Now Is the Time to Drop Your Tools

With a growth mindset and fewer “tools,” leaders can encourage employees to innovate and adapt to change.

“In pursuit of knowledge, every day something is acquired; In pursuit of wisdom, every day something is dropped.”

—Lao Tzu

Several years ago, I had the chance to hear a keynote speaker at a professional teaching conference who made a significant impression. In this time of COVID-19, the message is only more relevant. Karl Weick, professor of Organizational Behavior and Psychology at the University of Michigan, told us why educators need to “drop our tools” in order to teach effectively in times of accelerated change.

Using actual examples from firefighters and others, he built a case that educators can be better prepared to meet the challenges if we drop rather than acquire. “Learning to drop one’s tools to gain lightness, agility, and wisdom tends to be forgotten in an era when leaders and followers alike are preoccupied with knowledge management, acquisitions, and acquisitiveness. Nevertheless, human potential is realized as much by what we drop as what we acquire.”

Weick studied wildland firefighters and discovered at least 23 have died in four separate incidents since 1990 with their tools next to them. “In every case, they died within sight of safety zones that could have been reached if they had been lighter and moved faster.” He also studied fighter pilots and found that those “whose planes become disabled lose their lives when they hold onto what they call ‘the cocoon of the cockpit’ rather than face the conditions of an ejection from the aircraft.”

This is the time when we need to “drop our tools” in order to be innovative, resilient, and agile. This takes a growth mindset. According to Carol Dweck in her book, “Mindset: The Psychology of Success,” there are two main mindsets with which we can navigate life: growth and fixed. With a fixed mindset, we try to prove ourselves and success is about winning, so we don’t take many risks. With a growth mindset, we are trying to improve ourselves and success is about learning, so we are more open to taking calculated risks.

We are witnessing a growth mindset and a willingness to “drop our tools” with governors leading the effort during this pandemic. Many industries resistant to change were able to “drop their tools” and realize positive outcomes. Colleges and universities moved all of their classes online in a short period of time. Churches immediately started congregating online. Restaurants and other retailers, such as artists who did not have an online presence, now have online offerings. Musicians are streaming live music.

Technology that used to separate and isolate us now is being used to connect us. Zoom, Facebook Live, and other Web-conferencing software has become the new mode of operating. This is making many of us realize that working remotely by conferencing can save resources—time, money, and energy.

Magnifying the Inequities

But these uncertain times also magnify the inequities in our society. Shelter-in-place works for those of us who have a shelter. The poor and underprivileged suffer more during this pandemic. Society struggles with how to handle the homeless in good times, and the issue is significantly larger with social distancing requirements.

While knowledge workers can work from home, workers in restaurants and factories were laid off, and this is painful. But it’s also an opportunity for many industries to make the changes that were going to have to be made eventually.

We now realize the need to get more people into higher-paying jobs that can be done remotely with a computer. The COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder of how many of the higher-paying jobs should be in caregiving, from the very young to the very old and everyone in between. We have learned how these “essential workers” are truly essential.

But innovation requires universal access to fast, affordable broadband. Just as our government is obligated to provide public education, it also needs to provide the broadband to enable that education. We also are seeing the impact and value of the Internet to facilitate business, industry, and education.

This is the time to take an inventory of what we need to drop to operate with wisdom. It is time to let go of how things were done in the past—especially if they weren’t working that well in the first place. Even though we don’t know what the new normal will look like, we have a pretty good idea of how life and work has been changed forever.

Respond, Recover, Reimagine

This pandemic has been a worldwide tragedy, and much has been lost. Too many people have died. Too many businesses likely will not reopen, causing too many people to be without jobs. We are experiencing a collective mourning about what has been lost.

But much also has been written about the silver linings to be found both in life and in work. The main questions are: What do we want to hold onto and what do we want/need to change or let go of in order to function in the future? These are questions organizations should be asking. And these are questions we, as individuals, should be asking ourselves.

Respond. Recover. Reimagine.

When leaders are not bound by the fixed mindset of the past, they can use their growth mindset to drop tools that no longer serve them. With a growth mindset and fewer “tools,” leaders can encourage employees to innovate and adapt to change. Everyone can respond faster and think more creatively about the best way to live in order to serve others going forward.

Jann E. Freed, Ph.D., is an author, speaker, and leadership development and change management consultant at The Genysys Group. Her most recent book is “Leading with Wisdom: Sage Advice from 100 Experts” (ATD, 2013). For more information, visit and


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