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Unfreezing & Re-Learning in Executive Leadership

In a recent episode of the Arete Coach podcast, host Severin Sorensen and guest Dr. Travis Kemp, an executive coach and co-director of the Institute of Coaching and Consulting Psychology, embark on a deep exploration of the challenges leaders face in today's rapidly changing business environment.

Dr. Kemp, who's also an adjunct professor at the University of South Australia, delves into the intricate concept of "Unfreezing learning, re-learning, and re-freezing new patterns." This phrase, frequently echoed in executive coaching and notably used by Severin during the episode, encapsulates the essence of what management guru Peter Drucker meant when he pronounced, “The only skill that will be important in the 21st century is the skill of learning new skills.”

As business terrains evolve unpredictably, Drucker's insights resonate more profoundly. Dr. Kemp underscores the discomfort inherent in the re-learning process, which often becomes a deterrent for many. Yet, as Dr. Kemp articulates, the objective isn't to find solace in this discomfort but to get "better at tolerating the discomfort." With this in mind, the questions remain: why is re-learning so important, and how can seasoned leaders refresh their approach to executive leadership?

Understanding Self-Awareness

Researcher Tasha Eurich led a comprehensive study with over 5,000 participants to explore the intricacies of self-awareness. From this effort, two key insights emerged.

Re-evaluating the role of experience

Common wisdom suggests experience enhances judgment. However, Eurich's findings challenge this. Surprisingly, it was found that seasoned managers didn't always rate their leadership skills as accurately as newer managers. Moreover, a broader survey of 3,600 leaders revealed a tendency among senior figures to overestimate their abilities in areas like empathy and self-awareness (Eurich, 2018). Several important lessons arise from these insights:

  • Experience vs. wisdom: Experience doesn't always lead to better judgment. This encourages a re-evaluation of long-held beliefs about expertise.

  • The pitfalls of overconfidence: With more experience, there's a risk of becoming overconfident, leading to potential oversights.

  • Continuous reflection: Regardless of how long one has been in a role, continuous feedback and introspection are crucial.

  • A wider trend in leadership: Research suggests that overestimating one's abilities might be a common trend among senior leaders.

A relevant anecdote

On Episode #1140 of the Arete Coach Podcast, Severin Sorensen shared a moment of realization at a driving range. Believing he was "practicing," a stranger observed he was just reinforcing poor techniques. This story highlights the importance of quality over mere repetition in skill development. It serves as a reminder: shedding unproductive habits is key to fostering genuine growth.

Strategies for unlearning old habits

In today's dynamic business environment, Peter Drucker's assertion that the paramount skill of the 21st century is the ability to learn new skills holds profound resonance. As evidenced by Tasha Eurich's research, even seasoned leaders can sometimes be ensnared by the trappings of their past experiences, leading them to overestimate their prowess in areas like empathy and self-awareness. Yet, to remain agile and responsive, it's not just about acquiring new knowledge; it's equally vital to unlearn outdated habits that no longer serve us. Recognizing this, we've curated 10 transformative strategies that guide executives in shedding these entrenched patterns, enabling them to embrace the future with fresh perspectives and renewed vigor.

Recognize the ice: self-awareness is key

Before one can break free from the ice, it's imperative to first identify and acknowledge its presence. This begins with self-awareness. Leaders must introspectively assess their beliefs, values, habits, and strategies.

To gauge your self-awareness, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are there strategies I've been deploying that no longer yield the expected results?

  • Do I resist new methodologies or technologies because they're unfamiliar or seem too complex?

  • Have I found myself saying, “This is how we've always done it”?

  • If you answered 'yes' to any of these, you might be on icy terrain.

Embrace the growth mindset

Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking research on the “growth mindset” offers profound insights for leaders. By adopting a growth mindset, it is believed that abilities and intelligence can be developed.

In focusing on having a growth mindset, leaders:

  • Are open to feedback, even if it's critical.

  • View challenges as opportunities rather than threats.

  • Are willing to step outside their comfort zones.

  • Understand that failure is part of the learning journey.

  • By fostering a growth mindset, leaders can melt away old patterns and embrace the ever-evolving landscape of business.

Cultivate curiosity

Albert Einstein once remarked, "I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious." Curiosity is the antithesis of stagnation. Leaders who are genuinely curious are constantly seeking to learn, understand, and explore.

Ways to stimulate curiosity include:

  • Attending seminars and workshops outside your domain of expertise.

  • Engaging in discussions with younger employees to gain fresh perspectives.

  • Exploring industries tangential to yours to seek cross-pollination of ideas.

Seek diverse perspectives

In a world that's more interconnected than ever, diversity is not just a buzzword; it's a competitive advantage. By actively seeking out and valuing diverse perspectives, leaders can shatter echo chambers and invite innovative solutions.

To form and maintain a diverse perspective, consider:

  • Forming advisory boards with members from different backgrounds and industries.

  • Encouraging team members to share their unique insights and experiences.

  • Collaborating with international teams or partners to understand global perspectives.

Engage in continuous learning

Executive education is no longer just a coveted asset but an essential cornerstone. As highlighted by Fast Company, CEOs dedicate nearly half of their time—a significant 43%—to activities that advance their objectives (Vozza, 2018). In an environment where leaders often play the role of ‘visionary,’ ongoing learning at the executive level remains important.

Action steps include:

  • Enrolling in executive education programs.

  • Subscribing to thought leadership publications.

  • Participating in peer-to-peer learning networks.

Foster a culture of learning

As leaders, your attitude towards learning will permeate the organization. Encouraging a culture where employees at all levels feel empowered to learn, innovate, and experiment can have profound impacts.

Tactics to promote your culture of learning include:

  • Offer learning and development opportunities to employees.

  • Celebrate failures as learning experiences.

  • Encourage cross-departmental collaborations for knowledge sharing.

Challenge the status quo

To truly unfreeze old patterns, leaders must be willing to challenge the status quo. This involves questioning existing systems, processes, and strategies, and being open to overhauling them if necessary.

Practical steps include:

  • Hosting regular brainstorming sessions where no idea is off-limits.

  • Engaging external consultants to audit and provide fresh perspectives on operations.

  • Implementing a system for employees to submit innovative ideas or solutions.

Leverage technology

In the digital age, technology is a catalyst for change. Leaders must be adept at leveraging technological advancements to drive business forward and break old patterns.


  • Investing in AI and data analytics to gain deeper insights into business operations.

  • Utilizing virtual reality or augmented reality for training and development.

  • Engaging with tech start-ups to understand emerging trends and potential collaborations.

Prioritize self-care

Leadership, especially at the executive level, can be mentally taxing. Engaging in regular self-care not only rejuvenates the mind but can also lead to clearer thinking and decision-making.


  • Adopting mindfulness or meditation practices.

  • Ensuring regular physical exercise.

  • Taking periodic breaks to disconnect and reflect.

Stay connected with your 'Why'

Lastly, always stay connected with your core purpose or 'why'. When leaders are clear about their purpose, they are better equipped to navigate challenges, adapt to changes, and break free from restrictive patterns.

Reflect upon:

  • The core values that drive you.

  • The impact you wish to make in your industry.

  • The legacy you want to leave behind.

The main takeaway

In the dynamic world of business, the ability to adapt, evolve, and break free from old patterns is not just advantageous; it's essential. By recognizing the ice, embracing a growth mindset, and continuously striving for learning and innovation, leaders can set both themselves and their organizations on a trajectory of sustained success.

To all the executives, leaders, and business owners reading this: the time to unfreeze is now. Your organization, your team, and the future you envision depend on it.


Eurich, T. (2018, January 4). What self-awareness really is (and how to cultivate it). Harvard Business Review;

Vozza, S. (2018, August 23). This is how successful CEOs spend their time. Fast Company.

Copyright © 2023 by Arete Coach LLC. All rights reserved.


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