Great leaders have the honesty and humility to put up their hands and say to their people: “I don’t know.”

This means they are open to options and looking for moments to change gears so they can take advantage of opportunities that come along with fresh information. They are dynamic, fluid and agile.

In a recent podcast with the Institute of Leadership & Management’s CEO John Mark Williams, I used the analogy of a piano keyboard to illustrate this mindset.

Some leaders have a core preference for the quantitative end of the keyboard: anything to do with the bottom line. Others will be more drawn to the qualitative end, and hunch over the notes linked to so-called ‘soft skills’ – actually very hard to master – such as compassion and empathy.

Each approach may work well some of the time. But the risk is that, even at your nimblest, you’ll just be playing Chopsticks on one end of the keyboard. The most dexterous leaders know how to play all over the piano, and are able to pivot between different moods and styles when the moment suits. I call this ‘zero-state thinking’.

Sticking to just one end of the keyboard can lead to some shrill or discordant playing. But ranging around it will produce melody.

When the pandemic hit, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern struck some very different notes to other world leaders. In rejecting a top-down approach, she was humble enough to say that she didn’t know any more about the virus than her own citizens – but promised to keep them informed as new facts emerged.

In the meantime, though, it was clear that the virus transmitted very quickly. So, she asked for Kiwis’ help to tough it out through a shutdown that may have seemed harsh at first, but was absolutely necessary.

That showed a good ear for melody.

. Listen to the full podcast with the Institute’s CEO John Mark Williams.

Voices from our community: Dr Pippa Malmgren is an economic analyst, co-author of The Infinite Leader and former special assistant to US President George W Bush.

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