July-August 2009

The developmental digest for emerging leader/managers devoted to growth and excellence


Section 1 - Topical Topics

Leadership And Decisions

Here’s a great topic for a few lazy-hazy days during the summer doldrums – the vital role that decision making plays in overall leadership effectiveness. I use the expression ‘vital role’ because I believe that conventional wisdom supports the notion that an indecisive leader is no leader!

If we begin with the definition that a leader is one who "focuses the desire for change that’s resident in others and who then facilitates the creation of a sustainable new reality, we can see readily that decision making is important, if not essential, for both aspects – focusing and facilitating. Its application, however, would be somewhat different in each case.

The business of business is change – specifically the creation/preservation of value. The usual processes within the majority of business and related organizations are collaborative and value is added through efficient and effective incremental, synergistic effort. The criteria for success are contained in deliberate, optimal outcomes (what the market wants to buy) and reasonable effort, time and cost (what the organization wants to invest).

So, keeping processes ‘on-track’, which is the pursuit of success in the face of inevitable difficulties, obstacles and setbacks, requires innumerable ongoing decisions. Some decisions will be crucial (irrevocable once made); some will be complex (affecting many aspects and interests); and some will be complicated (initiating additional changes in other, non-related fields); yet others are going to be sensitive (having a profound impact on some or all).

Some decisions too are spontaneous and immediate, while others are protracted and deliberate. At the same time, part of the total decisions made will have their primary impact on the leader and likely a much larger part will impact and involve others - followers (directly affected) and collaterals (indirectly affected).

Decisions, and the way they’re made, are indeed a challenging issue and they are also central to the sustainable success that every leader seeks. They are well worthy of our attention.

What really goes on . . .
There have been significant advances in neuro-physiology and neuro-psychology in the past decade. With the assistance of some remarkable new technologies, like fMRI, we are now able to track brain activities during hither-to-fore invisible processes such as decision making and learning experiences.

The mysterious relationship that exists between brain, mind and consciousness is not yet fully revealed but we already know of the role of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that generates pleasure. Researchers discovered back in 1954 that dopamine produces pleasurable sensations. They also discovered that we can have too much of a good thing. Over-stimulation of the brain’s nucleus accumbens (NAcc) – the source of dopamine - results in symptoms identical to those of substance addiction – a perpetual and perhaps fatal ‘high’!

Dopamine is not just the source of pleasure and happiness; further studies showed that this one neurotransmitter actually helps to regulate all of our emotions from intense love to outright disgust. It is the common neural currency of the mind, a simple molecule that helps us to decide between alternatives. It provides a critically important link between emotions and insights and this has a profound effect on learning and decision making.

When the Greeks proposed long ago that rationality had to be the hallmark of human achievement they led us astray! It is now well established that the processes of decision making and learning actually begin with fluctuations of dopamine and the pleasurable emotional responses that follow. It is neither the amount of available information nor the sheer efficiency of our rational processes that results in expert performance but rather the effective impact of dopamine surges which we create.

Seeing it at work . . .
In Jonah Lehrer’s excellent book "How We Decide”, he offers several examples which are convincing. Among these examples are NFL quarterback Tom Brady who can make consistent, high quality decisions under extreme stress when passing the ball to best advantage in those micro-seconds before he’s ‘taken out’; Bill Robertie who is world class in three different fields – chess, backgammon and poker; and Herb Stein who is the key man and lead director in the high pressure world of soap opera production.
What’s significant about these three rather different people, all of whom are recognized as outstanding in their fields, is that each of them has discovered an extremely effective way to improve performance, one which is absolutely natural. Not one of them claims to know more than others in their area and there’s no claim for a ‘secret’ process or unique methodology either.

The natural process relates directly to dopamine production and deployment in the brain. When we are rewarded in a particular circumstance, we trigger the production of a small amount of dopamine in the NAcc and this is rapidly transmitted throughout the brain’s higher, rationally-oriented regions via spindle neurons (a fast-track distribution device unique to humans and higher primates) and we feel good!

If this is repeated more than a few times, we set up anticipation or expectation and the pleasurable feeling can actually precede the event that triggers it. The brain then continues to compare expectation with experience and, if all is as expected, we’re happy. If the causal relationship breaks down however, there’s a disruption in dopamine production and a traumatic signal is sent that alerts us to the fact that something is wrong.

Nothing focuses the mind like surprise. The disruption triggers a response in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) by means of a special impulse and this, in turn, stimulates the thalamus which redirects our attention and focus. This is sometimes referred to as the "Uh Oh” or "Oh Sh*t!” response.

At the same time, a parallel signal is sent to the hypothalamus which regulates crucial bodily response behaviours, producing somatic or physical level action, and we’re prepared for intense response.

These events in the ACC now impress a modified interpretation within the dopamine source, the NAcc, which alters our expectations – in short we’ve learned a new or modified response at the cellular level. This directly affects our response to future, similar events.

In this way, we learn. Our internal reinforcement mechanism will consistently reward us or alert us to the need for long-term change in our responsive actions. This is an essential aspect of decision making; if we can’t incorporate the lessons of the past into our future decisions, then we’re doomed to repeat past mistakes.

Myths and Truths . . .
So what does this really tell us about the way we learn and make decisions? It might be helpful to look at it through the lens of three myths or general truths that are prevalent in our society.

Myth number one is the classical idea that the best decision making is rational. It isn’t / cannot / should not be! What we refer to as wisdom is as much a product of our emotions as it is of our intellect – perhaps much more so.

In many situations we cannot think fast enough to consider all applicable options and then induce an optimal response. This process can be rapid yet still far too slow for practical use. Consider how much time Tom Brady has to evaluate his passing options before he hits the ground under the combined weight of the opposition’s defensive line. He must, in fractions of a second, evaluate three or more possibilities, decide and then execute action.

Work the math. He simply has to have another way to generate the best solution (which he does) in a highly dynamic, volatile context (read high stress!). He says that he has no idea how he actually does it – he just does it.

Similarly, Bill Robertie earns his living from speed games - which are lucrative if you can win consistently – and he does! Again he has no real awareness of his decisions, he just looks at the board and he ‘knows’ what the best move will be – there’s no time for reflective thought – decide and move on.

Myth number two tells us that it’s better to be smart than hard working. This contention is thoroughly dispelled by the authoritative research of Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist. She has demonstrated repeatedly that one of the crucial ingredients of successful education is the ability to learn from mistakes. This is precisely the technique that Tom Brady and Bill Robertie use as they rehash every game exhaustively to find ways to improve.

Regrettably, our children, all too often, are encouraged to appear to be intelligent rather than to be industrious; they are taught to avoid situations where they might fail rather than to embrace them as learning opportunities. Consider what this might do to one’s capacity and predilection to learn and profit from mistakes! Mistakes are stupid and embarrassing, right? So when do children learn how to learn?

Over time, the brain’s dopamine-inspired capacity to sustain a flexible response to intuitive appreciation becomes the source of expertise. When we transfer the lessons of experience to the cellular level by modifying dopamine production levels in a dynamic process, we are refining our ‘gut-level’ responses to a myriad of circumstances so that we will always perform to the very best of our innate abilities.

Myth number three states that practice makes perfect. Closer examination of the neuro-psychological processes involved reveals that this is also untrue; only perfect practice can make perfect! Common sense suggests that if we practice (reinforce) doing it incorrectly then we’re not going to perform at a better level. It isn’t practice at the behavioral level either that will help us, but rather practice in the mind.

We need to align our dopamine rushes with our expectations so that we are able to anticipate the optimal behaviors or responses. This explains why a political refugee on a voyage to America was able to win a chess game against a Grand Master even though he’d never touched a chess piece in his life – he’d studied a book on chess problems, replaying the moves endless times in his mind so as to help him survive incarceration.

In a similar situation, an American pilot kept in solitary confinement for five years by his captors used the device of rehearsing golf games in his mind in order to retain his sanity. Following his return to the United States he went to the golf course where he’d played several times as a non-handicapped beginner and played a game at scratch level straight away. It’s all in the mind!

The Bottom Line . . .
So how do these insights help us to be more effective at learning and as decision makers? The research demonstrates clearly that our minds are quite capable of making all types of decisions very effectively – at the cellular level! This capability was engineered within us eons ago to ensure our very survival and it is entirely competent at performing way beyond any alternative process that can be imposed by our so-called rational minds.

What the recognized high performers are doing is trusting their natural reinforcing process rather than attempting to super-impose their rational minds. This means two things – firstly, they have confidence in their ‘gut-level’ decisions and, secondly, to ensure the quality thereof, they’re prepared to invest considerable time and effort in practicing perfectly and to adjust their expectations through continuous reinforcement.

To put some realistic numbers to this investment, reflect that approximately 3,000 hours of applied effort could make you competent and 10,000 hours would be required for total mastery! This is no small investment but it pales by comparison to the endless hours and frustrations that could arise if we decide to swim against the natural current – by attempting to be purely rational! Consider also:

"Every decision you make – every decision – is not a decision about what to do. It's a decision about Who You Are. When you see this, when you understand it, everything changes. You begin to see life in a new way. All events, occurrences, and situations turn into opportunities to do what you came here to do."  -  Neale Donald Walsch,

Speaking of leadership decisions, this is the first one you need to make – now!

I'd welcome your questions, comments and suggestions. We can all learn through dialogue and your experiences will undoubtedly gain more value when shared. Please contact me at david@andros.org.

A Note to our Readers . . .

Previous series of articles on the topics of

  • Tomorrow’s Leaders – a model for SME organizations
  • The Leadership Crucible the ‘making’ of leaders
  • Leadership Characteristics a comprehensive catalogue of leader qualities
  • Succession Planning the strategic argument, principles and strategies, and
  • Managing Change – every person’s guide to painless processes

have been summarized as discussion guides for those who lead and manage through mentoring and coaching. If you would like to secure a copy for your own use, please contact us.

It is a pleasure to share ideas with you and we’d welcome your questions, suggestions and comments. They’ll assist us refine and expand the essential value of these initiatives. Thanks in anticipation for your participation.

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Timely Insights

Four 'Secrets' from the NFL...

There’s a neat little newsletter that every now and then carries a little gem, like every two weeks or so! This most recent version, which can be read in its entirety in well under fifteen minutes, carries one short article on the lessons that the NFL can offer to business.

Yeah, right!  Like this is going to be a real surprise! More likely, I thought, it’s going to be the same jaded stuff under a new by-line. Wrong! Four simple points led to several ideas and two fresh initiatives!

PROFIT-Xtra, a Rogers Media Inc. publication, is worth the reading time – they have a fresh approach. The story that caught my eye, taking all of three minutes to encompass, is still reverberating in my head. Perhaps it might do something for you too?

Go to http://my.canadianbusiness.com and register for a trial subscription.

Pierre L. Morrissette Institute for Entrepreneurship – Ivey Business School . . .

Visit the website below to read the Summer 2009 edition of the Ivey Entrepreneur newsletter.

In this issue, Taiyuan (Terry) Wang, PhD '09 looks at why some firms are entrepreneurial while others are not, and he shares his Top Ten Tips for leaders to help their firms become more entrepreneurial. You'll also read about a pair of globetrotting HBAs and a high-flying MBA. Summer2009.pdf   

If you would like to follow Entrepreneurship@Ivey online, please visit:http://IveyEntrepreneur.blogspot.com :
http://www.facebook.com/IveyEntrepreneur :

Pierre L. Morrissette Institute for Entrepreneurship
Richard Ivey School of Business
The University of Western Ontario

Quotable Quotes...

"You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand."

- Woodrow Wilson

"The greatest crime in the world is not developing your potential. When you do what you do best, you are helping not only yourself, but the world.

- Roger Williams

"You control your future, your destiny. What you think about comes about. By recording your dreams and goals on paper, you set in motion the process of becoming the person you most want to be. Put your future in good hands — your own.

- Mark Victor Hansen

"A year from now you will wish you had started today.

- Karen Lamb

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Section 2 - Talk Back

Coach's Corner

A selection from frequently–asked questions

Dear Coach,
We work in a medium-sized organization with several geographically dispersed offices sharing projects extensively and continuously. We’ve tried many times to build better relationships between the various individuals across the Company who must cooperate in the work despite the distances and time zones involved but we seem to be more divided than ever before; now there’re even cliques and factions developing all over. How could we be more integrated and cohesive as teams and work groups?

I have the impression that you believe that this physical separation is the major, if not the only factor in your deteriorating relationships. Could we begin by challenging this idea?

Non-productive conflict and disputes within an organization can arise from many sources. Those that come immediately to mind would include:

  • Individualised goals and standards
  • Historical difficulties and estrangements
  • Obstacles or restrictions in communication
  • Inappropriate incentives, inducements and rewards
  • Restrictive or unduly rigid systems and procedures
  • Physical / psychological separation.

Note that physical separation is just one area of influence. While there’s no reason why it should overwhelm the accumulated impact of the other five, the stark reality is that it can exacerbate problems, create difficulties in both identifying and resolving them, and lead to extensive avoidance practices.

In recent "Long Distance Loathing” study, VitalSmarts discovered that employees are 243 percent more likely to have problems with distant co-workers than with co-located individuals! They also found that long-distance problems endure longer, are more challenging to resolve, and that the resultant coping practices likely include:

  • Avoiding answering phone calls when the caller is known
  • Failing to return or respond to messages / requests
  • Deliberately multi-tasking during contacts which dilutes attention and focus
  • Task avoidance and/or deferment
  • Superficial or overly-accommodating responses
  • Failing to involve or share with distant parties
  • Engaging in gossip or demeaning activities that relate
  • Being critical or demanding to an unreasonable degree
  • Challenging opinions, judgments and/or decisions beyond reason.

Such behaviours are far from productive, satisfying, respectful or authentic and constitute a real challenge for the leader. If we accept that such conflicts are avoidable and we apply increased time and effort to the remaining areas of influence – through deliberate attention to focus and facilitation, the leader’s tools -  we can steer the team in the right direction.

Here are seven strategies that would be well-worth your consideration.

Strategy 1 – Personal Motivation; a primary need is to ensure the creation of a group or team identity, with shared purpose, engagement and standards of performance. This is best accomplished by the group itself rather than imposed. It can be expanded to include power and resource sharing, establishing working practices and communication / decision channels.

Even where geographically separate, members will benefit greatly by face-to-face contact for this important start-up activity. Video conferencing will substitute for actual meetings although the latter is preferred. Each member of the group needs to ‘position’ him/herself with the group and to create a real (versus virtual) awareness of the person behind the role or function.

Strategy 2 – Personal Competence / Confidence: We all work best from our strengths and passions, more so than from our cognitive abilities (special knowledge, skills and experience).  This information needs to be shared and openly discussed and internalised by group members so that everyone is focused on the more powerful personal aspects of each individual’s contributions.

Special attention should be given to facilitation, decision making and communication, as well as to reporting and conflict resolution skills, so that any member can take early and effective action to move the project forward as / when opportunities arise. Nothing builds group cohesion faster than expedited, discernable progress towards collective goals.

Strategy 3 – Relationship Development: It’s vital to get to know the real people and to broaden one’s appreciation of what others can do - and actually want to do. This can be achieved quickly and impactfully by having each person tell a story about when they were at their very best. This provides valuable insights to their passions and strengths – what it is that turns them on and also identifies them as a unique individual.

If practicable, find non-work related activities for the group such as social projects that can be developed and shared, visits to each others or other sites and periodic review / audit sessions where process adjustments can be designed and implemented.

Strategy 4 – Gratitude and Appreciation: This is a powerful strategy that I’ve witnessed perform miracles even on its own. By incorporating it into a formal agenda in both impersonal (What I value in this past week’s experiences particularly is . . .) and personal (I really appreciate the extra time and effort that Julie put into the new schedule . . .) form, it will lend a substantial positive flavour to the proceedings as well as signal the higher value events and behaviours.

In time, and usually without further coercion, this same reinforcement will creep into the majority of spontaneous and personal transactions. Individuals begin to feel more valued and appreciated which in turn encourages them to contribute more which give more reasons to express gratitude – you get the message?

Strategy 5 – Extrinsic Motivations: there’s power in incentives, inducements and even in competition if properly used. To manage such external devices well the leader needs to focus on the meaningfulness of the event and outcome to the individual or group – only those that already have high intrinsic value can be triggered by selected external means.

This means that the group should select the external devices and, if possible, establish the rules for administration. If the leader sets appropriate parameters, this can be readily achieved; to apply an externally developed and managed program is usually a waste of time and credibility.

Strategy 6 – Transparency: It’s been demonstrated many times and in many ways – those who can see the scoreboard whenever they choose to look tend to perform so much better. They are generally more responsive, more sensitive to cues and more resilient in effort. They just need to know how well they’re doing.

Do you recall the log chopping experiment? People were paid $100/hr to chop a log using the blunt edge of an axe – few lasted even one hour. When the axe was turned and the chips flew they chopped happily at much lower rates of pay!  Place performance data where it can be accessed easily and safely by those who’d profit by the information.

Strategy 7 – Autonomy: finally, giving individuals and groups room to manoeuvre, the authority to define their own work processes and procedures means that they have enhanced ownership. This in turn increases their accountability and persistence, their commitment and their dedication. People will work harder and longer for themselves than for any ‘master’.

Allow them to set the standards and to enforce them. Encourage them to identify and resolve their own issues and the power to make a significant difference through their actions, and they will surprise you – pleasantly!

There’s more than enough technology to overcome the challenges of world-wide separation. The question is, is there sufficient political will to overcome the impediments of insensitive leadership? I hope this helps.

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Commentary - What Is Everybody Saying?

There’s a new book by Joe Navarro entitled "What Everybody is Saying” and it’s all about non-verbal communication – body language.

I’ve discovered over the years that this is one of the most popular and intriguing topics for most audiences. We all want to learn how to know what others are really thinking and/or whether or not they’re telling the truth.

Well, if you take the central message of my lead article to heart, you already know that you do this extremely well at the cellular level. . . our problems begin when we attempt to rationalize our gut instincts. We sense that someone is sending us a ‘mixed message’ but given enough time and a little learning we talk ourselves into or out of the instinctual impression.

Joe Navarro contends that we should learn to listen to our gut. He has been an FBI special agent for more than twenty-five years, and he’s now a consultant and instructor for the banking, legal and insurance industries in this field. He has written several books on the subject of body language and has appeared on innumerable TV shows as an expert. He should know something about it; so I reviewed the book with great interest.

He makes good sense. There are several ‘basic truths’ that are essential to understand and there’s no substitute for diligent study and constant alertness. The first point he makes is that we must learn to really see – not just look. In the Polaris program we take our participants to a Horse Farm and also to an Art Gallery to demonstrate how important it is to see beyond the apparent – a skill that every organizational leader must possess.

Joe also says that we are cued to notice departures from the norm – but that assumes that we know what the norm looks like! Truth is in the deviance and the progressive trend, rarely is it in the single event or signal, so we need to learn to observe process, something our unconscious minds can do very well for our survival as a species has depended on this very ability.

He emphasizes the importance of multiple signals too; we can never rely on isolated events no matter how critical they appear to be. We would not draw too many conclusions from a single word offered in a neutral context, would we? Our rational minds though can persuade us otherwise and no one can lie to us as well as we lie to ourselves!

The role of the limbic or emotional brain is stressed. We’ll tell lies less frequently and competently through our body language than through our spoken words – ask any good poker player. However poker players are at a disadvantage since they tend to rely mainly on facial expressions – the part of body language we attempt to control the most. The area for most fruitful study, Joe contends, is the feet! Feet are all revealing!

As Joe focuses on the various parts of the body and illustrates the subtle yet compelling signals that are continuously propagated, we learn how to put it all together in ways that are truly revealing. Much of what is presented is not shocking or unexpected – I found myself nodding my head on so many points simply because my intuitive sense told me that he was right on the money.

The book is not only easy to read, it’s compelling and entertaining. There are lots of pictures and stories – many incredible, and the style is engaging and personal.

If there’s just one book to take on vacation – this is it!

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Point Of View - The Power Of Positive Thinking

This section is a guest column. Those with different and interesting viewpoints are invited to state a case on a related topic. Articles are most welcome.

The Power of Positive Thinking . .

This is not a new concept and I’m sure we would all agree that it works.  We use it when we are encouraging our children or our spouses.  We also use it when we are providing support and encouragement to our staff.  Why is it that we need to be reminded to put it into practice when it comes to our own initiatives?  Amanda and David remind us by asking "What are the stories we’re telling ourselves?”

There have been a number of articles on this topic in the newspaper recently.  One of the articles was about a man who was dissatisfied with his career.  He realized that this negative focus was affecting his personal life and his relationships with his family and friends.  He changed his attitude by listing three things that went well every day.  Before long he realized that he felt happier and was spending more time with his kids at the end of the day. 

I recently had a similar experience with a situation at work.  It didn’t take very long before the negativity spilled over into my personal life and I was unhappy most of the time.  Amanda reminded me that I couldn’t control the situation, but I could control the way I reacted to it.  At first I found it difficult to stay positive and had to tell myself, quite regularly, not to be negative.  The more I focused on the positive, the easier it became.  Just like the man in the article, it didn’t take long before I felt happier and it was a noticeable change to everyone around me. 

Everyday we make choices, consciously or unconsciously, on how we will react to a situation or a person.  We evaluate our performance and decide on the story we will tell ourselves.  I know that I don’t want to go back to that person I was at the beginning of this year. 

I’ve made the choice to use the power of positive thinking to make sure the stories I am telling myself are good ones. I’ll continue to focus on the good things that happen each day and on the successes I achieve.   

Well, that’s the way I see it anyway.

Susan Neal

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Section 3 - On The Horizon

The Positive Workplace - DO or DIE

Faced with deadlines, misaligned priorities, and difficult times or challenging markets, do you ever feel like it has come to that?  As if you’d better produce – or else! 

All day long, all we hear about is the need for results, outcomes, achievement, accomplishment, projects to be delivered on time and tasks completed as agreed.  These are the things that are supposed to get us up-and-out in the morning, drive us through the day and put a meal on the table in the evening. 

This is all well and good if you’re ‘juiced’, got gas in your tank or bounce-back ability to spare.  But what if you don’t?

What if you’ve drawn a blank?  What if your ‘get-up-and-go’ just got up and went? Or worse yet, you’ve been running on empty for the last few miles.

More, better, farther, faster - and all with less, of course!  Being productive appears to be an obsession in our western world. 

If you ever find yourself in this situation, consider the following:-

  1. STOP.  Just stop whatever it is that you are doing - and breathe.  Not that you haven’t been breathing of course, but likely those breaths have been shallow and all but useless.  Take some deep, mindful breaths to revitalize your lungs, your blood stream and your brain.

  2. SMILE(S).  Get your positive emotions flowing again!  Watch an amusing UTube;  listen to a lovely piece of music; marvel at the humming bird at its feeder; connect with a good friend. Surround yourself with happy or positive people – people who are a gain not a drain. 

  3. Be STRONG.  Remember the good times when life, work and relationships were going well.  What was happening, what was going on, who were you with, what was working well? 

  4. SAVOR those memories and extract the essence, the positive ingredients.

  5. Gain CLARITY – what ONE thing, and only one thing is it that you are trying to do, right now.

  6. Take STOCK of your resources -- first applying the positive ingredients from previous successes to the current situation as time and energy permit.

  7. Then DO IT - just do it - however that is.

  8. Allow yourself to BE HUMAN.  You’re not perfect; no one is perfect.  And your output doesn’t have to be perfect first time out either. 

  9. JDI.   JGID.  Just do it. Just get it done; THEN refine it.

  10. REFILL YOUR BUCKET.  Rest, Relax and Replenish.  Get ready for your next turn at the bat! 

    You’ll feel good, you’ll DO good AND you’ll be nicer to know.

Works for me;
How about you?

Amanda Levy

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