Hi, I’m Ian McClean. I’m the founder of Flow Group and GreenLine Conversations. And this podcast has grown out of the chaos that’s been thrust upon us. During the podcast, I’m going to try and share with you the best of 25 years of helping corporate organizations deal and cope with change. So, as you’re out there, busy making sense of it all, trying to cope, and maybe, in some cases, trying to rebuild your organizations, I’m hoping that some of this can be of some assistance. We’ll keep it deliberately short, because I know you’re busy. Let’s dive in.

Welcome to part three of How Now Form Here.

In the previous Part 2 episode, we contextualized why leadership is so critical and what it is we’re trying to actually accomplish as a leader in terms of what we can influence around the 5% moments and enabling people to be at their best and ourselves to be at our best when things around us are at their worst.

So this episode is going to begin to focus on the first of the 5 C’s, which is Be Calm. Whenever we hit turbulence, like on an aeroplane, the first place that our eyes go is to the cabin attendants and the crew. In times of turbulence, nobody needs to see a nervous pilot.

This is a basic form of limbic leadership because people in uncertainty and turbulence, they take their cues from their leaders.

One of the great underestimations that leaders have, even in normal times, is they underestimate the impact that they have on their people. And it’s understandable. Because from my side of the bridge, I’m just me going through my day to day, trying to figure things out and get through the day until the next one.

But for others, you represent a lot more than that. It’s not just who you are as a person, but you represent power, influence, control, knowledge, contacts, networks, job choice. Therefore, people are paying attention to you far more than leaders imagine or believe to be the case. This is only amplified exponentially during times of uncertainty and chaos like we have now.

Back to being calm. This plays into the Rudyard Kipling idea that, if you can keep your head while all about you others are losing theirs, that’s the essence of what calmness and remaining calm appears to be. The best way to consolidate this is in an example that I remember from my childhood of the Vietnamese boat people, as they were called by the media.

This was a story that ran for a long time, during and after war-torn Vietnam, when people were leaving their country because of the conditions. In order to do so many of them made their way into boats that were barely seaworthy and they cast themselves off. And those who did survive and were lucky enough to make it made it to the shores of some foreign country.

I can remember a particular incidence where a flotilla of boats arrived on the shores of a neighboring country and the rescuers when they discovered this flotilla of makeshift boats, what they encountered was exactly what you’d expect, high degrees of mortality, disease, et cetera.

But what they also discovered was that there were two boats amongst the flotilla that seemingly had not suffered in the same way as all the other boats. There was lower rates of mortality, disease seemed not to have spread quite so much, spirits seem to be high or higher.

And they were perplexed by this. They tried to discover what it was that differentiated these two boats from the others. And after all their investigation, they could only come up with one common ingredient that United these two boats but was different from all the others. And it was very simply this. On both of the boats, there was an individual who exerted a dominant, calming influence on the rest of the people in the boat.

It wasn’t necessarily the most senior or the eldest, or the appointed leader. It was somebody who just had this calming influence that became the dominant influence on the boat itself. This person became known, or the phenomenon became known at the time as “the calmest person in the boat”.

This is a phenomenon that in more recent years has been researched to a point where it’s a known fact that if somebody walks into a room and they possess a dominant emotion or a dominant mood, be it positive or negative, it takes less than 30 seconds for the entire room to recalibrate their autonomic system to match or adapt into whatever that mood happens to be.

We’ve all had this experience in our meetings, particularly in the days when we used to get together physically. Moods, like viruses, are contagious. Emotions are caught, not taught.

People take their cues from their leaders. And the question is, in all of this in each moment, particularly the 5% moments, do you become the anchor or are you the storm? Do you create calm when you walk onto the zoom call or off of the zoom call?

This is never spoken about, but it’s happening in real time and it’s happening. Limbically, in people’s limbic system and they’re judging you on that basis.

It is of little surprise that mindfulness, meditation, et cetera, have risen and become not just a peripheral activity, but a very central activity that people talk about in terms of mental wellbeing. And from a leadership perspective, it’s a very simple way, cheap, simple, instant, is just through simple breathing exercises.

One exercise that I favour, particularly when I know or I can feel that my own limbic system is beginning to trigger or hijack, is just simply to take 30 seconds and perform an inhale, exhale routine, and do it two or three times in a row. And within a minute or less, what you are able to do through the breathing, if you inhale for seven seconds, hold the breath for six seconds, and exhale for seven seconds. And you do that twice or maximum three times, you will have used chemistry to fight chemistry. Because our limbic response is a chemical response.

And one way to fight the chemical response is with a chemical response and breathing is a very simple way to do that as an apparatus. Nothing to do with spirituality. It’s very simple. It’s very pragmatic. It’s very within your control. And it is the simplest, cheapest, fastest way to restore calm in an instant, in a situation where you most need to be the anchor.

And have you ever noticed how difficult it is to remain angry or frustrated with somebody who is remaining calm in the moment? That’s limbic leadership.

If being calm is about staying centred, then the second guiding principle is to be clear. The number one enemy in chaos. Is ambiguity and uncertainty. Because going back to our previous episode, one of the foundational fears that people have is the primal fear of the loss of control. Or as we know at least the illusion of being in control.

One of the most common criticisms that I’ve heard during the last year about leadership has been that at the very moment we most needed our leaders to engage, they were nowhere to be found or nowhere to be seen, or nowhere to be heard.

Take the example of the Irish government who, since Christmas, through their lack of clarity, the consequence and the impact has been that they have totally lost the dressing room.

When you’re not clear, what it creates is a vacuum of understanding. And nature doesn’t tolerate a vacuum. So what people do is they fill in the vacuum and they make up their own story. And at times of uncertainty and crisis, the narrative that people fill the vacuum with is by definition for their own self protection the most negative interpretation of what it is they’re seeing as evidence around them.

So, they escalate up their ladder of inference to a point of maximum negative interpretation. And now, by the time you get to have a conversation or to engage or to try to create clarity, you’ve now just doubled the workload for yourself because you’ve got to undo and bring people back down off the ladder before getting them to engage with the message that you wanted to share or should have shared in the first place.

This is the exact reason why conspiracy theories have mushroomed and flourished throughout the world during the pandemic.

The other big assumption that leaders make to their detriment is that message sent equals message received. This is a perennial human issue in the realm of communication, but it is absolutely and totally amplified by the remoteness and the remote nature of work, where over half of the communication that normally happens when you’re face-to-face, and you’re sighted with people, and you’re physically present, all of those cues are removed in the world that we now operate in. So you’re literally trying to run a marathon on one leg, where the scope for ambiguity and misunderstanding has just amplified and increased exponentially.

So in the spirit of being clear, as a leader we need to be clear about four things.

As we struggle to create our own authorship of the new world order, we need to be clear about expectations, about priorities, about ways of working, and about purpose. And I don’t mean purpose in the grandiose sense. I mean, the purpose of why are we choosing to do this and not that? So that people have a rationale and that they buy into that rationale.

That’s at a tactical operational level, as we try to seek to build the new world order with our people and our teams.

From a transparency perspective, you also need to be clear about what you know and what you don’t know. The truth of it is, there’s more that we don’t know still than what we do know, and we’re still trying to iterate and make it up as we go along.

There is a strong legacy in many organizations where strength in leadership was directly connected to having to know all the answers. This year has definitely disabused people and leaders of this notion. But it’s a very, very difficult legacy to shed for many people. Come clean when you don’t know because people will give you credit for it. Because it’s far more realistic and credible than trying to pretend.

Two further things. In the old world, it was fine to be clear about expectations, priorities, ways of working, and purpose and leave it at that for a while. In this new world order where things are changing practically daily, you need to continue to go back and revisit and reconnect with those elements or items of clarity. Because as we had with one organization in the media and communication space, we had a CEO who redesigned and refashioned their strategy, finished the document on Friday, and by the following Wednesday, because of a turn of events, it was already in the shredder.

So what’s good for today is only good for today. And we need to continue to go back and reclarify, more than seems reasonable or comfortable in the current climate.

Final aspect on clarity is one of the biggest traumas for people during the last year has been the endless Zoom meetings, back to back, from one to the other, from one end of the day to the next.

Simple clarity recipe for every meeting that you have, whether it’s one-to-one or one-to-many, begin every conversation with “what’s the purpose of why we’re meeting and what is the outcome we expect by the end of it?”.

If you do that with every meeting, what it does is it increases engagement, reduces waste, increases commitment, reduces time, and ultimately, because these conversations and meetings are more efficient, it reduces down people’s burnout, which is probably the number one casualty of this chaos.

I’ll conclude the final episode with the last three CS.

See you on the other side.


Leave a Reply