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Jan. 18, 2022

125 The 5 Core Essentials for Leading Through Uncertain Times with Rebel Leadership author Larry Robertson | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker

125 The 5 Core Essentials for Leading Through Uncertain Times with Rebel Leadership author Larry Robertson | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker
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In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Larry Robertson, innovation advisor, founder of Lighthouse Consulting, and author of three award-winning books, including his most recent, Rebel Leadership: How to Thrive in Uncertain Times. Larry Robertson shares insights from his first two books about entrepreneurship and creativity. Larry shares why he focused his third book on Leadership, specifically on leading through uncertainty. In the conversation, Larry Robertson shares five core principles of effective Leadership in uncertain times, including the importance of leading with soul.  

Some highlights:

- Larry Robertson’s childhood growing up in a household that encouraged inquiry

- A Deliberate Pause, and why entrepreneurship is not a choice.

- Stu Kaufman’s ‘the adjacent possible’ and the untapped creative potential in every single person

- Larry Robertson on leading during uncertain times 

- Debunking the ‘heroic leader’ myth

- Why soul matters in Leadership

- Larry Robertson on why organizational culture makes or breaks an organization

- The future of work and how to navigate ongoing uncertainty


- Stuart Kauffman, medical doctor, theoretical biologist, and complex systems researcher

- Richard Tait, CEO of Cranium

- Russell Shaffer, Senior Director of Global Culture, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Walmart

- Melissa Thomas-Hunt, Senior Advisor at Airbnb

- Deborah Meier, educator and education reformer

- Choose to be Curious by Lynn Borton

Connect with Larry Robertson:

Rebel Leadership on Amazon

Larry Robertson’s Website

Larry Robertson on LinkedIn

Larry Robertson on Twitter

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:


More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 



Mahan Tavakoli: 

Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Larry Robertson. Larry is an innovation advisor and also founder of Lighthouse Consulting. He has three award-winning books, A Deliberate Pause, The Language of Man, and then his most recent book, Rebel Leadership: How to Thrive in Uncertain Times; and we live in uncertain times and want to learn how to thrive and how to help our teams and organizations thrive, that's what we spend most of our time focused on, on Larry's insights around that most specifically from his book Rebel Leadership. 

Now I really enjoy hearing from you, keep your comments coming, mahan@mahantavakoli.com. There's a microphone icon on PartneringLeadership.com, really enjoy getting those voice messages. Don't forget to follow the podcast on your favorite platform. And finally, those of you that enjoy these on Apple, leave a rating and review when you get a chance, that will help more people find and benefit from the conversations.

Now, here is Larry Robertson.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Larry Robertson, welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm thrilled to have you in this conversation with me.

Larry Robertson: 

It's my privilege to be here, Mahan. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I am really excited, can't wait to talk about Rebel Leadership. You say, how to thrive in uncertain times. We truly live in uncertain times. You make the point that it has absolutely nothing to do with COVID, I totally agree with you. And you had two books before that, but before we get to some of your content and thoughts on leadership, would love to know Larry, whereabouts you grew up and how your upbringing impacted the kind of person you've become?. 

Larry Robertson: 

I primarily grew up in the American Southwest in Tucson, Arizona. Having said that we moved to and from Tucson several times, but my upbringing is probably better described by telling you a couple of quick vignettes and how they weave together. The first of them would be that I had a father who every night at the dinner table led us through a series of questions.

So they weren't always the same questions and everybody was an equal participant. I have a younger brother so even when we were little kids, we were expected to participate fully. And the questions weren't "how was your day?", it would be more along the lines of "hey, did you see that your favorite football team, professional football team, they were involved in a cheating scandal? What do you think about that?" 

And for a 10 year old or an 8 year old to process those thoughts you'd think would go nowhere, but it was really just the act of questioning and thinking. A second little vignette is that I had a mother who made everything fun. So I remember horrible nights of mountains of homework in high school. And she would find some way to make that fun and productive and get it done. 

Chores around the house, car accidents, whatever it might be, somehow she found that thread in a moment when you want to do just the opposite. And the third one would be, I had a soccer coach growing up, who, when we were at the age, we were just learning the skills, the foot skills and scoring and things of that nature, taught me a very different lesson and the lesson was see the field. 

Get that sense of where the ball has been, get that sense of where people are going after and think about in Wayne Gretzky fashion, where the puck or the ball is going to go next. And the reason I tell you those three things is that I really grew up in this atmosphere where even though it wasn't called out by this term, curiosity was encouraged everywhere.

So questions at the dinner table, how do we make something horrible into something fun, and how do we see something bigger than just our immediate position or a skill set or things like that? Curiosity was a very, very rich part of how I grew up and I don't know if that has anything specifically to do with the Desert Southwest.

Sometimes I'd like to think that way, you think about the people who came there. As pioneers from the East Coast, the various Native American tribes that survived in that atmosphere for millennia. All of them had to be innovative and think in a curious way. So maybe it has something to do with that, but I think it was the people I was surrounded with. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

What an interesting mix with respect to your father's approach, your mother's approach, and then your coach. I'm just curious, what was it with your father that got him to engage you in such deep conversations at the dinner table? That is highly unusual.

Larry Robertson: 

It is ‘cause I went to dinner tables at friend's houses and it didn't quite go that same way. In fact, we were lucky if we were seated at the table with our parents but my parents believed very strongly and actually my wife and I took a similar attitude with our kids, that kids, people will rise to the occasion.

So if you invite them into a conversation that others might suggest is above their thought level, they'll rise up to that. It's not that I'm going to be able to analyze why that professional team cheated or what the significance should be or what the penalty is, that wasn't the point, the point was reach for a question that's a little bit bigger than who you are.

And that's just the way my dad is. He's the kind of guy who will go to a party and be introduced to one person and he will talk to that person for two hours. And most of his side of the conversation is asking questions and those people walk away having had things revealed about themselves really by themselves to themselves, that they hadn't thought about for a long time, or maybe had never thought about at all.

So he just was that kind of person. And I think he was passing it onto us, but I think he and my mother both knew that it's questions that are the key to everything, the springboard to everything, whether it's innovation or it's problem solving, or it's just the joy of life, that I think it just was a natural environment for both parents. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And it's interesting, Larry, because I see some of that thinking in your own curiosity, in your own pursuit of what great leadership is all about, engaging in conversations and elevating people and giving them the opportunity the way your parents did, as opposed to how a lot of leadership has traditionally been approached. 

Now, before writing Rebel Leadership, you first wrote about entrepreneurship and I wanted to briefly touch on it. You say that entrepreneurs are not risk takers. So what made the entrepreneurs that you study unique enough to take the step to become entrepreneurs?

Larry Robertson: 

It's a great question and it's one I touch on extensively in that first book, the first book being A Deliberate Pause, that was the title of the book. So I'll start with, as many good stories do with the end, the end is what I call the "no choice factor." That's what led that particular entrepreneur, whoever we're talking about to step into this realm, to try this idea, but more to continue to pursue it. 

So that when the idea didn't take off just the way they thought when the idea needed, as it naturally does a hundred more ideas to be layered onto it, to change it, to replace it, whatever it might be, it was that no choice factor that drove entrepreneurs forward. So that's the end of the story. 

The beginning of the story was typically a situation where an individual would see a problem that no one was solving or an opportunity that no one was tapping and Mahan, it's really interesting how often those individuals would say somebody ought to solve this, looking and thinking outside themselves.

And they would even make an effort to go to a few people they thought might be perfect for solving it and say, why aren't you solving this? And the pushback would be in the form of well gee, I don't know if that needs solving or, but that sounds like a lot of work or, I never thought about that before, I don't really want to take it on. 

And so ultimately it's these individuals looking around at something that they truly in their hearts believe will better humanity. Even the business that you would think would have no direct connection to bettering humanity, they really feel it will. They look around and see nobody else pursuing it.

And they reached that moment where they have no choice, they feel, but to pursue it. And so that kind of links back to the comment I make in the book about entrepreneurs not being risk-takers. First of all, that's what they told me. And second of all, the reason they're not risk-takers is that the greater risk would be for no one to take up that opportunity or to solve that problem.

So by taking it up, they don't feel like they're risk takers, they feel like they're mitigating that greater risk. And everything they do, a good entrepreneur, is a calculated risk. So in total, they don't really think of themselves as risk takers.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And that's such a beautiful perspective, Larry. And that's why I encourage the audience to also read that book, because I believe that with a greater uncertainty that you also talk about in Rebel Leadership, we are all going to need to tap into that inner entrepreneur. And it's not necessarily the person that has the business plan and wants to become an entrepreneur, it's seeing that need and having that passion and that excitement to make that difference.

Larry Robertson: 

That's right. That's absolutely right. And so it's interesting Mahan because even today, that first book came out in 2009 and the focus of the first book was entrepreneurship, and part of what the book was pointing out was that we never really even stopped to think about what does it mean to be an entrepreneur? What is the definition of entrepreneurship? 

And as soon as you start to look at it, you see that not only is it not always about business. I mean, what non-profit entrepreneurs do, I think in many, many cases is more awe inspiring than what many for-profit entrepreneurs do. Non-profits do more with less all the time. When you start to peel back and think about entrepreneurship, you see that people are driven into it, driven through it, and actually succeed for things other than the bottom line. 

It's not that they ignore the bottom line. It's not that they don't value capital as fuel. But it's not the reason that they do what they do. And in fact, almost to the person, they will say, if that's your primary reason for pursuing entrepreneurship or business or whatever it is to make money, I'll just simplify, good luck because that's not of enough of a reason to get through the challenges that any entrepreneur faces and to loop back to the uncertain environment that any of us face in such an uncertain environment.

Mahan Tavakoli:

And as we tap into that, you also then built on that in my perspective, with your second book, looking into creativity and the fact that we all have that ability to be creative, that is within us. I love the concept of the adjacent possible from Stu Kaufman. So what is the adjacent possible and how can we have that creativity in our own organizations and our lives?

Larry Robertson: 

Sure. So let me step to the first part of what you commented on. This statement that I make repeatedly in the book that we are all creative. This is factory issued capability for all human beings. That the differences I also talk about in the book is that the vast majority of us who are creative but we're wrongly told we're not. 

And therefore, we don't practice using that creative capacity. So we look at this thin slice of people who do, and they seem to achieve at great levels. And we think somehow, because we look at the output of their achievement, we think that's something out of reach, but creativity is where that output began a long way back at the shared human capacity.

And so I think that's really, really important because even today, people will hear the word creativity and say, oh, you mean in the arts? As though that's the only realm of what humans do that we see creativity in. No, everywhere, everybody's creative and can be creative in whatever they do. So I just wanted to touch on that, but the adjacent possible is this really powerful question or concept. 

And it starts with the idea that when we think about innovating or creating, we tend to think about innovating or creating something grand. And that typically leads us to think that about the accomplishment at the end, as I just referenced a minute ago. So we think of things that are, as I put it, a moon leap away - very, very far from us.

 And the truth is that the possible out there, the things that turn into innovations with impact one step at a time are really just adjacent to what we do and what we know right now. So if you think about putting a big kind of malleable circle around yourself right now in this moment, who you know what, you know, what you do, what you engage in just beyond that, like just putting a toe over the line is where the possible lies. 

So what Stu says is that it's going back and forth between the worlds you know and just over the line into what you don't know, that actually Springs forth possibility. And in three forms, the first form of possibility is anytime you step out of what I call the known zone, what you know, you're going to see something new.

Is it going to change your life? Maybe not. Is it going to lead to an immediate grand idea? Probably not, but just going there allows you to see something new. Second level is when you return to that known zone, you can't help, but look at things differently, especially if you do it a lot and you accumulate these views from the adjacent possible. 

But as Stu says importantly, the more you do this, the more you actually expand the possible within your existing world, just outside and in the adjacent possible, in total. And not just for yourself, but those you interact with. So it's this really, really powerful concept that comes down to the very simple act of putting your toe across the line and just going somewhere you wouldn't normally go. 

I tell this story actually, in the first book about a guy by the name of Richard Tait. Richard Tait was this incre- still is, an incredible entrepreneur. For more than a decade, he was an entrepreneur within Microsoft, as he said, he had a safety net. If a business goes wrong, there's a lot of funds that can help prop it up.

But at the end of the day, he created probably a dozen businesses within Microsoft, including Expedia, which was successful of all of them. Then he went out into the real world and on his own and created Cranium, which some of you might remember as a manufacturer of board games and it really revived the board game market.

So how did Richard get into the adjacent possible? I didn't ask him using those words, but he told me the story about how every day he would get out of his office to go to lunch, no matter what the weather was, and each day he would walk a different path. So it might be going just to the left around a tree rather than the right.

It might be circling the building of the deli, where he was going to have lunch, rather than going straight to the front door. It might be standing in the background of the room before you get in the line to order, rather than just getting in the queue and following along. But he would change just the slightest thing and for him that launched him into the adjacent possible. It really is a simple act, but a powerful idea. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It is a powerful idea and what you did with your first book, you made entrepreneurship more accessible in terms of what it takes for people to become entrepreneurs. In your second book, you made creativity accessible. We all have it, there are steps we can take, things we can do including stepping into that adjacent possible to tap into our creativity.

And then you decided to tackle leadership. Larry, not a single day goes by without me getting a dozen emails with someone that has written a book on leadership, some have something real to say, and many don't have much to say, but what got you this time to think about leadership and write on leadership?

Larry Robertson: 

Two things really stand out. You kindly referenced the first two books and also the way that I thought in creating those books, but what I was also inviting others to do, the way I was inviting them to think about entrepreneurship or creativity, and what you can see if you go back to the first book, The Deliberate Pause or the second one, The Language of Man, you can see references to leadership throughout, but it's not the emphasis.

So there was a part of me that said, I'll just oversimplify, even if you get this entrepreneurship thing down, even if you get this creativity thing down, ultimately, if you want to have impact, you've got to learn to lead as well. And not just lead in the traditional sense of my idea, my company, I'm at the top, I'm the leader, but lead in the sense of inviting others to think in an entrepreneurial way, inviting others to add their creativity to a project and their ideas. 

That's what I mean by leading here. So that was one of the motivations was to say, Rather than having leadership just be here and there in the background as it was more in the first two books, let's bring it out front. But the second thing was far more important, as you said there are lots of books. I mean, this is before we talk about articles and columns and papers and such on leadership. Very, very few of them are cast specifically in the context of the uncertain times in which we live.

So it doesn't mean there aren't articles written about how we need to lead in these uncertain times, but they tend to rely on old definitions of leadership and old ways of leading. And yet the kind of uncertainty we're going through is so dramatically different. And as you said, it's not COVID, it's not even just the last 2 years, it's the last 20. 

Where there's this, I call it the new abnormal, there's this pervasive uncertainty enough that it's hard to arrive at a normal and then feel confident that you're going to be able to stick with that, like have a status quo, build a model around it, do things the same way. Things are changing too much and too constantly for us to do that. So that means leadership has to change too. 

And so my question for the new book was what does leadership look like in uncertain times when it leads to thriving? Not just of that individual leader, but of the organization that they happen to be a part of. What does that look like? And so it was really those two things that drove me to write an entire book on leadership and to feel that it was worthy of creating another book on leadership because I didn't see one out there that focused on it the way I was focusing on it. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And I really appreciate the way you focus on the Rebel Leadership. You also highlight the way you define leadership, which is very different than the way we've traditionally looked at leadership or leaders. What is your definition of leadership, Larry?

Larry Robertson: 

So let's start with what's familiar to everybody and it's pretty simple. We're all taught to think of the leader as almost equivalent to leadership in total. So think of a large organization, just as one example, but it replicates in smaller organizations and professional sporting teams and so on, we are taught to think of the fact that there is some kind of chief by title at the very least.

But then we also look to that person and expect that the majority, if not the totality of all the ideas we need will come from that person ,that when there's a problem, that person will organize us and rally us and point us the right direction. And ultimately, there's an implication that they will rescue us or pull us to great heights or whatever it might be.

So you could think of it as the leader and a big equal sign in the word leadership. Leader = leadership which isn't true. Or you could think of it as this lens we're taught, even from the time we're little children in a classroom and we have a teacher up there in front who is telling us what to think. We think of the leader as heroic.

And the truth is that leadership is something quite different. It too, is this very human capacity. It's also this human leaning. People want to lead. They don't all want to be CEO, but they want to step up and believe one, that their ideas have value, two, that they can have impact, and three, that they can convey a certain level of mastery or expertise of whatever they're offering that is benefiting the collective.

And so I write about leaders as those people who create that environment where everybody can step up to lead. And I write about leadership as being something that's cultural and collective and most powerful when it is, because it really taps how we human beings have over tens of thousands of years, use that ability to survive as a collective. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

One of the challenges I have Larry, is that whether it is with the almost clickbait articles about heroic entrepreneurs, or even it's with the awards, a lot of the conversations we have are still around the heroic leader, glorifying an individual for how they lead their organization, either as an entrepreneur growing it or through the past couple of years of the pandemic. So how can we change the mindset around the kind of leadership that you talk about?

Larry Robertson: 

It's a really important question and the answer is a little bit different for everybody because it depends a lot on where you're starting when you go about changing that. And a lot of the ways we think about leaders and leadership are very entrenched in everything we do, I would refer to a lot of organizational cultures.

We've entrenched that hero as leader view, but you're rightfully expanding out to say well, even publicly we're creating these awards and we're bestowing them on people and we're in essence saying, this person is the best, they did this the best in this way. So we spend so much time on that and so little time talking about this broader sense of leadership and how you bring it out in everybody.

I think the siren call to change that at the very least are the uncertain times around us because frankly, forget uncertainty, work is so complex now. And with technology and with the reach we have globally and the work we do, whatever our work is we do, it's going to become more complex.

It's far too large for one, any person to fully understand at depth and two, for any one person to respond to and do something powerful with. So if we just look at what's happening around us, and again, uncertainty is this massive challenge, but if you just talk about the complexity of work, which got even more complex in the last 18 to 24 months, because now we're all going to have some hybrid version of how and where we work.

If you just look at the complexity of that, you can see that one person can't possibly have all the answers. So my hope is that that's a motivation to say, to ask your very question inside organizations, how can we start to think about leadership differently? How can we do it differently? And then to be honest, it's typically takes that senior person in the organization because org charts don't go away and positions and titles don't go away. 

But it takes that senior person in the organization in essence, saying I'm not a hero. And my job here is to create leaders across the board. If we can do that together, that is the heroic act. They don't have to use those words, but they have to create that setting where people feel safe, not just questioning what it means to be a leader and what leadership is, but frankly, releasing the thoughts they already have.

 I'll give you an example of why I say releasing the thoughts they already have. There was a survey done of leaders by McKinsey and Company just in July of 2021 and what they found surveying several thousand leaders and then I think it was double that number of employees was that 75% of leaders when they were asked about a post pandemic world and a return to the office and others, talked in terms of what McKinsey called a finish line. 

So it was as if they were talking like they had a crystal ball and we know exactly how we're going to come out of this pandemic and we know exactly what work will look like. And by the way, they were arguing that the model of work was not only known and imminent to start, but that it was going to last three years, five years and beyond.

And you look at the last 18 months and say, how is that possible? But here's the really striking thing, 75% of employees didn't buy that. They saw the world changing around them. They didn't believe that whoever their leadership was, not just one person but their entire leadership team. C-suite, whatever you want to call it.

They didn't buy that they had the answers or could know the future or could return to some kind of normal. And so we see this mass exodus of employees leaving by choice. So there's this disconnect here and I think that should be a wake up call to senior leaders to say huh, maybe I should try something different, including starting with my own people and engaging them in the conversation about how we need to lead together.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

There is a huge disconnect, Larry, and I see it with the clients that I have and even the organizations I interact with. One of the reasons in my view for that disconnect is that leaders incorrectly have still a paternalistic view to leadership, wanting to tell everyone things are going to be okay, things that are going to be good.

So in conversations with me, they don't necessarily feel that, but they think it's their obligation to tell their people that there is going to be a return to normalcy and I think that feeds into what you're talking about. That real disconnect that their people get it. 

The kids at the table, if the way your parents were dealing with you, you guys got it. And your parents treated you as adults that could get it. Now, the least leaders can do is to understand that their people get it and don't need to be reassured that it's all going to be okay three or six months from now.

Larry Robertson: You're absolutely right. And so there's an interesting twist on all of this, because another data point that's been out there every year for 20 years are these leadership surveys that are done by large professional service firms, the PWCs and the EYs and the Deloittes of the world.

And every time they do one of these surveys, even though each one takes a slightly different focus, they ask leaders about the environment in which they're having to do things. Here's the really important thing, those surveys tend to be confidential. Okay, the one I referred to the McKinsey one, was public. 

In confidence, the answer that these leaders are giving and have been for nearly 15 years now, when they describe the environment that they're having to contend with is a single word. They say it's unpredictable. And then they go down the line and they talk about hiring, they talk about how they're going to use just the technology they have. 

Let alone the technology that's on the horizon. Where revenues are going to come from. The whole span of it, they're not sure. So this is the irony here isn't it? Most leaders know that they don't know at all, most leaders know that they don't know exactly how to lead in these uncertain times.

It's only when they're asked to address us publicly, public meaning even just their teams, but if we're talking about stakeholders and things like that, it gets even more public. And so somehow, even though they're acknowledging that they don't know how to lead in this uncertainty, they then put back on the crown and try to answer as if they do.

So for me, it's a very interesting spotlight on a cultural phenomenon that we expect them to be heroic, they expect it of themselves, and we're all constantly reinforcing that either by giving an award or by highlighting the leader who says they've got it all figured out. Even when their troops are just shaking their heads behind them.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Their troops understand it. And again, the need for approaching leadership differently requires viewing things differently and behaving differently, not just talking about it differently. One of the challenges I see Larry, is that leaders have become well versed also in the language of leadership. 

Therefore, much of what the say is not necessarily aligned with the behaviors. So in talking about your key insights in Rebel Leadership. You use a word there that in all of the leadership books that I have read, I have never seen before. You talk about soul and why soul matters. What is soul and why does soul matter to Rebel Leadership?

Larry Robertson: 

Yeah, I knew what the word would be and no, it doesn't appear in most conversations about leadership or it really means something different than what I define it as. So let me define it first, think of soul as a form of your identity, knowing who you are, but in particular, your identity in the context of what you do and how what you do connects to and impacts others. 

So there are some of us when we talk about finding our sense of identity or even using that word, finding our soul. There's some of us who are going to dig in deep and do a lot of, if you will, soul searching and thinking about who they are. But even those folks, don't often do it in the context of what they do and how what they do impacts and connects to others.

And then there are a lot of the rest of us who say, I'm not that kind of person. I don't want to dig into the well of my heart and my soul and figure out who I am. And that's not what we're talking about here. We're talking about awareness. So we're talking about awareness of your identity in general, and then how that connects to your actions, to the people you surround yourself with, to the people that you serve.

And so just having a sense of that turns out to be what all the hundreds of people that I've interviewed in all of these spaces, in entrepreneurship and creativity and in successful leadership and uncertain times, they use the word soul, they call that their most reliable asset. And when they say that, they don't mean just individually.

What they're saying is when they have a sense of their own soul in the context of the work that they do with others, they have something to bring to the decisions, to the actions, to the connections that they make with those other people that guides them. So what their identity is, what their soul is isn't going to be a perfect match with everybody they work with, but it's that compass, it's having that rudder to steer through the conversations and the connections you have with others that is the difference maker for them. 

And they say, especially in uncertain times, it's the most reliable asset that they have because most of the things we deal with day to day as leaders at whatever level are ambiguous at best these days and fluid, they're changing all the time. So what kinds of things can you rely on and invest in? One of them is certainly soul. And when you hear leaders and entrepreneurs calling that out themselves, I think it's worth paying attention to.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And you mentioned that soul is not the same thing as purpose. You need to have that self-awareness and soul in order to be able to then tap into your purpose. One of the challenges that I see Larry, is that the more success many of us have, and in many instances, the higher up people move in the hierarchy of traditional organizations, the lower the self-awareness becomes for a whole host of reasons.

So what have you seen with respect to leadership practices where leaders are able to increase that self-awareness, that runs counter to the kind of feedback we end up getting from the world around us with greater success and greater achievement? 

Larry Robertson: 

It really boils down to one simple thing, you build it into your culture. So if you have this awareness yourself of who you are and what you do, you bring that to a group and let me backup. In the best cases, a group together creates their own shared purpose and then they put it to work. And so as you search for purpose as a group, whether you do it formally or informally, every individual who's creating that shared purpose together, they're referencing back to their own identity, to their own soul. 

They're not necessarily using that to define what the group's shared purpose will be, but they're using it to decide how they can influence what that shared purpose is, how they can bring themselves to fulfilling it, and how they will check themselves as they continue to pursue that shared purpose with others. So when you make that cultural, when you ...gosh, I hate to use this word, but I can't think of a better one right now, when you weaponize shared purpose, you turn it into a tool of decision-making, a filter. 

It's there in every decision, every action by every person every day. First of all, not only are you tapping the collective ability of the group, but you're keeping each other honest. So the leader that is already self-aware, who helps to create this environment, if they actually embed that self-awareness and that sense of the importance of growth in the culture, it's going to come back to them too and it's probably not going to come back when it's too late, it's going to come back all the way along the way. 

And it's probably not going to come back in this one declaration of you have suddenly become a horrible leader. It's going to be in little decisions. It's going to be in word choice. It's going to be in how people are rewarded. It's going to be in who we decide to hire. It's going to be in who we choose to make our customers. It's going to be there in everything. So if you are forced to have this awareness by yourself, but also by those around you, I don't think you slip out of self-awareness as easily.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And it is one of those things that I find as you said it, that when that purpose is used consistently in all aspects of the way the leader leads, all aspects of how the organization operates, that is what makes it truly powerful. And you mentioned repeatedly that it needs to be part of the culture. One of the principles you talk about, you say, if the culture is stupid, so how do you define culture? 

Because that's another one of those words, Larry, that within the leadership circles, everyone talks about culture, culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch, dinner, so on and so forth. That said, still, vast majority of the organizations that I see and with employee conversations, they don't get a sense that leaders are in tune with the right organizational culture. So how do you define culture?

Larry Robertson: 

My definition is going to come from those who are actually making culture their chief competitive advantage. So it's not just that they say culture is important. It's not even that they pursue that, pursue the importance. They see it as the one thing that no matter what the circumstances are, gives them an edge. So it gives them an edge in adapting, it gives them an edge in dealing with uncertainty and in innovation and everything else.

 When I asked the people I interviewed for Rebel Leadership , what is culture? I asked those organizations who really are doing this well. And by the way, nobody does this perfectly. Culture is hard work. It may eat strategy for breakfast, but only if you put in the hard work to make it this powerful, competitive advantage. So one of the people I spoke to was Russell Shaffer, who is a senior executive in diversity, equity and inclusion for Walmart. And what he said was really simple. He said, culture is who we are and what we do right now, not who we were, not who we aspire to be even tomorrow, but a litmus test for every decision, every action by every person, every single day.

And you take that, just that simple definition of culture and you use it as a mirror back on any organization that talks about culture as important and I will guarantee you that in the majority of cases, at least right now, what we say about culture and why it's important is not neared as in that litmus test of everything we're doing.

So it's not to say a shame on you. It's to say we're not pursuing culture in the way that actually makes it valuable and powerful. The other thing I would add to how I define culture came from Melissa Thomas-Hunt who plays similar role to Russell at Walmart, she's at Airbnb. And Melissa built on Russell's definition. She didn't know she was building on it, but she took that simple thing of saying it's the litmus test for right now and said that seeps down into the smallest parts.

It's there in what language is honored and validated and encouraged. It's there in what's taboo. It's there in how we reward, it's there and how we hire, it's in every single part of the organization, working every single day as that litmus test, that's when it works and that's when it truly becomes powerful. So I define it as they do, as who we are and what we do right now, not then, not in the future, not past, but right in this moment.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And that's beautifully said in that it is not aspirational. It is how we are and how we prioritize at this point in time. You also already addressed some elements of it Larry, I would like to touch a little bit more on collective leadership because it is one of those things that many of the leaders I interact with have a hard time with it. They intuitively understand the need for it. 

However, they feel that the limitations, whether it is within the organization, within the expectations of the people, keep the team and the organization from operating with leadership as a collective, rather than looking for an individual for an answer. What might be some examples that you have seen on leaders that can create the kind of environment which encourages collective leadership?

Larry Robertson: 

So there are three things that make a huge difference. Let's take it at that high level and then I'll give you something very specific that leaders can do. So at the highest level, especially when you're talking about either an environment that you want or need to be innovative in, or an environment that is complex and changing enough that you need to be able to be adaptable all the time.

And that's what we're talking about here for every organization right now and for the foreseeable future. In that environment, there are three things that allow for that kind of adaptation and innovation ongoing across a team. The first is the recognition that the creation of any solution, any innovation, any anything that moves us forward is always a co-creation.

So a lot of leaders will have a special team or special teams that one team that problem solves, another team, often we picture of engineers, software engineers or engineers of any form creating over here and then they bring the creation back to the rest of the organization. This co-creation is this idea that things actually get solved, are innovated, are built across a team. 

And so if you think about it that way, and you start by looking to adapt or innovate or whatever it might be as a team, you're more likely to do it more successfully and more often. So co-creation is one thing. The second one comes all the way back to my dinner table as a kid, inquiry as part of the culture.

And so when in these organizations that are thriving in uncertain times, they allow the questions to come, they encourage the questions, then I'm going to come back to a very specific exercise in a moment that shows that. And the third thing is diversity, so co-creation, inquiry, and diversity and bring it to a higher level.

What we're talking about is diversity of thought, diversity of experience, diversity of background. Does that tap into the other definitions of diversity we get to all the time and focus on most? Absolutely, but at the end of the day, what we're looking for as an organization is this diversity in thinking and in experience and background, and allowing that to come to the table knowing that sometimes there will be conflict.

But overall, out of it is where the adaptation comes. So let's go back to the inquiry piece. There was a woman I met in writing my second book, which was focused on creativity and she was one of nearly 70 MacArthur fellows that I interviewed. So the MacArthur fellows, for those in your audience who don't know it are the ones who are awarded this amazing grant for creativity and it's bestowed on them.

They don't get to apply. They come from all manner of sectors and parts of the human landscape. Deb Meier is an education reformer, and that means she helps troubled schools, she helps build new school models and things like that. And she has a practice she uses for adaptation and creativity that just so happens to involve inquiry and this is something that any individual leader can use, any leadership team can use, any organization can use. 

She calls it the five habits of the mind and the five habits or five questions. So I'll go through them really quickly and then I'll tell you why they're powerful and what they can't be. So the first question is how do we know what we know? And think about that, it is an invitation to check in on your assumption. Are the old ones still valid? Are there new ones that should be considered? Does the deck need to be reshuffled in a different way? How do we know what we know? 

The second habit of the mind is the question is there a pattern? Because when our assumptions shift and new data comes in, there are always anomalies, right? But we're looking for the patterns because those are usually clues to either a challenge on the horizon or an opportunity. After we ask, how do we know what we know? And is there a pattern? Deb says there's always some form of the question "what if" that comes up. 

What if we dealt with that challenge this way? What if we pursued this innovation? And so on. The fourth habit of the mind is is there another way? And it's really a way to say repeat the first three questions because there's always another way. I like to refer to the fourth habit of the mind as keeping people from falling in love with their ideas so much that they don't continue to evolve and adapt with time.

And then the fifth and most important habit of the mind is who cares? Because if nobody cares about all this great thinking and innovating and adapting you're doing, it really doesn't matter. So these five habits are something that she incorporates into every day. Every team meeting, every onboarding of every new employee, asking them the questions for the first time. 

They become part of the ethos and part of the culture as long as they remain questions because what Deb says most leaders and leadership teams try to do is to answer those questions once or occasionally and turn them into statements. This is what we know. This is the pattern. This is how we're going to do it rather than leaving the questions open. 

So if you think about those habits of the mind, it's a really powerful tool for any individual leader to play around with even on their own. If they're nervous about this idea of sharing the lead and allowing collective leadership, play with the questions yourself, if you want to see how it works with just the people who report directly to you, try it. 

Try it in a meeting, try it on a particular challenge or problem. Try it once to see how powerful it can be in total. And if you actually adopt it as a culture, you can see how it can transform a culture into something that we all hope cultures will be.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I loved the questions Larry, because as you say, it's a great way to have a conversation with a broader group. It's also a great mindset for us individually, as we are thinking through solutions. So I love the framework and love the set of questions. Now, you say the long view matters, but it matters right now. 

Larry Robertson: 

So it's interesting because for those who have not seen the book, there are five core chapters to it and we've tapped on several of them, and they're phrased as people talk about these things that have been important to leadership thriving in uncertain times, so they reflect both the language and the patterns across organizations that have been doing that over the past 20 years.

And the first among them is that soul matters most. The second is that leadership moves. It's this idea of sharing leadership. The third is it's the culture stupid, that's the key thing that actually makes you most competitive and most adaptable. There's another concept in there about a power source and how that really is your true source of power.

And then there's this fifth and final one, which is the long view matters, which most of us know. We have mission statements, we set goals when we found companies. Even as leaders moving up a ladder or aspiring to start an organization of our own, we're thinking long-term sort of, but the long view matters most right now.

So it's this idea of rather than hanging someday on a wall out there, framing your mission statement and putting it in the lobby and never looking at it again, it's this idea of how can you bring it into this moment? And organizations that are thriving in uncertain times are using this very much like the cultural question or the shared purpose tool. They're taking the long view, the thing they want to reach, the thing they aspire to and saying, great, how does that fit into this decision today? 

And they're actually using it as a litmus test to say, anything that I can't see a clean connection, not six degrees, but at most one or two degrees from what I'm doing right now may not be the most important thing I need to be doing right now. Or if it's important, is it just a fire that I'm fighting today or is it something that's actually contributing where I'm trying to go? 

Ultimately that is what leadership boils down to, you create this environment where people move along a continuum to this place that they want to arrive at, where they aspire. That's the long view, why not build it into every step? And it turns out that leaders and organizations that are thriving in uncertain times, do. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And it is one of those things that I find, it takes those statements from statements that are up on the wall or statements that are on laminated cards and brings it to the reality of the daily operation of the organization. And one of the things I would love to get your perspective on Larry, is that with all the different uncertainties, another level of uncertainty has been the way people are working with each other and will be working with each other, into the foreseeable future.

Everything from there is going to be a version of hybrid or people will be working primarily remotely, sometimes getting together for socializing. Would love to know what's your perspective of the future of work and what do leaders need to do to remain agile and be able to lead their teams as they discover that future of work? 

Larry Robertson: 

It's interesting, some of my beliefs in my answers to your question lineup with a study that Microsoft in combination with LinkedIn did in the spring of this last year, where they asked those very questions about the return to work and the hybrid environment that's coming in and really, the truth is all of us will live and lead and work in some form of a hybrid environment. 

What the combinations look like, not only are going to be different across the spectrum for organizations, but they're going to change with time. So what Microsoft and LinkedIn highlighted in the survey that I thought was most powerful is rather than figuring out what that exact combination is going to look like or implying that there's one answer for everybody, what should we be watching? 

What reality should we be accepting? And among them were things we've already talked about. The world is going to remain uncertain and abnormal and the longer we deny that, the tougher it is to figure out how to come to work, no matter what form that is. The second thing they found, this isn't just in my research and findings, but they also found that disproportionately leaders are out of touch with their employees. 

Even just taking a different approach to an uncertain environment, they're not working in concert or in sync with their employees and that's got to change. The third thing is that people are stretched right now. So as we try to come up with whatever our new version of work is and by the way, we're going to repeat that cycle over and over at least for the next 12 to 24 months and probably much longer than that. 

So as we do that, think about the kind of demands we're putting on ourselves, but also on those we work with and how that adds on top of the demands they already have on them. The level at which we've had to stretch to be productive in the last 18 months is tiring. The noise about all the pressures on us is tiring. So whatever you do next is building on top of that and you don't want to out tap your resources. 

So for me, it's accepting those realities and looking at some of those things that are there in the environment. And then instead of saying, what's our perfect answer? What's the perfect model going forward? It's saying, what things are going to be lasting that we can focus on right now that we can use as guides going forward? Shared purpose, individually soul, how we build our culture and what we want it to look like, bringing that long view in. 

Those are the kinds of things that are unlikely to change even as they're applied differently as the environment shifts, and I think that matters most to the future of work is knowing those things. We can keep skipping over them, but they're not going away and we're never going to tap their power unless we make them central and part of our focus.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And it really takes a different leadership mindset. A big part of what you talk about throughout your writing and your book is that this is a different mindset. And I think that return to a future of work requires the same leadership mindset that you talk about in Rebel Leadership. 

And I would love to know also Larry, are there any other leadership books that you find yourself recommending or leadership practices that when leaders you've interviewed, hundreds of great entrepreneurs, MacArthur fellow recipients, so are there any leadership resources or practices you find yourself typically recommending?

Larry Robertson: 

There are two things that are a blend of what you just asked. So one, happens to be this super powerful resource that goes back to the, you know what I said that curiosity was a theme in my upbringing and it really has come into how I think about entrepreneurship, creativity, leadership, and all that. It was here in our conversation today.

There is a wonderful radio show that is produced here locally, even though it's heard nationally, it's called Choose to be Curious. And a local leader who has been a leader in many ways, Lynn Borton is the host and the creator of this show. The range of people she talks to, the areas that she explores in do two powerful things for anybody who listens even to a single episode, they take you out of a lot of what we've been talking about right now.

They bring you out of your day-to-day challenges and just let you gain a different perspective. Her show is like a step into the adjacent possible, and she's done all the work for you. All you have to do is listen and absorb. But the second thing is that it's such a broad range of people that she's talking to and so many different ways she's coming at the topic of curiosity. 

It can't help but shake up your thinking no matter what you do, no matter where you do it. So I think that Lynn's show Choose to be Curious is a tremendous resource. And the second resource I always point to is read broadly. Don't just read one genre of book, don't just read one author, one form of book - don't just read books, read broadly. Reading is such an untapped tool for everybody who has the luxury and the ability to be literate. Use it. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I couldn't agree with you more, Larry. And one of the most frustrating things that I sometimes hear from some of the leaders I interact with in the business community and otherwise is when they say, you know what? I'm so busy, I really don't have time to read. And part of what being able to lead requires through uncertainty is for us to learn, unlearn, relearn.

And through reading, listening, there are so many different ways, watching videos, there's so many different ways of tapping into brilliant insights and content. So how can the audience find out more about some of your great work and writing, Larry?

Larry Robertson: 

Thank you, that's very kind of you to say. And I agree with that sentiment in general, about how we should learn. The best place to learn the most about me is my website. It begins with my initials, L R, LRSpeaks.com, and there you can learn about my books, the columns I write, public speaking, my advisory work, a little bit of everything. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I love everything that you write because it's one of those things that has enabled me to take a step into the adjacent possible, especially with respect to leadership, Larry, because you're one of those people that asks the right questions to the right people and then synthesizes that information so it becomes accessible even for people like me, so I truly appreciate you joining this conversation, Larry Robertson.

Larry Robertson: 

Thank you so much, first of all, for saying that, and I just want to point it back at you, your show and the people you bring to it, your skills as an interviewer, allow people to learn so much, so quickly and so frequently and so I'm very pleased and humbled to be a part of it. Thanks for having me. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Thank you, Larry.

You've been listening to Partnering Leadership with your host Mahan Tavakoli. For additional leadership insights and bonus content, visit us at PartneringLeadership.com.