Leading from the Inside

An Amygdalic Hijack . . .
Ben is a newly appointed president with a great deal of promise so I was taken aback recently when he came to a coaching session with a noticeably deflated attitude.

"I’m not so sure I’m cut out for this role,” he confided in me in his opening statement, "I think perhaps I’m not yet ready to handle all the pressures and conflicts in this job – I’m losing a lot of sleep over things I can’t seem to change!”

Naturally, I pressed for the details. It transpired that he’d been in attendance at a Board meeting ten days previously where the Chair had made a spontaneous and rather flippant remark about Ben’s credentials and track record that had ‘whacked him right between the eyes’ as Ben put it. He’d been devastated when it occurred but had not responded; he’d just sat there and fumed internally and silently. All he could think about from that point was how to get out of the meeting – but it had dragged on and on.

Immediately after the meeting, Ben had intended to approach the Chair and ask for an explanation and clarification but the opportunity had been lost. The following day, after a sleepless night, Ben had considered contacting the Chair on the matter only to discover that the Chair was not accessible. The day after that, the Chair had called on a different issue and his demeanour had been so positive and affirming that Ben decided to let the matter drop.

"The trouble is that it hasn’t gone away,” said Ben, "I’m still stewing on it; I simply can’t get it out of my mind. But what can I do about it now time’s passed; I’d look pretty stupid to admit that I was sulking over it”.

Well, I’ve been there and so have you, I’m sure. With our valued objectivity we can see that the issue isn’t really between Ben and the Chair – it’s within Ben’s head, and that’s where it needs to be resolved. The Chair is likely unaware that Ben has an issue and would likely be astonished that he had been the author of Ben’s discontent. There’s little assistance from that quarter; Ben has to deal with this himself.

The Real Issue . . .
Ben is the unwitting source of his own discomfort and he’s creating his own continuing miseries. The challenge is that it’s being generated by his unconscious mind, his amygdala or seat of emotionality in particular, and, just like the rest of us, Ben’s not able to access his unconscious directly.

We all have built-in perspectives as a result of our values and experiences in the past, a way of framing the realities which we need to face. All too often we’re completely unaware of what these perspectives (frames and filters) are doing as we use them to assess and evaluate our experiences. The Chair’s glib remarks may well have triggered some deep and hidden element within Ben’s unconscious mind that caused him to interpret the remarks as significant and threatening.

Ben’s instantaneous response could well have been a disaster; either a cutting riposte or a fawning submission, neither of which would have enhanced his career prospects. It was well that he ‘bit his tongue’ in the moment but the required immediate sequel was to deal with the unresolved conflict within, not to allow it to fester and eat away at him. This is clearly easier to say than to do.

We do not know, and more importantly Ben doesn’t know what’s resident in his unconscious that caused him to interpret the Chair’s remarks the way he did and so to lose his focus in such a devastating way. We are all at the mercy of our unconscious mind; it works in ‘real time’, so efficiently and outside our conscious awareness that we haven’t a hope of interceding as events unfold.

So, there’re innumerable potential conflicts lurking in there just waiting to be triggered by some hapless event and we can’t hope to apply the brakes once they’ve been activated. The vast majority of our ‘regretted’ responses have their origins here and the outcomes can make indelible marks on our future fortunes.

Now Ben is a president and chief executive, this is a luxury he cannot afford for his perspectives are immediately visible throughout the organization. He readily admitted that his colleagues were already responding differently towards him and his wife was down-right worried about his health. The impact was discernable and it was deflecting focus and impetus in some undesirable areas. The need for action was now!

One Viable Defence . . .
The first line of defence is a familiar one for those who’ve ever practiced strategic planning; the essential role of strategic focus. In organizational strategy we can choose between ‘operational effectiveness’ – being the very best at whatever it is we do, ‘technological or product leadership’ – having the leading edge in products and/or services, or ‘customer intimacy’ –striving for synchronicity with the needs and wants of our clients.

We do this in order that we can differentiate our self from the ‘competition’. We have limited resources, especially time, and we can’t afford to be distracted from our unique ways of satisfying our customers.

As the chief executive, Ben recognized the importance of this strategic focus and its translation into key capabilities that would be used to guide the responses and initiatives leading to intended success. I asked him how this same idea might help him with his present challenge.

After a short reflection he admitted that his current focus was definitely inwardly directed – on him and his ‘ruffled feathers’ - and that he was substantially distracted from other, perhaps more important issues. I then suggested that he consider what his personal strategic focus ought to be given his key role in the organization. He laughed.

"It didn’t take you long to pick up on that opportunity!’ he said; ‘you don’t miss a trick”. We had spent some time a few weeks back discussing the concept of a leader’s mandate to create other leaders. We’d agreed that as a manager it was his primary task to get things done through other people by making them successful. We’d also settled on his leadership role as ‘focusing the desire for change that’s resident in others, and then facilitating the creation of a sustainable new reality’. This had provoked him to think about things a little differently and to concentrate on those capabilities that would leverage results through others.

Now I invited him to explore the purpose of that approach, not just in the benefits it would bring to others but those which might accrue to him. As a leader he could push for desired results, focus on innovation and risk or invest in the development of his people. As with the organization’s strategic focus, it’s an almost impossible task to keep all three aspects in perfect dynamic balance so he would need to be clear and consistent about where the emphasis should be at any given time.

Ben was visibly relaxing as he refined and reinforced his thinking. "There’s no contest,” he said, "my primary focus is on developing my people with the encouragement of innovative approaches in support.”

"So how do the Chair’s remarks fit in this scenario?” I asked.

"They don’t!” he responded, "they’re not even relevant – so why am I worrying about them?” He had regained his personal focus and the angst of the past ten days was evaporating like the morning mist.

Defence in Depth . . .
The amygdalic hijack is seriously deflective; when it hits, it hits hard! What could be done to insulate us from its profound impact?

If you’ve been following this column for some time, you already know that I recommend the work of Michigan professor, Robert Quinn. In particular, I like his work which centers on Entering the Fundamental State of Leadership (EFSL) as well as his ground-breaking book "Deep Change”.
In a nutshell – Quinn says that too many of us are ‘other directed’ – we respond mainly to external influencers - and we’re self-focused – we dwell unduly on our feelings and concerns as a result of being manipulated in this way. The solution to this undesirable and less-than-satisfying condition, he says, is to flip – to become ‘self directed’ and ‘other aware’.

Becoming self directed is not an easy process for it demands a great deal of critical self examination and discovery – Quinn provides a guidebook to assist with this. In the process of emerging self awareness we are very likely to discover aspects of our self that are perhaps surprising and of which we’re probably unconscious.
It was written on the lintel of the doorway into the Delphic Oracle in ancient Greece – Know Thyself. Sage advice, yet so few of us take sufficient time to plan next month let alone to construct a life plan grounded in real self awareness.

I’m frequently given the opportunity to perform decision support or career development assessments on senior business people who are engaged in career moves. Inevitably, I ask the question, "Have you been through anything like this before?” and the response is usually, "No”.

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, and yet we go this way just once. As I complete an assessment I am told, nine times out of ten, that the exercise was truly valuable and beneficial to the individual and perhaps more important in life terms than the career change which instigated it.

It’s a small price to pay even if it only protects us from the potential disaster of an amygdalic hijack. If our responsibilities include getting results through others or focusing and facilitating the need for change then we owe it to ourselves to be focused, to be self directed and then we can be appropriately other aware.

Think about it!

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