Last month, I spoke with Adelaide Crows captain Taylor ‘Tex’ Walker. I originally met Taylor in 2011 while he was studying a Diploma of Management and this month’s blog is inspired by our conversation about how the world looks different with the pressure of performance and how it can interfere with leadership capability and competence.
In the corporate world every reporting cycle is a finals situation. The modern leader is expected to be agile, have depth and breadth of knowledge, be responsive, set an example, set a record, or bring home a medal. Yet this is difficult to do if procedural thinking takes priority over working together.
It is a common tale. The modern workplace is unrelenting with responsibility and in some cases uncertainty, where leaders are expected to do more with fewer resources and tighter deadlines. Because of this, the modern leader needs two forms of attention: one that is mechanical and linear; while the other is understanding how to deal with the complexity of reality.
The science behind it
Neuroscientists know that constantly needing to respond to complex situations triggers a biological response that can prevent us from performing at the top of our game. As a consequence, some leadership efforts fall flat, or flat out fail.
The experience that Taylor shared highlights how an understanding of just one element of brain science can inform effective leadership:
“I was too caught up in what I needed to do, rather than what the group needed from me,” and
“As a captain you need to have a broader understanding of what’s happening on the ground.”
Through my leadership training, I’m familiar with leaders who, under pressure, aren’t making effective decisions or are feeling overwhelmed or ‘stuck’ in some way.
Taylor’s reflection and insight points to several important lessons and some useful behavioural responses, these are:
- Noticing the biological signs in pressure situations;
- Interrupting the brain state and patterns of thinking; and
- Simplifying, by going back to “why”.
The body’s reaction
The biological response to pressure is internal. Vision shifts inwards to search for safety and clues, rather than looking externally (i.e. what is happening on the ground). Often leaders will look inward, searching for certainty through precision and mechanics, working harder to reach business outcomes and to set the example of being resourceful, independent, and self-reliant.
A leadership position doesn’t mean you have to be the superhero. You don’t need to take on all the battles or protect the group all of the time but you do need to lead through the battles and complexity of reality and adapt to what is happening on the ground.
When the brain is under pressure and busy using precious oxygen for survival, accessing decision making, collaboration and influence is difficult, and the unhelpful brain state needs to be interrupted. A trap for the unwary is to be drawn into the detail of revisiting the operational stuff, the weekly KPIs, or whatever is calling loudest for immediate action so the leader hunkers down to draw on even more rigour and greater determination.
This is wildly inefficient and can often trigger further stress responses that lead to burning up more personal resources that will often colour thinking with burden and frustration.
Simplify: go back to why
The world looks different in different brain states and expanding the focus from the plan to reality is needed.
‘Why do I want this?’ is a simple and powerful question that will filter out the noise and move behaviours closer to change. This is a values question. Refocusing on the guiding principles that are our profoundly powerful values, allows an interruption to the brain state. This switches attention to reality and a better quality question promoting creativity, possibility and options.
What does the group need from me? Why do they want this?
So, if the struggling leader was to apply Taylor’s question, ‘What does the group need from me?’, this offers a chance to move the focus from mechanical, fixed and self, to reality, opportunity and the principles that drive performance.
Shifting the focus to others widens the lens and has a much better chance of interrupting the perfectly natural chemical response and blocked neural pathways to allow a recalibration. Applying discipline and courage to reflect on how you are leading, rather than on what you need to be doing, will improve your agility, depth and breadth as a leader. Technical and tactical leaders can be very useful but really raising the bar when the team needs it most requires thoughtful leadership, not a superhero.
If you’re like me and interested in learning about how to influence brain state, you might enjoy this article. It discusses some research that once again confirms what we intuitively really already know.