To Drive Peak Performance, Shift Mental Models

The first time I hired a team of employees I had a recurring dream that lasted for months. I dreamed my team and I were walking across sand dunes and deep into the desert. At first it was all sunshine and fun. Then we ran out of water. I had the same dream again and again, night after night.

You don’t need to be Carl Jung to deduce that I was troubled by the responsibility of looking after others. But during the day this didn’t manifest as fear. Instead I was paternalistic. I tried to do everything myself. Make all the decisions. Do all the big thinking. And just leave it to others to execute. Under my watch, of course… I probably thought I was being kind, but what I was really doing was limiting their growth. And so I was limiting the growth of the business.

I’d like to think I turned this around pretty quickly. In time I became more facilitative as I relaxed into my role as a leader. But only much later, when I came across The Leadership Pipeline by Charan, Drotter and Noel, was I able to identify the mental model that was driving my thinking and behavior. They would have described the transition I was going through as from “managing self to managing others”. And with hindsight, I can describe the mental model for performance that was driving my behavior as DIY management.

If you had asked me to break that down for you, I would have told you that I believed in these ideas:


Those were the ideas that drove my actions every day. In some respects they were good ones. They drove me to want to perform at a high level. But nowhere in that mix was I thinking about anyone else, and that made me a poor manager.

Through personal experience, being introduced to new ideas like those in The Leadership Pipeline, and a lot of self-reflection, my mental model for high-performance leadership has changed. Once I was driven by ideas that equated performance with my own efforts. Now I believe in creating an environment in which others can operate autonomously, but driven by a common purpose. My current model for high-performance leadership is something more akin to the philosophy underpinning Robert Greenleaf’s servant leadership. And I find that whenever I manage to apply this model, it results in not just improved performance from my team, but far better engagement too.

So how do you facilitate this kind of shift in mental models through your learning initiatives and elearning programs? Let’s explore servant leadership a little more closely to find out.

1. Make the model memorable

Servant leadership represents a broad philosophy, as well as a set of practices, but the phrase is almost lyrical in its expression. It collapses a universe of thinking into a simple, memorable sentiment that can guide a person’s behavior in just about any situation.

What can you do to make your desired mental models memorable?

2. Make the model visible

Most learning experience design puts information front and center. The core ideas remain hidden, which is why you often hear the phrase “underlying conceptual framework”. This approach is typical of the world of instructor-led drill and kill, and commodity elearning platforms that feel like death by PowerPoint.

The alternative approach is to expose the mental model, putting it front and center, and building an experience that invites the learner to interact directly with the core concepts. This makes it easy for the learner to build on what they know and connect with the higher purpose behind the learning experience.

What can you do to make your mental models more visible?

3. Build a framework

Servant leadership is an ancient idea, and an extensive philosophy. But it becomes accessible when interpreted as a framework by its many adherents, like James Sipe and Don Frick. Sipe and Frick describe seven pillars of servant leadership as follows:

A person of character – maintains integrity, demonstrates humility, serves a higher purpose
Who puts people first – displays a servant’s heart, is mentor-minded, shows care and concern
Skilled communicator – demonstrates empathy, invites feedback, communicates persuasively
Compassionate collaborator – expresses appreciation, builds teams, negotiates conflict
Has foresight – visionary, displays creativity, exercises sound judgment
Is a systems thinker – comfortable with complexity, demonstrates adaptability, considers the “greater good”
Leads with moral authority – authority granted by others by the weight of one’s example

Frameworks like this help a learner to explore different perspectives and contexts in which the mental model operates. When the framework is exposed in all learning materials and experiences, it becomes a firm scaffold for learning and activating behavior change. And when delivered via digital coaching the learning is scalable.

4. Make it actionable

The framework above is a great scaffold. To make it easy for learners to translate the ideas into action, it needs a little rework. At Cognician we follow our ASAP process, which stands for Atomise, Structure, Activate, Personalise. In the Activate phase we translate static ideas into actionable ones by expressing them as reflective and action-oriented questions like this:

A person of character

• In what ways do your thoughts, words and actions agree with each other?
• In what ways do you demonstrate humility?
• What are you doing in your life to serve a higher purpose?

Who puts people first

• What can you do to develop a servant’s heart?
• Who can you mentor?
• What are you doing to show care and concern for your people?

Skilled communicator

• In what ways could you be more empathetic?
• Where do you see an opportunity to invite feedback?
• What can you do to communicate more persuasively?

Compassionate collaborator

• Where do you see an opportunity to express appreciation?
• What deliberate steps are you taking to build your team?
• What conflicts are emerging, where you can play an active role as negotiator?

Has foresight

• What steps are you taking to articulate your vision to your team?
• What steps are you taking to foster creativity in your team?

Is a systems thinker

• In what ways are you embracing complexity and actively exploring all aspects of your current challenge?
• In what ways could you be more adaptable and flexible?
• What is the greater good in this scenario?

Leads with moral authority

• In what ways are you demonstrating moral behavior?
• In what ways is your behavior influencing others?

At Cognician we believe that people are capable of great change when they’re inspired by powerful ideas. But you can only expect these ideas to shift people’s thinking when you identify them, expose them and express them in a way that makes it easy to be inspired by them.

What can you do to turn powerful, yet static ideas, into actionable tasks?