YOU = FOUNDER, CEO, PRESIDENT, DISRUPTOR-IN-CHIEF
Judging by our current obsession with US political news, it seems like we’re living in an age when leadership as a personal and professional skill, is as critical, and as mysterious, as ever.
I still remember my first day as new manager, suddenly in charge of about 30 people. On the way into work, I literally had a panic attack, I found myself overwhelmed by an intense, adolescent feeling of self-doubt which continued over the days that followed. It was a shock because, romantic disasters notwithstanding, I’d thought of myself as having overcome any teenage insecurities years before. I’d worked all over the world, presented to large audiences, even run a club at university. The reality was, in that professional, ‘adult’ work-world leadership moment, I had no answer to a suddenly critical question: ‘how do I act like a leader?’
I eventually found a groove in that role, and went on to manage other teams in many other places, even becoming a ‘C’-suite senior executive on the way. I was lucky – I had some great role models to emulate. But if I was honest, all my leadership skills were ‘instinctive’: not easily transferred to others, not truly scaleable. Also, I secretly worried that I was ‘acting like a leader’, rather than ‘being a leader’.
One day not too long ago, I started working in a new business with an unusual, inspirational CEO. The business was growing fast, and to help the senior executives cope with rapid change, he taught us two simple, interlocking behavioural frames. These frames have fundamentally changed how I lead people, how I manage my relationships, and indeed how I am as a human being.
THE VICTIM-PLAYER FRAME
“The basic difference between an
ordinary man and a warrior is that a
warrior takes everything as a challenge,
while an ordinary man takes everything
as a curse”
– Don Juan
Have you ever heard yourself – or someone else – say:
“I’m sorry I’m late, the traffic was terrible!”
rather than what you (or they) should have said:
“I’m sorry I’m late. I didn’t leave enough time to get here.”
Yes? I’m 100% certain I must have said this many, many times.
Let’s break it down: the first statement essentially takes no responsibility for the situation. In fact, it says that I am a VICTIM of circumstance, powerless against the world outside myself. Turn up the volume and you can hear me screaming “Its not my fault! It was the traffic’s fault!” (So don’t punish me).
The second statement? Full responsibility. It was in my power to anticipate the problem, to make allowances, and whether for lack of skill, or will, I didn’t take the action I could have. I’m truly sorry, and next time I’ll I’ll do better. This is the statement of a PLAYER who believes that they have strength inside them that is powerful in the world.
Here’s some more language from the Victim-Player frame:
You’ll be surprised when you start listening to yourself and others, and hearing the different phrases above, how prevalent the self-sabotaging, powerless mindset of the Victim is, and how rare the Player is.
Leadership within the Victim-Player frame also means being mindful of which focus is in play within you in any given moment:
When it comes to leadership, the difference between the Player’s “inside-out” mindset, versus the Victim’s “outside-in” mindset is night + day.
LEAD FROM WITHIN
Of course – as any politician will tell you, there are always factors beyond our control – other people’s decisions, accidents, random events – sh*t that happens. Does it make me a victim if I blame those for creating problems that affect me and others?
Well, no. From a leadership perspective, it’s the difference in behavior, in what you’re concentrating on in response to those things, which marks your victim/player spectrum:
Author and psychologist Kendra Cherry has listed some of these biases, which include the following, scarily familiar examples:
- The Player focuses on factors that are within your control, especially oneself
- The Victim focuses on factors that are beyond your control, especially external ones.
The difference between the Player’s “inside-out” focus, versus the Victim’s “outside-in” focus is night + day. Leadership within the Victim-Player frame means being mindful of which focus is in play within you in any given moment… you’ll be surprised when you start listening to yourself and others how prevalent the self-sabotaging mindset of the Victim is.
Now we’re going to look at an interlocking frame – one which complements Victim-Player powerfully.
THE KNOWER-LEARNER FRAME
“When you talk,
You are only repeating what you already know;
But when you listen,
You may learn something new.”
– Dali Lama
In your work or home life, do you ever feel a lot of pressure to know all the answers – and be right too? Are you afraid that you’ll look weak if you change your mind? Do you believe there is always a ‘right answer’?
Have you ever heard yourself say “Well everybody knows that…” or “Its obvious that…”? “I knew this was going to happen…” or “They should just do X if only they weren’t stupid.”
Watch out – you might be a KNOWER.
The knower mindset is particularly tough for people with a strong technical bent, the highly-educated, or those who strongly identify with a particular culture or identity. We’re hearing it a lot in politics right now in fact:
“If you disagree with me, you must be wrong. Fake news. Sad !”
I’m going to sound like a Knower when I say this, but its no fun to have a knower as a leader: they’re defensive in the face of feedback, they are preoccupied with preserving the appearance of their own competency, get easily frustrated, experience setbacks as frustrating failures rather than opportunities to learn.
In contrast, the LEARNER starts out from the premise that they don’t know everything, but they can learn it if they put the effort in.
Where a Knower says “We should do X”, the Learner will ask “What will happen if we do X?” (even if they’re pretty confident that X is the right thing to do). Where a Knower says “I know this will work because I’ve got 10 years of experience”, the Learner says “This may have worked in the past, let’s see what happens this time”.
Let’s check the language differences between the Knower and the Learner:
The Knower-Learner Leadership mindsets are just as brutally different as Victim-Player:
Being a leader is tough – and we make it a lot tougher on ourselves when we act like a Knower.
Have you ever been in this scenario?
Your CEO/Manager tells your team you have to make your quarterly numbers, and to do so you must follow the plan that’s been developed by management. And if you don’t achieve the numbers, then positions may be cut (punishment). If you do achieve the numbers, there will be a small bonus (reward).
How did you feel? Did it sound like an exciting invitation to collaborate on a tough problem? No, not really. Sounded like hard graft with little prospect of reward, and potential a penalty. I’d start planning to quit before the end of the meeting.
What if the CEO/Manager had presented the following?
“I’ll be 100% honest and say that this graph shows us struggling to break even. The most valuable questions we need to answer together are what’s the right goal for the quarter, what are some things we can try to improve our performance, and what might a reward look like if we do better than break-even?”
I think you’ll agree that the second statement is an invitation to collaborate on a shared problem, makes it clear that the leader doesn’t have all the answers, and empowers the team to chart its own path.
Which firm would you rather work for? Long-term, who is more likely to out-perform the market?
THE ULTIMATE LEADER
The classic Tech Startup Founder character archetype – socially progressive, but perhaps awkward; entrepreneurial, but perhaps lacking in empathy; innovative, creative, risk-taking – collides somewhat uncomfortably with a similar cultural trope, that of the corporate or self-made CEO – decisive, commanding, feared, powerful.
Let’s bin these tired tropes and come up with a shiny new one: the Player-Learner:
I call this the ‘ultimate leader’. Radical responsibility. Shared resilience. Openness to experiment and learn. Powerful and compassionate. A human being, a leader.
ARE YOU THE REASON YOU’RE STRUGGLING TO LEAD?
Let’s run an experiment together: listen out for the language of VICTIM-PLAYER, and LEARNER-KNOWER in your work and home life. Are you more of a Victim when you’re tired? Are you more of a Knower when you’re with your family – your children especially, and are you more of a Learner when at work – with your colleagues? Or the other way around?
Its powerful, confronting stuff. And it continues to change my life every day. Let me know how you go in the comments below.
Hack, hustle and flearn!
Partner & Startup Scientist
Tim Parsons is a Partner and Startup Scientist at Pollenizer, responsible for leading our Launch/XO Startup Accelerator/Incubator practice. An experienced tech exec who has worked around the world, Tim is now focused on deep-tech areas such as Energy, Health, Food/Agriculture, AI and Space where new, exponential-scale opportunities for entrepreneurship abound.
I’ll definitely be more conscious about how I show up everyday.
The Victim/Knower mindset is a very easy ‘default’ state for me to fall in to – but it’s reassuring to know that taking the conscious effort of showing up as a Player/Learner will be a more productive, and more importantly, fulfilling way of continuing this journey.
Great insights Tim, thanks for sharing your experience!
Thanks Dennis. The amazing thing I find is how often I catch myself in victim/knower mode… so get ready for ongoing lessons in humility ! #human
An interesting article and something as a father, pessimist and human being I have subconsciously and consciously been aware of and struggle with on a daily basis.
As a coach of a junior cricket team I am seen as a leader by the kids so it is hard to not show myself as a Knower when the kids are looking to me as their teacher. I know I have learned from these youngsters and will continue to do so. Together we will strive to be Players not Victims and your article will only helped that process.
Fabulous Tim, I’m imagining a junior cricket team as a great place to teach kids the power of questions (as an invite to collaboration and creativity) vs statements of fact (which actually shuts down pathways to learning and growth)? Can’t wait to hear how you get on – especially coaching emerging young knowers into reframing statements as questions!
Great article with easy to identify roles. The audacity to be humble is often underestimated. As parents it’s easy to fall into the trap being the know-all for our teenage kids. Realizing we can learn more from youngsters is what makes the bond stronger. I was wondering if there is another group with the mindset “know-nothing-please-tell-me-how”?
Fantastic article Tim! A very refreshing, informative and practical piece. In our business we talk a heap about player vs. victim, but I haven’t done a good enough job bringing it to life across the whole team. You’ve inspired me share your article and run a workshop with the team. Thank you for Sharing.
Thanks Adam, great to hear. Hopefully Knower-Learner will deepen the conversation around Victim-Player too.
Really great article Tim, I wonder if there is a point on the scale where a knower / victim is beyond the point of return and is unable to change towards learner / player because of thier very mindset.
Let’s just hope that’s not us Mark !
Thanks Tim. Eloquent, evidenced-based, and needs to be heard!
Great article Tim. It’s takes constant practice to check where your mindset is at. Thanks for the coaching.
I so enjoyed reading your article! Some points made me ponder, some points were eye openers and ….to my surprise – i remembered saying something similar that you wrote on “Learn and Win together” to someone very recently (an interviewer lol) i had a ^____________^ (big smile) on my face lol – i always believe that if people have the same objective in mind and heart, focus at achieving with the end in mind – we will WIN together, accomplish great things together and have fun together! i guess i am doing pretty ok then if i have some similar thoughts with successful individuals like yourself! Thanks for sharing!