Big Yellow Hats

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When my (now 31-year-old) nephew was young, he loved Curious George. If you know the story, through the many circumstances in which “George was curious,” the man with the big yellow hat encouraged him to explore, but was always there to keep him from going too far afield. George learned a great deal because the man with the big yellow hat allowed him the freedom to try new things.

Are you a “big yellow hat” leader? Do you encourage your staff to ask why, experiment, test theories and take risks, even when you know that sometimes they will stub their toes? According to a new report from The Bridgespan Group two of the core components in building a capacity for innovation within your organization are a curious culture, and catalytic leadership.

George was allowed to live in a curious culture. He took risks, and when he “failed” it became a lesson-filled learning opportunity. For the skeptics out there who are thinking your organization isn’t a cartoon and you can’t afford to have your staff play around, I would respond that, yes, there are risks that come with innovating. There are also costs associated with always coloring within the lines drawn by others. Just recognize that if you want your staff to identify creative approaches to the challenges before them, you have to let them explore a bit and ask “what if.” You have to let them be curious.

And what, exactly, is catalytic leadership? Merriam-Webster defines a catalyst as “an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action. Catalytic leadership provides the push needed to get the ball rolling in a specific, focused direction. The man in the big yellow hat always identified where they were going or what they were going to do, he simply allowed George the freedom to be curious along the way. Catalytic leadership isn’t about letting staff focus their energies in twelve different directions. It is about articulating a vision and priorities, and then letting your people grapple and experiment with the best way to get there. It is about mentoring and encouraging collaboration and hands-on learning. It is about allowing your staff to find a path forward.

Being a big yellow hat leader takes patience and the ability to embrace ambiguity. It requires a recognition that progress rarely happens in straight lines or amid a tangle of rules, and that one rarely knows the route to the end of the journey when standing at the beginning of it. It requires a clear vision of the destination and the ability to inspire others and serve as a role-model for embracing possibilities.

How exactly does one become a big yellow hat leader? The first step . . . is to be curious.

Hydrate

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It has been well established that one important factor in maintaining overall health is to stay well hydrated. Just as water keeps a plant from withering away, our bodies need water to function at their peak. Have you ever noticed, however, that sometimes we don’t notice how thirsty we really are until we drink a bit of water and then realize we are absolutely parched? That’s why you need to hydrate at regular intervals rather than waiting until you feel thirsty. The same need for regular hydration applies to “leadership health.”

Leaders need to hydrate their mind. Taking in new ideas, new knowledge, keeps your mind vital and functioning at its peak. Books, articles, Ted talks, conferences, conversations with people who see the world differently than you do … there are so many ways to keep your mind from becoming dry and brittle. Just like neglecting to drink enough water, it is easy to convince ourselves that our mind isn’t thirsty. We have enough ideas, what we are doing is working just fine, and besides we have no time for all that stuff. Really? Drink in some new knowledge. You just might be amazed at how thirsty you really are.

Leaders also need to hydrate their relationships. I’m not talking about interacting with people at agenda-laden meetings. Those might build respect, but they don’t build relationships. Relationships come from unstructured time spent with people. You need to drink in the opportunities to interact informally, both with work colleagues and personal friends. You need the time and space to ask questions and have spontaneous conversations that allow you to “be real” with people, in both deep and light-hearted ways. Ignoring this thirst is perhaps the quickest route to becoming a dry, crispy, lonely, leader.

Leaders need to hydrate their heart and soul. In the midst of the, at times, scorching responsibilities of leading, it is critical that leaders don’t try to just sweat it out. When you feel like you can least afford it is when it is most important to carve out time to replenish your “why,” to make sure it doesn’t quietly wilt away. What grounds you? What drives you? Why are you doing what you’re doing? Prayer, soaking in the wonder of nature, reflection, time spent with family and friends, interacting with a child … there are as many ways to quench this thirst, to nourish your heart and soul, as there are individuals. Just make sure you do it, whatever “it” is for you.

So you want to remain in this leadership gig for the long haul? Hydrate your body, yes, but also make sure you replenish your mind, your relationships, and your heart and soul. Starting today, take the time and drink it in!