As an executive coach, I get asked the question, "Can I think bigger and bolder?" The answer is, "yes you can," but not without deliberate practice. It's like being right-handed or left-handed. Most people hardly consider it and rarely see a reason to change their dexterity.
Using our left-hand, right-hand analogy — roughly 13% of major league baseball players are switch hitters. Their batting averages are markedly different when they go from their dominant side to the less dominant side.
The exception is Chipper Jones who played 19 years with the Atlanta Braves. A rarity amongst switch hitters, Jones posted a batting average of .303 left-handed and .304 batting average from the right side. Contrast that with the all-time great Mickey Mantle who posted a .330 batting average from his right side and a less than stellar .280 batting average from the left side. However, his power came from his left side and as a result, he claimed the crown of best all-time switch hitter because he hit an insane 369 home runs from the left side. Bear in mind that roughly 76% of active players stick with their dominant side.
This is considered good. So what does this have to do with thinking bigger and bolder? If you use the same stats, 76% of the people I coach have a batting average of .300. To bat .300 in the majors, using your dominant side you need to learn how to hit a fastball, curveball, slider, sinker, knuckleball, etc.¹
It’s the same in business. Most good leaders have learned to deal with ambiguity and complexity. They are good critical thinkers … to hit the fastball, curveball, knuckleball, slider, etc. These leaders have developed that muscle memory to solve these business problems.
But what if a complex problem doesn’t go away, or worse, resurfaces after it was thought to be solved? Why do baseball players become switch hitters? The short answer is they’re striving to change, improve, and become better than 76% of their peers.
In business, when we move from just solving problems to more expansive thinking, we too want to become better than 76% of our peers and increase our opportunity to create better outcomes. Like the switch hitter in baseball, we are more agile. It doesn’t matter if the pitcher is right or left-handed, the batter can switch it up and create a better outcome. It’s the same for leaders in business. You can be an agile² leader if you close the gap between “fixed” thinking, which is “I’m committed to being right,” and “expansive” thinking, which equals “I’m committed to learning.”
However, much like in baseball, it requires deliberate practice. Switch hitters are rare in baseball because it takes work. Most baseball coaches agree that it’s easier to learn when you're young. Some say as early as five years of age. So unless you believe in natural-born switch hitters/leaders, which I don’t, then I would say you can learn to be a switch hitter and you can learn to be an agile leader.
Most people assume that learning happens when we’re developing into adults, at school, and at university. This was a commonly held belief. The idea that our brains can constantly learn, what scientists now call neuroplasticity, was first advanced by William James in 1890³. Even then, it wasn’t widely accepted until the 1960s⁴.
Now onto the technical stuff. Up until the 1960s, researchers believed that changes in the brain could only take place during infancy and childhood. By early adulthood, it was believed the brain's physical structure was mostly permanent. However, modern research has demonstrated that the brain continues to create new neural pathways and alter existing ones in order to adapt to new experiences, learn new information, and create new memories. Brain plasticity, also known as neuroplasticity, is a term that refers to the brain's ability to change and adapt as a result of experience. While plasticity occurs throughout the lifetime, certain types of changes are more predominant during specific life stages. The brain tends to change a great deal during the early years of life, for example, as the immature brain grows and organizes itself. Generally, young brains tend to be more sensitive and responsive to experiences than much older brains⁵.
We all think differently and we all have a distinct thinking pattern made up of four elements: Vision, Courage, Ethics, and Reality. Expanding your Thinking Pattern℠ can help you explore ideas, collaborate across silos, take action, and plan better. When we are “fixed” in our thinking we tend to rely on only two elements of our thinking pattern. Much like relying on your dominant hand. When we allow ourselves to be more “expansive” in our thinking we take advantage of the other two, giving ourselves the mental dexterity to think differently. For example, if I am a big thinker, focused only on my idea, I may have the tendency to exclude the thoughts of others. Keeping with this example, I may ignore the evidence or ignore the planning stage that would bring my idea to fruition. When we consciously move to the other less used areas of our thinking pattern we not only allow ourselves to be more “expansive,” we are also developing a skill. We are practicing. With continued practice, we narrow the gap between “fixed” thinking and “expansive” thinking. We begin to build our leadership muscle and practice being an agile leader. Now we’re beginning to hit the curveballs of business.
¹ Simon, Andrew. “Here’s the Greatest Switch-Hitting Lineup of All Time.” MLB.Com.
² Verizon: How Do We Organize for Change
³ The Principles of Psychology (1890), James, William, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-70625-0
⁴ Cherry, Kendra. “How Our Brain Neurons Can Change Over Time From Life’s Experience.” Verywell Mind.
⁵ Cherry, Kendra, How Experience Changes Brain Plasticity. Verywell Mind.