The Power of Leading with an Open Mind

We were all seated around a long oval table, my colleagues and I listening intently as our supervisor rambled on in a lengthy monologue. We’d just spent the past two hours watching him enthusiastically brief us on a new project.

There was just one problem.

Not once did he stop and ask for our opinions. Instead, whenever we posed a question, he’d shoot us down — never recognizing the value of our ideas.

At the time, I was a twenty-something year old working at my first large media company in New York — which is to say, I knew better than to ruffle any feathers.

So, we all kept quiet, nodding along.

All these years later, I recall that experience every time I think about the leader I aspire to be; someone open and willing to look at themselves.

The power of open-mindedness

None of us grow up wanting to be closed-minded — I’m pretty sure my supervisor believed he was far from it. But if we’re bent on being successful, then our first step means taking a personal inventory of our behavior. What is our ratio of talking versus listening? How often do we give credit to opinions that differ from our own?

According to Farnam Street: being open-minded all comes down to mindset.

The rate at which you learn and progress in the world depends on how willing you are to weigh the merit of new ideas, even if you don’t instinctively like them.

Benjamin Franklin was someone who was adept at understanding he didn’t have all the answers. As Shane Snow writes for Harvard Business Review, whenever Franklin was about to make an argument, he’d use a simple phrase that put people at ease: “I could be wrong, but…”

As leaders, we can make it a point to follow his example — letting our teams know that we’re open to discussion. “We need people who can be like Franklin,” Snow argues — “smart and strong-willed enough to persuade people to do great things, but flexible enough to think differently, admit when they’re wrong, and adapt to dynamic conditions.”

Why we need to be more intellectually humble

I was born and raised in Turkey, and later was granted the opportunity to study computer science at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.

Since then, I’ve traveled around the world and had the chance to absorb different perspectives — all of which have helped mold my opinion of the world. According to Snow “Traveling a lot — or, even better, living for extended periods in foreign cultures — tends to make us more willing to revise our viewpoints,” which in turn fosters our intellectual humility.

After all, if we know that it is perfectly valid to live a different way than we do, it makes sense that our brains would be better at accepting new approaches to problems at work, he explains.

I can say without a doubt that this has been true for me. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with teams spread across different continents for the past 15 years, and I am always eager to hear their unique points of view.

Be willing to pass the mic

In his fascinating article for Inc.com, Scott Miller says that effectively developing others, requires getting comfortable handing over the mic. It’s this idea “of allowing more junior but competent employees to get some face time with top-level leaders,” he adds. “This is about preparing them to eventually realize their full potential and sharing the lessons you’ve learned along the way.”

We take this to heart at my company, JotForm, by holding Demo Days each Friday where people present their latest work. It’s one of the activities I most look forward to because it’s a moment when teams get to express themselves and have their voices be heard. Even the most reserved employee can have a chance to share their ideas and contributions.

Contradict your own thoughts

American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald once stated: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

In order to do what he advocates, we have to be deliberate about overriding our confirmation bias — the tendency to cherry-pick information that confirms what we already believe. What this means is that we need to be able to hold two different views at the same time, and approach each with curiosity rather than certainty. It’s in weighing both that we’re able to arrive at a fair and balanced middle point.

For example, it’s okay to consider someone else’s perspective while also actively disagreeing. Many of the decisions I make as CEO involve always seeking moderation above all else.

Staying open-minded is a continuous process

“As a leader, it’s your job to prepare people for the responsibilities you want them to take on,” Writes Miller. “It’s also your job to help them learn from your mistakes, to help them see their blind spots, and to navigate a corporate culture you’ve mastered.”

For me, staying open-minded isn’t just for my own benefit, it’s about investing in my teams and modeling what I wish my supervisor had all those years before.

Over the years, I’ve tried to take steps to ensure staff meetings don’t devolve into a 2 hour monologue. I do this by asking the most quiet employee for their thoughts, by opening up the floor to brainstorming, and creating policies like our Demo Days so that these activities unfold naturally.

Ultimately, what I’ve learned is that open-mindedness requires deep reflection — it means observing our behavior at every meeting, every interaction, and noticing how often we take center stage. We must be continually asking ourselves, am I stubbornly trying to be right all the time? Am I allowing others to disagree with me? To voice their concerns?

Ultimately, it’s an exercise in trying to free ourselves from ego, and as author Eckhart Tolle wisely noted: “There is nothing that strengthens the ego more than being right.”

This article is originally published on Jul 27, 2021, and updated on Jul 30, 2021.
AUTHOR
Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from JotForm users. You can reach Aytekin from AytekinTank@JotForm.com

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