How many of us can really say that we are at the top of our game everyday? It seems that the objective for leaders is to perform at a high level, in challenging environments, consistently. And yet, this is a challenge for many of the executives and leaders that I work with. I often work with leaders who are exhausted. Fourteen years ago I struggled with exhaustion too, I was in a senior executive position and felt that most decisions I made were life or death, of course they weren’t, but that is how I was feeling.
So how does this exhaustion impact our ability to lead? In a recent paper ‘The depleted leader: The influence of leaders’ psychological resources on leadership behaviours’ the researchers sought to find out just how a leaders’ mental and emotional state impacted their ability to be transformational leaders.
As a reminder, transformational leadership includes;
Individualized Consideration – the degree to which the leader attends to each follower’s needs, acts as a mentor or coach to the follower and listens to the follower’s concerns and needs. The leader gives empathy and support, keeps communication open and places challenges before the followers. This also encompasses the need for respect and celebrates the individual contribution that each follower can make to the team. The followers have a will and aspirations for self-development and have intrinsic motivation for their tasks.
Intellectual Stimulation – Such leaders encourage their followers to be innovative and creative. They encourage new ideas from their followers and never criticize them publicly for the mistakes committed by them. The leaders focus on the “what” in problems and do not focus on the blaming part of it. They have no hesitation in discarding an old practice set by them if it is found ineffective.
Inspirational Motivation – the degree to which the leader articulates a vision that is appealing and inspiring to followers. Leaders with inspirational motivation challenge followers to leave their comfort zones, communicate optimism about future goals, and provide meaning for the task at hand. Followers need to have a strong sense of purpose if they are to be motivated to act. Purpose and meaning provide the energy that drives a group forward. The visionary aspects of leadership are supported by communication skills that make the vision understandable, precise, powerful and engaging. The followers are willing to invest more effort in their tasks, they are encouraged and optimistic about the future and believe in their abilities.
Idealized Influence – the degree to which the leader acts as a role model for their followers. Transformational leaders must embody the values that the followers should be learning and mimicking back to others. If the leader gives respect and encourages others to be better, those influenced will then go to others and repeat the positive behavior, passing on the leadership qualities for other followers to learn. This will earn the leader more respect and admiration from the followers, putting them at a higher level of influence and importance. The foundation of transformational leadership is the promotion of consistent vision, mission, and a set of values to the members. Their vision is so compelling that they know what they want from every interaction. Transformational leaders guide followers by providing them with a sense of meaning and challenge. They work enthusiastically and optimistically to foster the spirit of teamwork and commitment.
The researchers measured the impact of anxiety, depression and alcohol consumption on either transformation leadership or abusive supervision. They defined abusive supervision as ‘inappropriate verbal or non verbal hostility’. They found that leaders who had high levels of anxiety or depression or alcohol consumption were more likely to be abusive supervisors, whereas, leaders low in these domains were more likely to be transformational. They concluded that the mindset of the leaders and their psychological well-being is an effective predictor of their ability to lead.
So if you want to lead effectively the state of your psychological well being is fundamental. If you want to lead well, consistently then it requires conscious effort to cultivate your personal resources. Sacrificing your own mental and emotional health, may lead to short term gain, however, if you want to lead effectively and sustainably then you need to start to take care of yourself!
Clare Goodman works with leaders to build resiliency and personal sustainability. Her workshops and coaching sessions provide practical tools and techniques to help you create healthy habits. Contact Clare on firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like any more information.
The depleted leader: The influence of leaders’ diminished psychological resources on leadership behaviours (2014), Alyson Byrne, Angela Dionisi, Julian Barling, Amy Akers, Jennifer Robertson, Rebecca Lys, Jeffrey Wylie, Kathryne Dupre, The Leadership Quarterly 25 pages 344-357.
” Shhh… we’ll just tell them it’s business as usual. They won’t notice that the company is restructuring, redundancies are happening and targets are getting exponentially tougher!!” Well, I exaggerate a little but in my Corporate career I have heard this kind of view emanating from many senior leaders.
As anyone who has worked with me knows, I physically cringe at the BAU catchcry! The phrase is used to communicate a sense of status quo, to reassure employees that there is ‘nothing to see here, just focus on your daily tasks’. Although this can be done with good intention, employees are not stupid and even if they don’t know the details of the changes, they will know something is happening.
Our brains are amazing predictive machines and we get a brain based reward (dopamine) when we successfully predict the future. It gives us a feeling of satisfaction and pleasure when we skilfully predict the outcome of a masterly ‘who dunnit’ movie, or when we skilfully predict someone’s behaviour. So when our leaders say it’s BAU but all the behaviours and other evidence point to change occurring then this lack of congruence can trigger a threat response, leading to higher levels of stress and more informal conversations where employees are trying to piece the puzzle together. So saying it is BAU when it clearly isn’t can cause more disruption and stress from employees than just being transparent!
Change is a constant, in fact the Futurist Bob Johansen goes further to describe our current business environment as having four major components- volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity or VUCA. So from Johansen’s point of view, change and uncertainty is indeed pervasive, however, it seems strange that we, in the Western world, are seeing this as a ‘new’ trend – Buddhists know it better as impermanence.
The answer isn’t to pretend that it is ‘business as usual’ but equip our employees to be able to develop mental and emotional resilience and agility.
Bob Johansen “Leaders Make the Future” Berrett-Koehler Publishers (2009)
Why is uncertainty seen as the enemy? The number of leaders who seek control and avoid uncertainty, fascinates me. I enjoy working with many leaders in diverse organisations all with very different personalities and approaches to leadership but it is the leaders who embrace ambiguity and uncertainty who leap out to me as effective leaders.
There seems to be an organisational conspiracy to perpetuate this need for control, “If we plan, follow process and mitigate risk, then we will be ok”. Although there is nothing wrong with planning, in fact, it is encouraged but expecting any plan to work perfectly is laughable.
Helmuth von Moltke, a German Military Strategist coined the phrase ” No battle plan survives the contact with the enemy”. So we have to be agile and be able to adapt and change our approach.
For over sixty years researchers have been interested in what makes some people more able to tolerate uncertainty than others. A number of the earlier psychological researchers such as Frankl-Brunswik and Budner put it down to differences in personality. More recently researchers have been looking at the role that dopamine receptors play in our ability to seek uncertainty and novelty or seek to maintain the status quo. People with lower numbers of dopamine receptors seek out more novelty and uncertainty whereas those with higher numbers of dopamine receptors find it difficult to tolerate change or uncertainty. There is obviously more work to do to really understand the neuroscience behind uncertainty however researchers and practitioners are beginning to identify the links between effective leadership and being able to operate in uncertainty and it’s ‘big sister’ ambiguity.
A paper by Randall White and Sandra Shullman ‘Build Leadership’s Tolerance for Ambiguity’ explains;
” Dealing with ambiguity is seldom taught, but higher performing leaders tend to understand that uncertainty can be the gateway to opportunity”.
They have identified a number of observable traits that are present in leaders able to thrive in uncertainty;
Mystery as a motivating factor – people who seek out situations where they don’t know the answer
Undaunted by risk – being able to make decisions with incomplete information
Sensitive to faint signals - being able to scan for patterns and context set for their teams
Tenacity - leaders who do not shy away from failure, they stay the course.
Creating excitement – enthusing others around them
Flexibility – able to change direction and their minds
Simplifying - taking the complex and communicating it simply
Focus – knowing what to focus on at the right time.
David Wilkinson, author of the Ambiguity Advantage which is based on researching leaders in the UK he states;
” It should be clear by now that moments of the most intense fear , the moments when there appear to be huge threats all around, when ambiguity is at its highest, when we know little and understand less, these are moments of most potential for moving into the new world and taking advantage”.
Indeed uncertainty isn’t the enemy, it may feel uncomfortable and even stressful but through uncertainty can come many possibilities for change, growth and development.
Clare is currently researching the impact of Uncertainty and Ambiguity on Leadership Effectiveness for her Doctoral Thesis.
”The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character and will. No one is compos sui if he have it not” William James.
Mindfulness has been linked with Buddhism and other religions and yet in recent years science has combined with religion to explore why mindfulness and meditation works. This has been driven by many including the Dalai Lama, who has a fascinating with looking at the science behind the tenets of Buddhism. He has held a number of conferences with hard core Neuroscientists to discuss the connections. Practicing Buddhists have also been asked to be used as guinea pigs by scientists, inviting them to be involved in mainstream experiments using fMRI scanners. The most notable practicing Buddhist was Mathieu Ricard who was involved with many experiments with Richard Davidson. What they discovered was that the practicing Buddhists were able to a) switch their minds from one state to another quickly and b) had a greater capacity for compassion.
“The Dalai Lama has noted that the most powerful influences on the mind come from within our own mind. The findings that, in highly experienced meditators, there is greater activity in the left PFC, therefore happiness is something we can cultivate deliberately through mental training that affects the brain” The Plastic Mind by Sharon Begley.
What scientists and Buddhists do agree is that your mind can be trained to cultivate more positive emotions.
Default vs Direct Network
What we do know is that there is a default network that we go into when we day dream. We go into the default when we allow our mind to wander. Scientists agree that it is our default so when we give our mind a rest and break from focus on work we will unconsciously go into the default state. It can also be called the narrative or rumination, it can be a useful state to ponder over things that have happened and embed memories and make connections. A recent lecture by Assistant Professor Golnaz Tabibnia from Carnegie Mellon University in the USA states that the default network includes;
Thinking about self (medial PFC)
Thinking about others thoughts (Dorsal medial PFC)
Thinking about others actions (Lateral temporal lobe)
So when you slip into default and start thinking about yourself and start to wonder about what others may be thinking about you, it is quite normal. However it can have a downside. For many of us our rumination leads to catastrophising or a downward spiral. The rumination may start with reliving something that someone said yesterday and then that may trigger another memory which could lead to a threat response.
The direct experience network is when we are aware of our bodily sensations, so our attention is on our senses. When we activate our direct network, we shut off the default network and vice versa. David Rock in his book Your Brain at Work writes:
“When the direct experience network is active several different brain regions become more active. This includes the insula, a region that relates to perceiving bodily sensations. Also activated is the anterior cingulated cortex, a region central the detecting errors and switching your attention. When this direct experience network is activated, you are not thinking intently about the past or the future, other people, or yourself. Rather you are experiencing information that comes to your senses in real time.”
So when the direct experience network is turned on the default quiets down. So if you are walking to a meeting and ruminating that the meeting is going to be bad and you feel yourself getting more stressed then switching to the direct network and feeling the sun on your face, or become aware of your feet on the floor or just breathing can prevent the increasing limbic response and keep you cool under pressure.
Leaders who regularly meditate and practiced mindfulness found that they were;
Better control over the default circuit.
Better able to regulate emotions
Become more aware of their unconscious processes
Able to change their attention
Improve self control or willpower
Have greater cognitive control
Reduces stress – including lowers allostatic load (prolonged stress)
Increase cortical thickness
Benefits higher order cognitive functioning – including working memory and ability to process information.
Mindfulness is becoming more accepted as a ‘power app’ for leaders, a great antidote to our fast moving, complex work lives. Mindfulness is a great way to take care of your mind, to value it and to make sure that it is in good working order when you need it. Most of us are unfortunately not employed for our good looks, but we are employed for our minds. Yet like a neglectful tradie we mistreat our greatest tool, like leaving a valuable saw out in the rain, and yet still expect it to work magnificently when we call upon it.
For those interested there are a number of courses that can help you take the first step into developing mindfulness in your worklife. Contact me on email@example.com for more details.
Could the power of curiosity help leaders to emotionally manage uncertainty and ambiguity in the workplace? There is no doubt that the world is becoming more uncertain – leaders are called upon to have a higher degree of adaptability to handle the ever changing business landscape.
Curious? is new book by Todd Kashdan that explores the power and benefits of cultivating a curious mind. As children, our world is full of unknowns and we continually pester the adults in our world to answer question after question ‘ why is the sky blue? where does milk come from?’ at that age it is an open inquiry, for many without fear. We all have a capacity for curiosity, however as we experience life we start to change how we use curiosity. Some adults continue to be open to new experiences and face life with inquiry whilst others become more fearful of new experiences, uncertainty and life.
Working with leaders in a diverse range of industries across Australia it seems clear that curiosity is often replaced with control and knowing. This can lead to excellent problem solving based on past experience but undermines innovative thinking, it also can lead to increase in stress levels as leaders try to contain and control the variables in the workplace rather than engage curiosity and innovation.
Curiosity in Action
I spend my work life with leaders in highly intense, experiential leadership development programs. In these programs we use simulations and work based scenarios to observe and coach the participants through challenging, uncertain and pressurised situations. These simulations are designed to trigger a threat response, what we are looking for is how well a leader can emotionally regulate so they can adapt, deal with the uncertainty and work through the simulation effectively. I often coach these execs to use curiosity of a situation or a challenging person to regulate. Curiosity is an emotion that is based on being open and inquiring, this is often the exact opposite of how our leaders behave in these intense programs. With practice, leaders start to develop curiosity in those situations and are more able to read others emotions, respond rather than react and see another’s perspective. It’s a powerful tool.
Curiosity is underused – and certainly under-recognised by leaders and those who support the development of leaders.