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3 keys to leading like an iconoclast

Iconoclast: A person who attacks settled beliefs or institutions

Iconoclasts are powerful change-agents. Not content to simply align with the status quo, they’re the people who are willing to challenge deeply-held beliefs about how things “should” be. They are those who aren’t afraid to reimagine existing ideas, processes and products in the name of innovation—even if it means ruffling a few feathers.

These non-conformists are responsible for some of the greatest product and process innovations in history, but they’re a rare breed. The corporate world makes it difficult for iconoclasts to truly spread their wings and reach their full potential, thanks to its love of what feels safe and familiar.

As leaders, we’re often more fearful than we should be. We claim to want groundbreaking innovation that upends things, but not those things. We want innovation to be neatly presented in a board-friendly package that will somehow defy boundaries and stay reassuringly inside preconceived limits of what we can and can’t do. 

In short, we’re too attached to our existing ideas and perceptions, and they color the lens through which we see iconoclasts’ ideas, which might mean we reject them before we even properly understand their merits. Not to mention that we reject our own “inner iconoclast” because we don’t know how to access it, or maybe because we’re too afraid to step into it properly. 

If you want to change that—to break free from limiting beliefs that are holding you and your organization back, nurture your own inner iconoclast and enjoy increased creativity and out-of-the-box thinking—here are the three key steps you need to take.

To go beyond, find out where you are.

When it comes to technology skills, we’re firm believers in knowing where you are right now so you can start moving toward where you want to go. But when it comes to revolutionary thinking, no amount of assessments can help you figure out where you’re at. It’s more of a qualitative exercise that requires a bit more work. 

Understanding what limiting beliefs are holding you back requires attention—to your thoughts, your reactions to various ideas and situations and your habits. To unleash your inner iconoclast, you’ll need to develop increased self-awareness. That’s where mindfulness meditation can come in. 

Devoting time to observing our thoughts gives us a better understanding of the kinds of beliefs, fears and desires that typically “run the show” for us, and helps us uncover unhelpful thoughts and patterns. 

Spending even 10 minutes a day focusing on your breath and bringing your attention back to your breath every time you (inevitably) get distracted by thoughts is a fascinating exercise that reveals a lot about your mind. Not only can it help you learn more about yourself and how you operate, it can also help you become more present and open-minded. And presence and open-mindedness are two hallmarks of iconoclasts.

Most people spend their lives largely unaware of their own conditioning—the ways their life experiences have influenced their thought patterns, habits and more. They don’t tap into the massive wealth of “iconoclast potential” that lurks underneath their current perceived reality, often because they don’t even know it’s there. It’s there, and you can bring it to light in your work and your life.

Understand that progress isn’t always linear.

If you’ve spent a lifetime being fully identified with whatever’s going on in your mind, change won’t be an overnight process. It takes time to start really getting familiar with your mind and “rewire” how it operates. Being able to recognize common limiting beliefs and replace them with more productive, iconoclastic beliefs is key. For example:

Instead of: “We can’t do [idea you’re really passionate about] because the board won’t go for it.”

Try: “This idea is great. I’m excited to try and convey its merits to the board and share my belief in its potential.”

And if you give it your all and the board still doesn’t go for it?

Instead of: “It was stupid of me to think [idea you’re really passionate about] was a good idea. Now the board is skeptical of my abilities. I’m going to play it safe in future.”

Try: “It’s unfortunate that the board didn’t see the merits and potential of that idea, but I did, so I’m glad I fought for it. Board members aren’t always receptive to new ideas, but that’s not a reason to avoid pursuing them altogether. Just because we aren’t moving forward with this idea right now doesn’t mean I won’t have other great ideas in future that the board will like.”

Mindset shifts like this open up a whole new world of possibilities, as they release your mind from some of the constraints you previously put on it because of unhelpful beliefs. Allowing yourself to play it less “safe” can be hard at first, but it’s worth it. Remember: some of the greatest iconoclasts have had their ideas rejected, but it didn’t stop them from pursuing what they were passionate about and achieving incredible things. 

An obvious example is Steve Jobs, who upended the entire digital landscape multiple times. Even after showing immense success in the early days of Apple computers, Jobs was ousted by his board, only to be reinstated after the company slumped through the tenure of two highly credentialed successors. Apple was lost without him because his vision and success was not dictated by quarterly results; it was fueled by how he could change the world.

Give yourself permission to “fail”.

So many good ideas lie unearthed within us because we’re afraid of failure. In return, we unknowingly hinder our creative problem-solving abilities in our attempts to contain them.

We need to rethink the concept of “failure”. Having an idea that doesn’t pan out how you hoped it would doesn’t necessarily mean you failed; it means you tried something new that didn’t work out this time. While that can be a tough pill to swallow in the moment, it’s important to remember that a certain percentage of (even really good) ideas won’t pan out how we hope, but that’s not a reason to ignore them. Risk assessment can be really valuable up to a certain point, but being willing to take risks is essential if we’re going to have great ideas that do pan out—better than we even expected them to. 

Someone who truly grasps this idea is Jeff Bezos. Since he founded Amazon in 1994, the company has launched plenty of products and services that have completely failed, but Bezos continues undeterred, pushing boundaries in every direction. He and his team keep searching because they know the next big thing is not the standard approaches that board members will easily approve. He’s proven that the future of what people need and want is undefined until someone shows it to them. When Bezos started his online bookstore people advised him to sell to Barnes and Noble because he had no chance to compete with them. When Amazon Web Services (AWS) launched 13 years ago, it was panned by critics as a risky move. Now it powers major swaths of today’s digital economy and has become a multi-billion dollar revenue stream for them.   

No truly creative thinker will be on-the-money 100% of the time, and trying to be will only hold you back. The key to expanding your mind and ability to innovate is embracing possibility, not perfection.