Institute). Mannaz is a European leader in developing innovative executive development solutions and training. She writes here about every top executive carrying a personal responsibility to renew and upgrade themselves in order to meet change in the market. And how self-awareness is one of the most crucial competencies you can develop as a top executive if you wish to be at the head of a healthy organization.

Dubious rationality

All economic theory requires us to be rational and selfish, but the experimental economy in the 1980s presented the ultimate game to challenge the theory of homo oeconomicus. The experiment showed that people want justice and that we turn down an unfair trade, even if it could return a financial profit. “The generous human being” is what Tor Nørretranders calls this phenomenon.

Increased government involvement in business is one of the most striking features of the crisis. Governments around the world have enacted massive stimulus packages and bail outs. Since then, behavioural economists and neurological researchers have shed new light on how we make decisions as human beings.

Research shows that decisions are often made in the part of our brain that lies beyond our consciousness and that is strongly influenced by our emotions, environment, and culture. Based on previous experience, we develop mental models that often lead us to fall back into old routines and rely on what we have tried already and what is familiar. This explains why American car manufacturers continued to put big gas guzzlers onto the market, long after public opinion and the financial state of the market had changed. Too many top executives continue to rely on the ability that made them successful first time round. It is therefore vital that we continue to challenge our own programming and prepare ourselves for lifelong learning.

Rationality is one of the leader’s tools, but it does not suffice when it comes to tackling surprises, such as those offered by our hyper-complex society. We need to put different cognitive tools into play, such as the art of asking good questions, imagination, observation, action, morals and quality social relations.

“Every top executive has a personal responsibility to renew and upgrade themselves in order to meet change in the market.”

Two of Denmark’s biggest thinkers, Søren Kierkegaard and Niels Bohr, both concerned themselves with the term “complementarity”, which, roughly speaking, is about seeing the sum of parts as a whole. Kierkegaard described how important it is to know your own keynote in order to rise to the occasion as a human being. He simply meant that we must look inwards in order to see outwards, change rooted action strategies and make better decisions.

This is a process that requires contemplation, peace and a more focused attention than what we are seeing today, where we often find ourselves in a state of high intensity, which consumes the lives of many top executives. This is also why we are seeing a growing interest in applying meditation and mindfulness in leadership development. Every top executive has a personal responsibility to renew and upgrade themselves in order to meet change in the market.


Most organizations offer programmes for leadership development, but they usually stop short of the very top management. The higher you get in the hierarchy, the more capability development becomes a question of personal development. However, there is still a widespread opinion amongst top executives that personal traits are not something that can be changed just like that. The fundamental idea seems to be that you are who you are, so it is what it is.

Leaders with this attitude view capability development as something you do for yourself rather than as something that benefits the company as well. A further argument is often that the outside world expects you to master it all already as well-paid leaders, which is why participating in capability development is almost like a sign of confession. These leaders thereby neglect to take on self-responsibility.

In other words, it is about making room for contemplation and reflection and about understanding that it is a fundamental condition for broadening one’s own horizon and acquiring new knowledge.

Typically, top executives seek new inspiration and knowledge among their peers – among other leaders, within networks and from other companies. Only a few seek alternative paths to grass-roots movements or cultural life. In the United States, President Barack Obama has actively taken this approach, to great effect. Regardless of how the political pendulum is swinging at the moment, when it comes to his opinions, political standpoint and background, he has shown the ability to include people who are not a reflection of himself. He receives advice from people who believe something different from himself and, thereby, demonstrates great trust in his own judgment and gets valuable input on top.

The leader’s mentor

In order to exercise external leadership towards others, everything should be in order inside. The competent leader is his own mentor before being a mentor to others. Therefore, a leader must have a sense of his own ability to think and his own way of learning. This is argued by neurological researcher Kjeld Fredens in his book Innovation and Leadership. Learning is a process of self-change that involves leaders being exposed to new paths that they would not normally follow. This can be done by concerning yourself with different things in life, reading books, acquiring new theories or allowing yourself time to think strategically rather than merely solving ad-hoc tasks. This requires openness towards the fact that new competences can be acquired through various channels.

This dimension is already being incorporated into the curriculum in schools throughout the world. For example, Harvard University offers first- and second-year medical students a ten-week course at the Boston Museum of Modern Arts, where they learn to analyse paintings. Subsequently, the participants of the programme have turned out to be markedly better at correctly diagnosing their patients’ symptoms, because their attention and ability to observe has increased.

At Goldman Sachs, they practise the same principle in a different form through a reverse mentoring scheme. Each senior executive is assigned one of the company’s brightest new employees in their early twenties, officially to be their mentor, but also to be exposed to the shock of the new generation interpreting the reality of the business world.

August 2011.