A Leader's Abiding Nemesis

Leaders wade against the current.

What is that current?

Negativity or more precisely, habitual thinking - which hates being interrupted.

And if they are, negativity rears its head.

And leadership is all about driving new initiatives - a massive interruption to habitual thinking.

As a leader, you need to know all about this current. (know your enemy)

What is that Current?

We move in the direction of where we focus our attention. True or false?

This suggests you are where you are today as a result of where you have focused your attention.

The answer is ‘True’. Common sense (plus 40 years of research) confirms that phrase, so we can consider it a truth.

Given that we do move in the direction of where we focus, where do most people focus their attention – on what works or what doesn’t work?

On what DOESN’T wrk. As humans we are negatively geared. We are hard wired to spot fault (what's wrong) – just like you were alerted to the spelling mistake earlier in this paragraph.

You see we have three levels to our brain, which roughly correspond to stages of the brain's development.

First is the primitive brain (sometimes called the reptilian brain). This is a stimulus / response  centre that takes care of bodily functions e.g. regulates the blood temperature. It takes no energy to run - no conscious thought required, its active all the time (e.g. even when sleeping).

The second level of the brain is the mammalian brain.  This is where the survival systems reside (the highly responsive limbic's system of ‘fight / fright / freeze’). It is also where routine and habit reside. When the new becomes familiar, it moves to the mammalian brain. Again, a low energy usage area – habits are the brain’s way of economising on mental energy.

The third and most ‘recent’ region is the neo-cortex and particularly the pre-frontal cortex. This is used for Executive Function - doing a new task, consciousness, staying on task, problem solving, deliberately focusing attention - higher intellectual function. It takes a lot of energy to run.

A key function for the mammalian brain is to spot threat. Like radar, it’s constantly scanning for threat. And it translates any problem you're having as a threat.

What this means is that, if I was to ask you to list out all the problems you’re currently having... you’d be able to do it, just like that. No hesitation. The list would be right there in your awareness.

Alternatively, if I asked you list out all the things that are working well for you in your life... you’d go, “Ummm, aaaaahh” and eventually... “Yes, well there is this, and that and this.”

But there is a time delay. The reason for this is, you have to really focus; you have to use the high energy part of your brain (your prefrontal cortex). And that takes real effort.

What does all this mean?

As humans, we are hardwired to fault-find, problem-seek. Jung said, “Humans are pessimistic” – this is what he was referring to. Deficit-focus is our default setting.

Consider this interesting confirmation of this world-wide, human condition:

  • The research is that 70% of our inner-talk (the internal voice in our head) is negative!
  • Of the 24 most popular emotions in the English language, only 6 are positive (delighted, ecstatic, excited, confident, great and happy)
  • In 30 years of psychological research there were 45,000 studies into depression, illness, weakness and only 300 on strengths and happiness (American Psychological Association)

In a business context, what does this mean?

It means that when people get together, they’ll tend to talk about what's wrong. Why? Because it’s so easy to do. It takes no energy. It’s easily accessible.

The first thing to come up when, as a leader, you suggest a new approach will be...? You guessed it. Objections – "It won’t work, can’t work, won’t work for me."

If not voiced, it'll certainly be going on in their heads.

And it gets worse!

When we talk about or think into a problem, it drains our energy.

And when our energy drops, so too does our thinking capacity. We get less resourceful the more tired we are and more drained when we discuss problems.

With reduced thinking capacity, we can only think thoughts we’ve thought before (our habitual thinking).

Same thoughts... lead to... same actions... lead to no change. This is one reason why change is soooo hard.

What, as a leader, can you need to do about it?

The key can be found earlier in this article.

We move in the direction of where we focus our attention.

Therefore, become aware of where do you routinely focus your attention? What really pre-occupies your thinking? What do you talk about? What do you talk about with your team? Where do you focus their attention by what you say?

It is so easy to be drawn into the negative, there’s so much to be dark about – global financial crisis, global warming, peak oil, getting old, the latest brutal crime / natural disaster, all the problems at work etc

Just be aware if you go there, you need to rebalance; if you take your team into the negatives, you need to rebalance your team. As a leader you need ensure high energy levels.

What is your nemesis as a leader?

The thoughts in your head.

These may not even be your own. Be suspicious of thoughts, you never know whose head they’ve been in!

Deliberately refocus away from the negative (otherwise you'll get more of that)

Focus on the % progress made, the high points from the day, the improvements made by staff. Be very specific about the destination.

When a problem resurfaces, do the ‘Three simple’ on it. Ask what are three simple things we could do to overcome this?

You must continue to swim against the current by Constant Conscious Recalibration toward the positive, toward your vision.