Taking Chances to Lead Change in the 21st Century:
Why It’s Cool Not to Be So Cool

By Julie Benezet

The internet changed all the rules.

Life has always had its challenges when new things showed up, but most of the time we thought we could handle them. While we didn’t love dealing with adversity, because we knew the people and situations involved, things seemed under control, familiar, . . . comfortable. At least that’s what we thought.

Then came the internet. With its global reach and instant transmission of vast amounts of information, we find ourselves living in a fast, hyperconnected world. Relentless change has become the norm. People, situations, and places we don’t know can have a direct impact on our lives, significantly altering the competitive landscape. So much is unknown, and the new is everywhere–new technology, new economic models, new politics, new cultural norms, and new products and services. Much feels unpredictable, out of our control, . . . uncomfortable.

What does this have to do with leadership? Everything.

The job of a leader, whether of a large corporation or small project team, is to discover new ideas to make life better for their customers, workforce, and communities. Then they have to convince others to join them in testing those ideas. The role has not changed since the concept of leadership was born. What has changed is the level of complexity, which is the gift and curse of the internet.

The job of 21st century leaders is to steer their organizations through the unknowns of the new toward a better place, and to treat its scariness as an asset, not a liability.

The internet introduced an infinite number of unknowns into business life. To succeed, leaders must find new ways for their organizations to satisfy rapidly evolving market and organizational demands. That involves experimenting with new concepts that carry no guaranteed outcomes. It can be uncomfortable, but that is how change happens.

Trying out a new idea is also awkward. Exploring its possibilities requires asking difficult questions about issues others want to avoid, talking to people you barely know, or suggesting fresh approaches that make them uneasy. Nevertheless, to create a winning idea, you need to learn as much as you can about the stakeholders whose lives you want to improve.

We work so hard in the 21st century to be cool, acting as if we know it all, but being cool rather than risking awkward conversations could cost us opportunities.

Charting a Course toward New Possibilities

Traveling on the road of discovery to realize new ideas requires taking chances. It is lined with uncertainty and reasons for turning back. Nevertheless, leadership calls for forward movement.

The Journey of Not Knowing® sets forth four principles that provide navigation lights through the discomfort of pursuing something new.

The Core Four:

1. Dare to dream.

Choose an idea you believe will move people to a higher plain. It could be a different company communication culture to overcome people’s reluctance to give each other valuable feedback. You could explore a new market outside of your core business based on customer requests for help. Or, you could find a different way to build teams, allowing team members rather than managers to choose and evaluate their members.

A dream often is something you’ve been ignoring, either because the underlying problem deeply bothers you or you know it will be hard. If it scares you, however, you probably are on the right track.

Once you identify a dream, crystallize it by soliciting feedback from the people who will benefit from it.

2. Get comfortable with the scariness of risk.

Adopt a healthy attitude toward risk and its contribution to success. As you test new ideas, much can go wrong. Your friends, colleagues, or customers might think the ideas are stupid, irrelevant, or expensive. If you lead a team, your teammates might greet them with suspicion or annoyance.

Their reactions could cause you anxiety, adding to an inner dialog already running through your head about the possible consequences of your experiment: Will they laugh at me? Will it fail? Will I lose my reputation, or my job over this? Or, will they love it?

Nervousness comes with the adventure of pioneering ideas. It is part of driving change. It also signifies you are on the road to something better. Embrace discomfort as a reminder to pay attention, learn from mistakes, and recalibrate as needed.

3. Watch out for self-sabotaging behaviors.

Recognize that human beings are messy. That includes leaders.

When leaders try something new without knowing the outcome, the walls of resistance will rise. People react defensively to cope with fear. Their reactions are normal. Defenses give people short term comfort but prevent achieving better things. The biggest resistance, however, might come from you and stand in the way of your dreams.

Everyone has defenses. They appear in many well-known forms: Micromanagement, personalizing, and conflict avoidance top the list. To overcome their impact and return to the quest for new ideas, start by recognizing when your defenses are triggered. Understand their negative impacts. Then broaden your strategy to support your mission.

4. Find drivers to fuel your travel through discomfort of the unknown

To move through the discomfort on the road to new things, you need a purpose or “driver” for traveling on it. Your purpose can be as simple as, “I so despise that guy competing against us on this proposal that I will work with our frightening analytics team who will assure a winning bid.”

The strongest drivers arise from one’s values, life stories, and vision for the future. The deeper you go, the more fuel they will give you. Self-knowledge is power. It means getting to know and accepting who you are, lending strength and clarity as you face the discomfort of the new.

In short, it’s cool not to be so cool. Successful leaders plunge into the awkwardness of the new to learn about themselves and the needs of the people whose lives they want to make better. Their reward is the thrill of making a difference.

©2019, Julie Benezet. All rights reserved.

-Julie Benezet spent 25 years in law and business, and for the past 17 years has coached and consulted with executives from virtually every industry. She earned her stripes for leading in the discomfort of the new as Amazon’s first global real estate executive. She is an award-winning author of The Journey of Not Knowing: How 21st Century Leaders Can Chart a Course Where There Is None. Her new book, The Journal of Not Knowing, offers a self-guided discovery mission to pursue one’s dreams and overcome the scariness along the way toward achieving them. She can be reached at www.juliebenezet.com.