The Four Pivotal Capabilities of Higher Level Leadership

Jan 24, 2019

By Kerry Bunker, Ph.D., Art Gechman, Ph.D., and Jim Rush, Ph.D.

To succeed in today’s volatile and uncertain world, leaders need to be agile, adaptable, and able to learn from experience. We have found that cultivating the following four pivotal qualities can help any executive build a strong, long-lasting foundation for leadership.

1. Vigilance
To see the nuances and extract more learning from our experiences, we must be more present in the moment; more alert to subtle differences, distinctions, and novelties, and more tuned in to small shifts in context. Mindfulness and focus on the present moment—of both external surroundings and internal emotions— actually increases productivity. It helps us to see more opportunities and to avert dangers that don’t yet exist. It is what Buddhist monks call the beginner’s mind or the capacity to step back from the tried and true, start over, and cultivate new perspectives. Sherlock Holmes was a master of this simple art of noticing, and while we may never reach his level of observation, we can all become more keenly aware by learning to scan our environment with increased diligence and vigilance.

2. Pattern Recognition
Once we have become more vigilant, we need to focus on making better sense of what we are seeing. This is what psychologists call pattern recognition, and it’s a skill that effective problem solvers use all the time. It isn’t just finding connections between seemingly unrelated dots—it’s also identifying the relevant dots by explicating our assumptions, suspending judgment, and not jumping to conclusions. In short, we’re not just completing a puzzle; we also need to make certain we are attending to the right pieces of the puzzle. 

Our powerful brains always strive to make connections based on how we define our experiences. In fact, learning new skills causes physical changes in our brains. When we think about changing a tried and true approach to something outside our comfort zone, we trigger access to lessons from prior experiences—some positive and some, not so much. The more we have extracted from prior events through our vigilance capability, the more connections the brain is able to make. For leaders, superior pattern recognition is perhaps the greatest competitive advantage that can be developed. A reflective capacity to leverage the richness and diversity of stored experiences enhances pattern recognition.

3. Mental Rehearsal
Using vigilance and pattern recognition, you now have a catalogue of experiences, connections, and patterns. We used to think that we only gain new skills through practice or direct experience. However, neuroscience has validated what our intuition suggests: we can also gain skills through observation and rehearsal. You can be ready to pull an on-target response from these connections—one that will allow you to thoughtfully complete your mental rehearsal prior to seizing the moment. And even prior to these neuroscience discoveries, many people found deliberate reflection, visualization, self-talk, and meditation useful in quieting the mind and mentally preparing for tough challenges.  Even very intelligent people have difficulty learning outside their comfort zone. Mental rehearsal reduces the chances of floundering and failure.

4. Response Readiness
With your mental rehearsal complete, the next task is to build this kind of response readiness for diverse challenges not previously seen. Response readiness allows you to reduce reaction time and improve quality just as it does in an emergency or natural disaster. You have used vigilance to enlarge your mindset, pattern recognition to enhance your skill in uncovering new connections (and the complexity of your brain), and mental rehearsal to get prepared for the softer or more adaptive challenges. Having taken these steps, you have built a storehouse or response readiness.

Of course, operating outside your comfort zone and acting decisively requires a disciplined, deliberate, and systematic development process. Learning from experience doesn’t just happen by osmosis.

A famous story about Shell comes to mind when discussing the importance of response readiness. Shell had incorporated scenario planning into its business process, taking probable and improbable events, creating a scenario around them, and then asking themselves, “what if?” When the oil embargo of 1973 hit, Shell executives quickly recognized the implications of the situation—as did their competitors. But because of their rehearsal processes and their response readiness, they acted more quickly. They bought crude on the spot market and secured a supply that other oil companies did not have.

Concluding Thoughts
With just these four capabilities as a foundation, leaders can extract more benefit from challenging and developmental assignments, no matter how big and audacious the task. Each challenge becomes a learning opportunity, another opportunity to build your skills and launch yourself to a new level of leadership.

About the Author(s)

Kerry Bunker, Ph.D., Art Gechman, Ph.D., and Jim Rush, Ph.D. Kerry Bunker, Ph.D., is a former senior fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership. He is a leading researcher on learning how to learn, author of two books, 40 publications and the popular Harvard Business Review article "The Young and the Clueless."

Art Gechman, Ph.D., is a former C-suite executive for a Fortune World 50 U.S. subsidiary and a senior consultant at three leading consulting firms.

Jim Rush, Ph.D., was the Chief Learning Officer for Marsh, Inc., and the Bank of Montreal and a professor at the Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario. He is an expert on strategic and organizational transformation.

To contact the authors, visit or email [email protected].