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.

EP 54 – Leadership in the New World (Dis)order Part 2

So if leadership is a wholly human endeavour, and the thing that people rate the most when they think about their best-ever leaders are how they were impacted and inspired and motivated by those leaders in order to understand what’s actually going on with our people, in an environment of chaos and uncertainty and the Twilight zone that we have today, let’s take a short visit to the control centre over humanity, which is the human brain.

Let me help you to demonstrate this. If you extend your right arm in front of you and splay open your fingers. Got that? Now, take your thumb and put it into the centre of your palm, and then wrap your four fingers around the thumb and slowly draw it back alongside your head. And have a look at what you’ve got.

The fist that you’ve made with the thumb in the centre is a very good working model of your brain. Because in the same way, as you’ve got one brain, you’ve got two systems. In this instance here, you’ve got something that’s about the size of your brain, about the weight of your brain and about the scale of your brain. And it’s also got two systems. So if you open it out again, what you’ve got is, you’ve got the system which is represented by the four fingers, and you’ve got the system, which is the thumb, and they’re different. So let’s describe each one of them and what they do.

The forefingers represent the thinking brain, cognitive system, or, for simplicity, I’ll simply call it the green brain. And what it does is four fingers, it does four main things. The first thing it does is it is our centre for logic, so it solves problems for us. Secondly, it manages complexity. We can manage a great deal of complexity through our thinking brain. Thirdly, it enables us to be agile and, flexible and creative. And finally, it imagines a future and keeps us thinking about the future and making decisions in the present that can enable us to arrive at a better future. In essence, this is the main quality of leadership. And this is when we’re at our brilliant best. Our green brain is doing what it does brilliantly. The green brain that we have is actually what distinguishes us from mammals because no other mammals on the planet have this thinking system. And that’s why we dominate the planet.

The green brain is active for us 95% of the time, approximately, in normal times. So what about the red brain? The limbic system, or the feeling brain, which we simply call red, is our survival brain. It’s there to keep us safe. It’s always on. And it’s monitoring for threats at all times. Usually it activates about 5% of the time, in normal times. But these aren’t normal times. In fact, as humans, we have three primal human fears.

First primal fear is the fear of death. Second is the fear of separation or abandonment. And the third is the fear of losing control. And all fears that we experience in our lives are derivatives of one of these founding primal fears.

What’s happened over the last few years for the very first time in our history living memory, all three fears were simultaneously activated or triggered throughout the globe. What it meant was that the red brain and its reaction took over the controls more frequently and with more ferocity than at any other time. And the impact of the red brain taking over control, it doesn’t care about future or future consequences, it only cares about now.

It takes over the control instantaneously. It doesn’t act in any way that’s rational; in fact, it makes us stupid. And what it actually does is, it shortens our horizons, so we can’t see much in front of us beyond what’s immediately ahead. It narrows our focus, so we don’t see outside; we’re just focused on what’s in front of us. And it reduces our thinking to binary thinking, which is basically we either eat or get eaten. It feels like life or death; it’s either them or us.

And we act and behave to survive in the moment by fighting or fleeing, which is why, in the early stages of the pandemic, so many people were involved in fist fights in the aisles over toilet rolls. Or, more tragically, later on, where people were stabbing one another over wearing masks or non-wearing masks. There is more trauma, and people are more triggered than at any time since I’ve been involved in working with organizations. And that has implications for leaders.

And here’s something that we need to know about these moments: where the red brain rises, and the red brain takes control in a moment that matters. The first thing in these 5% moments, as we call them, is that trust is either built or broken in these moments. Not in the 95% moments when things are okay, but it’s at this moment in time when there’s something at risk, there’s something at stake; how you show up in those 5% moments determines whether people trust you or they don’t trust you. Secondly, relationships either deepen or they weaken in the 5% moments.

Dr. John Gottman, a professor at the University of Washington, runs a clinic, and it’s a couples clinic. And he hosts a couple through a period of a weekend where they’re put under the microscope and scrutinized in terms of how they interact with one another for a whole weekend. At the end of the weekend, he’s able to predict with 96% accuracy whether that couple will be together in an intimate relationship in five years’ time. And he’s able to do it based on one criteria: how well, or skilfully, they’re able to air their grievances. So, how well they’re able to have a row.

Leadership reputations either triumph or die in the 5% moments. People don’t remember how you performed in the tournament, but they’ll remember whether you scored a penalty in the shootout or you missed. And here’s one thing I’m suggesting or believing to be true in your selection of your best leader. It is whoever you chose, I can guarantee you; they showed up for you in the way you needed them to show up; in the moments that mattered for you most, you knew that they had your back.

So here’s a limbic definition of what it means to be a leader. How do I connect with people in ways that activates and keeps the green brain active? Because we want our people, if we hire the best, to be at their best, especially when things are at their worst. And how do I step in and soothe the red brain whenever it activates?

The short version of it is, there are three main things which can anchor you in limbically leading well. The first is to be calm, second is to be clear, and the third is to be connected to your people. And before I go into each one of these one by one, in short detail, there’s just one thing that I want to outline.

We go through our lives; this is a human truth, and the way we judge ourselves moment by moment, day by day, is based on our intentions, normally good. But other people don’t judge us by our intentions. Other people judge us by our impact. And in my experience of working with leaders for almost three decades, one of two great underestimations that leaders make, is they underestimate their impact on others. And it’s understandable because as a leader, I’m just a human being, trying to do what I do, stepping through the day, doing the best that I can, in the best way I know how, and that’s me, based on good intentions. But what you represent for other people, you’re not just that. You represent power and influence, and actually you’re the second, most important adult relationship that most people have in their life because it’s with their boss.

Jamil Qureshi is a sports psychologist from the UK, who’s worked with six individual sports people, and coached and helped them to get to number one in their sport in the world. And he’s adamant that the thing that distinguishes the world champion from everybody else is their degree of self-awareness. From a leadership perspective, the same is absolutely true. What differentiates the great leaders from those who are less, is their awareness, or self-awareness, around their own impact.

On an annual basis, I probably work with between 40 and 45 projects, transformation projects, in organizations every year. Which if you aggregate it up over the last 25 years, is more than a thousand different transformation projects, all of which involve change. And I can say without question that the single biggest influence on whether the transformation and the change program succeeds or doesn’t is down to the impact of the most senior leader.

And so many are so woefully unaware. So unaware they don’t need a pandemic crisis to put people on a constant limbic war footing. And then they wonder why people are defended, or they’re tentative, or they’re avoidant, or they’re resistant. These people, by the way, are mostly well-intended. They just have no awareness about their impact.

And if leaders underestimate their impact in normal peacetime, the impact that we have on other people is only amplified dramatically, when there’s times of uncertainty. As the Police song goes, “every breath you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you” and people are watching you far more than, you know.

When an aeroplane hits turbulence, all eyes go to the cabin crew, and nobody needs a nervous pilot. So the first thing we need to be as leaders is we need to be calm. As Kipling says in the poem If, “If you can keep your head, whilst all around you, others are losing theirs.” You see people take their cues from you.

And with all the displacement that we’re seeing, and refugees as a result of the war on Ukraine, it’s reminded me recently of events that happened during the 1970s, after the Vietnam war. And there was a situation where lots of displacement; people were fleeing Vietnam in homemade crafts and turning up on shores in neighbouring countries.

And there was one example, which I distinctly remember from the seventies, where a flotilla of crafts turned up on a neighbouring shore. And when the rescuers went down, they discovered exactly what you’d expect. High levels of mortality, disease, depression, trauma, et cetera. But they discovered that amongst these roughly 15 boats, there were two boats that stood out because they didn’t seem to have been affected in the same way as the rest of the boats. They seemed to be far better off. And people were perplexed. The rescuers couldn’t understand it. So they tried to understand it better, and they only came to one conclusion. And the conclusion was that there was somebody in each one of the boats that had a dominant, calming influence. Not necessarily an anointed or an appointed leader, but somebody who was able to remain calm. And this had a disproportionate effect, and it had a contagious effect throughout the rest of the boat, and led to a better result or a better outcome for everybody.

You see, emotions are contagious. Emotions are caught; they’re not taught. We’ve all had the experience where somebody walks into a room in a mood, and very, very quickly, it changes the mood in the room. Scientists have studied this pretty extensively, and they’ve had somebody go from outside a room, walk into a room and demonstrate a dominant emotion, strong emotion. They have wired up people’s nervous system, and their autonomic load recalibrates within less than 15 seconds, based on the dominant emotion, it recalibrates itself to match that dominant emotion in the room.

The rule of limbic leadership is that the dominant emotion wins. So when you’ve encountered or are encountering somebody in a 5% moment, the most important thing you can do is to remain and stay calm yourself. Ever notice how you can’t stay angry with somebody if they remain calm? It just dissipates. So by staying calm it soothes their limbic system.

The ultimate limbic question, of course, is, do you light up a room when you walk into it or when you walk out of it?