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11 March 2013

Leaders should listen to their their bodies as well as their brains--and really what's the difference?

Written by
Carolyn Coughlin

At the end of my last blog, I asked the question—so what does it mean for leaders if we truly believe our brain and body function as one, and that their primary joint purpose is to coordinate action?  If our body and brain is actually one integrated machine, with its primary purpose to enable us to do stuff, clearly, those of us who spend our lives being leaders or supporting leaders should care about that for any number of reasons.  The two reasons about which I think most are:

  • First, if leaders can learn (and practice) to cultivate the attention they pay to their whole selves and also to cultivate their physical capacity (including knowing how to more intentionally intervene in their physiological lives), it seems to me they have a much better chance of growing in their capacity to see and lead through complexity.
  • Second, leaders absolutely must be able to manage their stress.  Neuroscience is increasingly showing us how debilitating stress can be—on our ability to make good decisions, to engage productively with others, and, not insignificantly, on the chances that we’ll live a long and healthy life!  We invest too much in ourselves and our people to have them become incapacitated by stress-related conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension—especially when we understand so much about how stress affects our bodies.

Let’s look at the first “reason leaders should care.”  In our leadership programs (see many of Jennifer’s previous blogs on this site), we engage leaders in what we call “transformational learning,” meaning that we focus on not just increasing the amount of information leaders have in their heads or even the skills they have available to them, but the actual form of what they know, the perspectives they are able to take, and the amount of complexity they are able to see and navigate.  Our core belief about leadership is that the form of what adults know can (but does not necessarily) continue to grow and change over the course of our lives—with the right challenge and support.   Our leadership programs and our coaching rely heavily on three habits of mind—asking different questions, taking multiple perspectives, and seeing the system—which we believe are habits that, if engaged in regularly, can support us to grow.  But these habits are hard!  If they were easy, we’d all be growing like mad, wouldn’t we?  So how can we increase the chances that we are able to, especially in the face of stressful situations, practice these habits?  I believe that our body can be our ally in this endeavor and that by ignoring that ally, we are leaving a huge portion of our potential on the table and making our lives more difficult than they need to be.

Let’s take an example.  Suppose you have agreed to spend some of your valuable time attending a new leadership program at your company.  You fully believe that in order to be more effective in your new role (leading more people and with greater diversity, taking your department through a significant organizational change, and doing all this against the backdrop of a changing and often bewildering external environment) you must learn to not only think in new ways, but to engage with your people differently.  You understand that you cannot take your old way of operating and being, the one that made you successful up to this point, with you lock stock and barrel into your new role.  It won’t work.  The external faculty you’ve brought in to help you develop the new skills and mindsets you are seeking pulled a fast one on you.  They didn’t tell you that on Day 1 of the program, you’d have to go on video tape in front of several of your peers, attempting to handle a challenging situation with one of your direct reports.  Handling such situations isn’t new to you, but having to do it in front of your peers, and on tape, ups the ante a bit.  When you sit down to say the thing you prepared just minutes ago, you are astonished to realize that the thing coming out of your mouth bears no resemblance to the thing you wrote.  Instead, you find yourself saying things that seem judgmental and harsh.  And what’s going on with your voice?  It sounds breathy and tight.  And your palms!  And your ears have become so hot!  What’s happening?  You didn’t think you were nervous at all about this (after all, you are a high flyer in the company!), so why is your body betraying you?  Or maybe you were actually calm and cool until suddenly the other person says something she has no business saying!  The body betrayal may begin here instead.

Most of us will recognize this or some variation on this scenario.  It may have happened on video tape in a leadership program, or it may have happened in an unexpected hallway conversation or even with one of your loved ones at home.  Whatever the cause, our bodies are talking to us, and we ignore them at our peril.  We may want to ask more curious questions, we may be quite capable of taking multiple perspectives, and we may even be a master at seeing systems.  But if our body/brain mechanism conspires to lead us astray, astray it will lead us.  If we have to think ourselves into doing the things we know good leaders do, using only our conscious mind to do so, we will fall short again and again, particularly under stress.  The pre-conscious parts of our brains are busy receiving stimuli and sending messages to our bodies, and all of this happens before our eyes can see, our ears can hear, and our brains make conscious sense of what has happened.

Let’s look at one example (and there are many) of when and how a part of our body might know a thing before our neo-cortex knows it and how it might be useful if we could learn to notice and possibly even take some sort of action based upon that noticing.   Some of you will have heard of the concept “amygdala hijack.”  In the most basic sense, this is when something happens that causes us to involuntarily leave our rational self and enter into an alien body that bears more resemblance to a two year old child than to a well-adjusted adult.  We lose control—maybe we cry, yell, say something completely outlandish, or worse, shake, fight, or run for the hills.  Whatever the thing we do while under the control of aliens, it’s generally not something a “good leader” should do.  Anyone who has never had or been witness to such a hijack surely hasn’t lived….but what, in terms of the body/mind system is actually happening here?  The short version is this.  The hypothalamus, the part of the brain that regulates hormones and therefore related bodily functions like sleep, reproduction, sodium levels (Coates p. 50), also coordinates with the brain stem to create a coherent emotional “picture” of external stimuli.  It is our amygdala, however, that assigns emotional significance to the emotional picture.  It senses danger and initiates the stress response, getting the body into a state of high alert, even as the hypothalamus continues to register emotional states and automatically create hormonal and bodily responses to them.  This interaction between hypothalamus and amygdala can become a kind of reinforcing feedback loop.  Thus, an “amygdala hijack,” if not noticed quickly and intervened in, can, become a prolonged, even escalating event, rather than a blip followed by a quick return from alien to adult.

If leaders, who surely have a high probability of encountering the unexpected, could cultivate their attention to these signals and possibly even cultivate different physical actions to attend to them, it does seem that their chances of being able to practice the habits of mind we think are developmentally so helpful.

So if all this stuff is going on and we aren’t even conscious of it, what the heck can we do about it?  Aren’t leaders fighting a losing battle, spending hours, days, lifetimes, learning new skills, practicing different ways of seeing, knowing, even communicating with others, only to be hijacked by the parts of their bodies they have no control over and generally don’t even notice till it’s too late?  Alas, no.  They can cultivate their attention, and they can cultivate their physical actions so that their bodies become their allies in their endeavor to grow themselves into more effective leaders.  But they have to believe it matters, that spending “valuable” time on things like meditation, somatic exercises, yoga, and various other attention and movement practices is more than just a way to relax and slow down a bit.  They must believe (or at least be willing to take a leap of faith) that these things actually give them greater access to knowing and learning and enable them to stay centered and present enough to develop the habits of mind and heart that lead to the developmental growth they seek.  

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