Why Leaders Should Practice Forgetting

Leaders and ForgettingWhen it comes to common knowledge, leaders have a lot to learn about forgetting.  Why?  Because forgetting is essential to finding new, innovative solutions to long running problems and challenges.  It’s way easy to reach into one’s memory grabbing a solution that worked pretty well on a similar problem years ago.  Guess what?  It’s probably not a similar problem in today’s world.  It probably won’t fix it.  It might make it worse.

I was reminded of this leadership dilemma by a recent Wall Street Journal article describing the musical career of singer-songwriter Norah Jones.  The writer John Jurgensen quotes Zach Hochkeppel, senior vice president of marketing at EMI Music.   “She [Jones] wants fans her own age,” Hochkeppel is reported as saying. “To maintain this über-adult fan base is really difficult. You have to do the same record over and over, or come up with stunts.”  Ouch.  Are über-adult audiences really that unyielding?  Isn’t it possible this “common knowledge” about audiences is irrelevant in today’s shifting markets?  I’ve listened to a lot of Norah Jones music in the last decade from her most popular Come Away With Me to The Fall to the Chill Album with Peter Malick.  It’s all different and all charming in its stylings.  The same?  Not so much.

It’s hugely difficult for leaders to overcome the tendency to live amidst our memories.  They are, after all, what got us here.  Yet for those willing to re-connect to their “beginner’s mind”, it’s quite obvious as author Marshall Goldsmith reminds us, what got you here, won’t get you there.  The notion behind a beginner’s mind is that you let go of knowing.  Don’t know instead.  Be open to new ideas and be eager to learn.  Set aside your preconceptions and give yourself permission to consider the possibilities.

As leaders we are pretty hardwired at knowing what we know.  Our deliberations and our decision-making define our work and in large measure our success.  Yet as every leader learns–sometimes in the hardest way possible–is how little we really do know.  The blazing uncertainty of today’s marketplace, the continued acceleration of technology and the surprising discovery that workplace skills essential to success in a global economy may be in short supply is forcing leaders to seriously reconsider.

If the time has come for you as a leader in your organization to re-think strategy, reconsider business models and or accelerate the essential innovations required for success, you might want to take that first step and start by forgetting.

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