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This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

How do organizations transform?

What does "transformation" actually mean?

How do I make that happen in my organization?

The answers to each of these questions are surprisingly similar. They have more to do with what's going on inside the leader's brain than what is going on inside the organization.

Neuroscience is showing that the adult brain is plastic, pliable, capable of refashioning itself [the premise of psychiatrist Norman Doidge's book, The Brain that Changes Itself]. But most of us typically only associate this trait with cases of traumatic brain injury and its effects on physical function.

For leaders, the less dramatic but much more common trauma is the rigidification of ways of thinking and acting. The same patterns you recognized as desirable in the marketplace and that made you successful have become imprinted on the wall of your mind. They create an internal "Groundhog Day," that you – and your organization – get to relive day in and out, having the same meetings, tackling the same challenges.

This can lead to getting trapped in "the deep grooves of success," or worse, "the hardened shackles of mediocrity." Creative approaches to problems – and the future – become harder to conceive. The corporate scrap heap is littered with examples like Nortel and RIM – organizations whose success sowed the seeds of non-adaptation to changing circumstances that likely led to their demise.

Organizations typically respond to performance challenges by bringing in new and different leaders. But more effective and less disruptive transformation happens when there is a change in the way of thinking and being among the leaders who are already there. Leaders who regularly re-fashion their thinking can in turn model this change in approach for others, preparing the ground for organizational transformation and the next phase of collective success.

The process of stepping back from the daily tyranny of the urgent to reflect more deeply has been described by leadership researcher Ron Heifetz as "the balcony and the dance." Our day-to-day work is focused only on the dance. We react to the daily and quarterly crises. We respond quickly as we have before. We get the same results, but we get through. Climb up to the balcony however, and we get a new perspective of that same dance floor and the patterns that were impossible to see from below. We shift from reacting to the situation to creating the future.

Renewal work gets us up onto our balcony. It puts us into a position where we can reflect not only on the dance floor but on ourselves, as leaders, as individuals and how the two are intertwined. Having an accurate sense of self demands the capacity to step away from yourself and practice meta-cognition – the ability to think about your own thinking. Researcher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, among others, has shown that practising mindfulness can help us to do this by giving us control over our brain's function, rather than being stuck in a stimulus-habitual response cycle. Positioned this way, we can ask ourselves important questions that can help us discover the purpose of our work, revitalize our sense of self and bring a refreshed perspective to our leadership.

Consider the story of someone we'll call "Bob." Bob had done a wonderful job leading a national firm. But when he was diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer, he came to realize three things. First, the all-consuming nature of his leadership lifestyle contributed to the cancer's spread – he ignored the early warning signs, attributing them to the non-sustainable lifestyle he and most of those around him tried to maintain. Second, once his treatment was under way, he realized its success depended as much on him taking responsibility for his illness and treatment as it did on his doctors' skills.

When his cancer finally went into remission, Bob recognized the whole thing would have been meaningless if he chose to return to the life and leadership style he had carried on before. Yet instead of stepping back entirely, which would have been understandable, he took the more transformational path of maintaining the same role and responsibilities he had had previously, but completely changing the way he led himself and his organization. Non-sustainable lifestyles became unacceptable. The old way of leading became not just old, but unthinkable. Bob's success and that of his organization increased. The organization's renewal spread to its clients' organizations and to individual members of those organizations, some of whom found the seeds of their own renewal in Bob's story.

The fruits of renewal are infectious. Personal transformation can move successful change through the organization where other approaches might have ended in failure. Fortunately, it's not necessary to wait for a life-threatening experience like Bob's to make it happen. We can treat regular leadership renewal like any other strategic investment, one that ensures long-term, sustainable performance by transforming the way organizations look at what is – and what is possible.

Scott Rutherford is an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and the Executive Director of its Leadership Development Lab. He also serves as the Academic Director of Rotman's Leadership Renewal Retreat being offered from June 12-14, 2016. For more information visit:

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