Start leading like a human…

Start leading like a human…

This article follows on from my previous article Stop leading like an Ape… where I discuss the impact of our evolution on our capacity to lead effectively. In summary, I discussed how the brain and nervous system have evolved to keep us safe and this can sometimes limit our effectiveness as leaders.

At the end of the article I said I would write about how to leverage our evolutionary gifts rather than be limited by them. It’s taken me a year to get to writing this because there are so many different approaches that have value. Rather than allow my primitive instincts to continue my procrastination, I’ve bitten the bullet and highlighted here some areas from my studies, personal and professional experience that I believe are of most benefit in getting beyond our in-built Ape-ness… enjoy!

Our hero in this story is the prefrontal cortex – referred to as the PFC from now on. This is the area of our brain that can, among other things, evaluate many variables to make conscious choices.

It procured to me when writing this that a high performing PFC would be doing many of the things we would expect of a high performing leader or team. For example, an effective leader leverages the full capacity of the resources available to them to deliver an intended result. This requires them to respect and consider inputs from their teams and the external environment. They must recognise that they do not have all the answers. Clarity of purpose, open communication lines, listening, consultation, enquiry, followed by decisive action and objective analysis of outcomes are essential. In an effective team, leadership changes hands seamlessly depending on what is needed. Conversations are robust, respectful and outcome focussed. Team members acknowledge the value each person brings and leverages diverse strengths, helping each other to develop over time as they take action. Trust is critical for high performing teams – each person must trust that the others are acting for the benefit of the team.

Similarly, to be high performing in a leadership context, the PFC must leverage the full capacity of the whole brain and nervous system. To do so, it must have clarity of purpose, open communication lines with other areas of the brain, it must ‘consult’, ‘listen’ and ‘enquire’ into the messages being sent up the line. It must be able to objectively assess the value and limitations of these messages and decide accordingly, sometimes prioritising feelings and others prioritising logic as appropriate to the overarching, clear purpose. It must have trust that whatever internal information received through emotional experience and automatic thoughts is intended to be of benefit to the whole – not to sabotage or disrupt. Negative emotions and thoughts can be limiting, but they’re there for a reason, usually to avoid perceived danger, so they should be heard and understood even if they’re not acted upon.

In order for our PFC to perform in this way and lead us out of reactive ways of behaving into purposeful, conscious ways of behaving the following areas are important to consider:

Clarity of Purpose

Developing a compass for our life and leadership by reflecting on our Purpose, Values and principles creates clarity in our PFC and sets up sign-posts to direct attention in the brain and to take actions that keeps us on track.

Over many years I have defined a purpose for myself – to enrich as many lives as possible in my lifetime and have fun doing it. When I’m on my game (see below) this can transform my approach to a conversation or issue I’m facing. It gives my PFC a distant point of reference it can use to navigate through all the internal noise and fog generated by other parts of my brain. Paying attention to Purpose allows us to make a choice and take purposeful rather than reactive action.

Building self-awareness to facilitate effective communication within the brain

A leader can only consider the input of all team members if they elicit their input. If we take this metaphor and apply it to the brain, this means our PFC needs to develop the capacity to proactively communicate with other parts of the brain and nervous system – it needs to seek input. Developing this capacity takes time and practice in the following areas:

  • Understanding the events that have shaped us allows us to explore helpful and unhelpful emotional triggers and scripts
  • Building the neural pathways required for us to observe, accept and name our emotional state
  • Building our ability to ground ourselves in the moment and settle our physiology
  • Developing the ability to choose what we pay attention to
  • Regular reflection to cultivate helpful perspectives on events

For example, I received some feedback many years ago from a one of my direct reports – “Lee is often combative in meetings”. Up until then, having a strong opinion and pushing it had been a successful strategy for me – I didn’t even realise I was doing it never mind the negative impact it was having. On reflection, I had a lot of evidence in my life that this strategy worked. Growing up in Liverpool in the North West of England I needed to stand up for myself, have strength in my conviction and hide weakness. Leaders I admired early in my career had this trait too – I saw nothing wrong with it… until the negative impact of this approach was pointed out to me. I was damaging important stakeholder relationships and creating fear in my team – not a very enriching brand of leadership. I still get these messages from my brain and nervous system – ‘Lee… fight, defend, be strong’, but with lots of practice, coaching, reflection and commitment around the areas mentioned above I can now (often but not always) see these messages clearly before they drive my behaviour. Over many years I have cultivated an open line of communication between my PFC and the parts of me that are trying to keep me safe from some real or imagined harm. These messages should be respected, they can be very useful – but our PFC needs to be able to see them clearly as just one of many inputs to a decision that it needs to make.

Building social awareness to better interpret messages coming from the other people.

Our perception of other people’s behaviour and intentions has a significant impact on our emotional state and behavioural reaction. Developing a greater capacity to understand the behaviour of others is therefore very useful to our brain leader. Some key capabilities of social awareness are:

  • Paying attention and deciphering the emotions others are experiencing
  • Demonstrating empathy and compassion
  • Seeking to understand the perspective of other people
  • Engaging in courageous conversations that improve trust and mutual understanding while moving towards desired outcomes
  • Understanding how the behaviour of others might trigger our patterns of thought and emotion

The best example of the power of social awareness that I can think of was with my own father. We are both head-strong and many years ago we were in a heated discussion about managers. He was complaining about his management, I was trying to help him to see their perspective. We were getting nowhere except more and more frustrated. At one point I sat back and asked myself, why am I so frustrated in this conversation? The answer was clear… he is not listening to me… not once has he validated my perspective. Then, I shifted from self to social awareness and looked at him. The frustration on his face and in his voice was obvious and I asked myself… why is he so frustrated? The answer was clear… not once have I validated his perspective. We both had the same problem – neither of us felt validated. So, I spent the next few minutes acknowledging his perspective and seeking to understand more about his position. I didn’t have to agree with him, I only had to demonstrate that I understood him and suspend my need to feel validated. We both calmed down and left it there. The next day we’re on a bush-walk and he says to me “How do you think I could improve my relationship with your brother?” I nearly fell over! I can’t remember him ever asking for my advice until that moment – especially not about my brother. We had one of the most productive, connected conversations on that walk that I had ever had, and I firmly believe it was sparked by the few minutes of validation I had given him the day before.

Putting in place external structures to guide our brain leader.

No matter how self and socially aware we are, some of our ancient brain structures will escape the notice of our PFC. Therefore, our PFC leader needs some external structure in place to mitigate the risks of flawed thinking and behaviour. For example, let’s look at Unconscious Bias – a hot topic over the last decade or so. Being aware of your unconscious biases – has little to no impact… they’re unconscious and, by definition, they happen automatically without any involvement of our PFC leader – in fact, they will be influencing our PFC leader in ways we will never observe in ourselves. The only one way to mitigate the risk of unconscious bias is to set up helpful external structures. For example, deliberate exposure to conditions that contradict the bias – e.g. immersing yourself in diverse cultural/social environments. There are many ways in which our brains work illogically or imperfectly that require external structure to overcome. For more on this area I highly recommend reading Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kanneman.

Regularly refuelling our leader.

Regular investments in renewal of the PFC is critical. Sleep, diet, exercise, mindful practices, creative activities and so on need to be part of a regular routine of investment to ensure our brain leader has the resources to handle the load.

For me, exercise is critical. If I’m not exercising, I’m off my game. Whatever it is for you, it needs to be prioritised in the diary.

In summary, if we want to overcome the limitations of our evolution while and harnessing its gifts our prefrontal cortex needs to be the leader of our brain. Clarity of purpose, self-awareness, emotional regulation, social awareness, external structures and regular re-fuelling are critical factors in building the leadership capacity of our PFC. And, as with any effective leader, its status as leader should be held with humility and recognition that its role is not to control everything, but to mobilise the full capacity of all available resources in service of a clear higher intent.