Welcome to Part 2 of How Now From Here.
You know, when you think about leadership, what is it that leadership is trying to do or contribute at this moment? And the simple summary or answer to that question is we can’t control the situation. However, what we do have within our influence, is the ability to ensure that we and our people can be at their best and our best when times and things are at their worst.
A good way to think about that or a context for it, which I’ve always found very useful is to think about what’s actually happening neurologically so that we understand the “why” of the principles that we’ll explore a little later on, as opposed to just what the principles are.
And the control center for all human beings is the brain. And to understand how that works, particularly in times of chaos, here’s a very simple model. Let me ask you to take one hand and put your hand directly out in front of you. Splaying, open your fingers and thumb. Now with that done, put your thumb into the center. And wrap your forefingers around the thumb so that you’ve made a fist. Another way to look at this is, imagine it like a sausage roll where the thumb is the sausage and the pastry are the four fingers around. This is a very good working model of the brain, actually, because it’s roughly the same size as the brain. And it’s roughly the same weight as the brain. And it sits inside in your cranium.
And what’d you notice is, a little bit like the fingers and thumb is there were two systems at play here. So the fingers perform one function whilst the thumb performed a very, very different function. It’s exactly the same in the brain. We’ve got one brain, but we’ve got two systems at play. So let’s look at what happens when we’re at our best.
When we’re at our best, if you imagine the four fingers or the thinking brain is in operation and is managing our systems 95% of the time as we go through our lives. And with the four fingers, the thinking brain performs four functions. The first thing it does is it’s a problem solver. Secondly, it enables us to deal with huge amounts of data and complexity. Thirdly, it makes us agile and creative. And finally it enables us to become or be future focused. This is what’s happening when we are at our very, very best. And it’s the thinking brain that enables us to dominate the planet. We’re not the fastest mammals on the planet. We’re not the most armored. We’re not the strongest mammals on the planet. Yet we dominate the planet because of this wonderful thinking brain.
That’s in ordinary times, but we don’t live in ordinary times. In fact, during these extraordinary times of the last year, we have been exposed to three of the most foundational human fears. The fear of mortality, the fear of separation, and the fear of the loss of control.
As soon as we are simultaneously exposed to any or all of these, it triggers the thumb, which is the feeling brain, which is essentially our survival mechanism. When the feeling brain is triggered, it takes over from the thinking brain, which is good for survival, but it’s very bad for decision-making. Because what actually happens is you go into this fight or flight or freeze mode. Which essentially, in intellectual terms, renders you stupid. It renders you also irrational. And three things happen whenever the survival brain takes over. The first is it reduces down your choice because it doesn’t want you thinking about making decisions it wants you acting. It secondly, narrows your focus, so you can only see one thing whatever’s directly in front of you. And it shortens your horizons because the only thing it recognizes is now.
It’s this level of stupidity and irrationality that account for why people end up in fistfights in the early days of the pandemic over toilet rolls in the aisles of the supermarkets or more tragically where people stab one another about the wearing or not wearing of masks on the street.
We call these the 5% moments. And the reason we call them 5% moments is because they don’t happen the majority of the time, but when they do happen, the impact or the implications of the actions during a 5% moment has long-term repercussions, mostly for reputation.
The feature of the chaos in the pandemic is that there are a greater number or greater frequency of 5% moments and they are occurring with more force and ferocity.
The key to leadership against this backdrop of the thinking brain and the feeling brain is the leader’s role is essentially to help engage our own, and others’, thinking brains and keep it active. And to try to keep or soothe the survival brain and keep it at bay.
And whether people know it or not, and they will never describe it this way, a leader’s reputation in the short, medium, and long-term is based on other people’s judgment of how well you were able to accommodate just that. Keep people’s thinking, brain active and engaged. And keeping the survival brain at bay. People will never call it that, but actually that’s how they’re judging you. How people evaluate your leadership capability is actually how you show up in your 5% moments and in their 5% moments.
And if you don’t believe me in relation to other people, think about your leaders and the people who have been present or not for you throughout the last year and assess how you’re evaluating them. How did they show up in your 5% moments and in theirs?
So as a leader, whilst we can’t control our impact, we have choices. And I’ve consolidated into, five guiding principles, how we need to be, to be our best as leaders when times are at their worst, both for ourselves and for other people. I call these the five C’s.
The first is to be calm. Be clear. Number three is be connected. Number four is be creative. And finally, number five is be caring to yourself.
Join me in part three when I begin to explain in more detail.
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