The Power of Pause

The Power of Pause

As things speed up in this age of acceleration, paradoxically, for leaders to continue to perform at a high level, one necessity is to learn to slow down. This means, quite literally, learning to interrupt the operation of our very fast, unconscious mind to take the time and create the space needed to overcome habitual behaviours and encourage creativity.


To achieve this, we need to learn to respond—to choose, intentionally, where to focus our attention and effort, rather than having this happen “on automatic”. We need to be able to put aside memories of past experience and stories we’ve created about future possibilities in favour of present moment awareness.


By doing so we’ll be able to reduce the pull that the external environment has on our mind, so that we become less reactive to stimuli and more able to avoid the seductive allure of the many distractions that surround us. Then, our behavioural flexibility and creativity will start to increase.




Reacting vs. Responding


Imagine a situation where someone tells us that they think we are an idiot. A typical reaction would be to become offended, get angry and then to fire some sort of insult back – a choice, albeit an unconscious one, which will rarely produce desirable results.


Now, what if I’ve learnt to regulate my behaviour more effectively: on feeling the flush of anger, with a bit of practice I might find that I can take an intentional pause. I will then have more chance of taking a considered approach that won’t inflame the situation.


There is a critically important and useful distinction between these two cases. In both, we would typically be said to have reacted. However, the difference between the two is as stark as night vs. day. The first type of behaviour is reactive, while the second can be more accurately described as responsive:


  • Reactivity is when we are largely or wholly unaware of the main drivers of behaviour or decisions. The result is a set of habitual thoughts and behaviours that cause us to act impulsively to distractions and triggers, which can rule huge areas of our lives and make change extremely difficult.


  • Responsiveness is when we interrupt the automatic nature of unconscious thoughts and behaviour to consider other alternatives and make new choices that we’ve not tried in the past.




The Dangers of Reactivity


Some of our reactive patterns are simply mental habits—learned ways of thinking that we’ve practiced so often that they no longer require conscious thought. Others can take the form of what are called heuristics—mental shortcuts that allow us to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently.


Both these methods of thinking hugely reduce the amount of effort and time that would otherwise be required to determine our next course of action. It would be impossible to operate in the world without them.


Because of our mental shortcuts we are able to handle routine actions and events almost effortlessly. The problem though, is that they make it impossible to know what assumptions were made in reaching our conclusions. Worse, when we are wrong, there is no mental “red flag” to warn us, so we feel exactly the same as when we are right. And to compound the problem further, it is hard to recognise errors because everything happens so quickly and thoughtlessly.


To date, dozens of heuristics have been identified, and everyone has innumerable mental habit patterns. They create inertia that tends to lock us into our habitual behaviours, inevitably introducing unconscious biases and unexplored assumptions that can wreck the reliability of our decision making.


We are also motivated to prefer to rely on habits for a simple biological reason – it takes much more energy to think. Since we are wired to conserve energy, we will naturally prefer not to think unless we have to!


The combination of these two factors – the speed with which reactions take place, and the unconscious preference to minimise our use of energy – has the result that many people rarely, if ever, take a step back to explore whether their old patterns still serve them. Even fewer (estimated to be well under 5% of the overall population) have the willingness and ability to do so on a consistent basis. But, as with the development of any area of proficiency, the more you practice, the better at it you will become.




The Challenge of Learning to Respond


To overcome automatic reactivity – an essential requirement in a world where rapid technological change and turbulent market environments are the norm – leaders must cultivate the ability to respond in a more thoughtful way. This is much more difficult than it might sound because of the difference in the speeds of operations of the two parts of the brain involved.


For example, why do you think it is that we instinctively startle watching a scary movie, even if we’ve seen it before? The answer is that the conscious knowledge and anticipation of an upcoming shocking event doesn’t allow us to override the rapid and automatic activation of our fight/flight system. When something happens that triggers an automatic reaction, we will tend to have acted before we’ve had time to think.


Because of this speed differential, habitual behaviours can be hard to change. To make it worse, it is even more difficult when we are stressed because of the way that the fight/flight system suppresses activity in the part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex, which enables rational thought.


If there isn’t time to consciously make new choices when we get triggered into action, and stressors only make the problem worse, what can we do?


This has always been an important question for anyone wanting to gain greater control over their internal and external lives. But it has been magnified recently because of the accelerating change we are all facing. For leaders, in particular, the more this trend progresses, the more creative, adaptable and able to handle stressors we need to become in order to continue to function effectively.


The solution is simple, but not easy: to learn to create the mental space necessary for old habits to be identified and overcome, allowing creative new approaches to be developed in their place.




Creating Space


Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom

Viktor Frankl

The greater our ability to create an interrupt during the short interval between the brain sending a signal to initiate action and the action taking place, the more responsive we’ll become. Ultimately, a few people such as Buddhist monks, many of whom have developed this capability to extreme levels, have proven that it is possible to reach a point where there is no reactivity left at all.

For most of us, such a lofty goal is a long way away, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t benefit enormously from greater awareness of those impulses that might lead to undesirable results. The more we grow this awareness, the more we’ll gain the ability to both look at how our thought creates our experience of reality and to respond in a less automatic, more flexible way.

In principle, this is not hard to achieve: we need to learn to slow down enough that we can engage our conscious mind and use it interrupt the cycle that leads to habitual actions. Initially, it isn’t so much about choosing a new action as vetoing the impulse and creating the space to do nothing. In other words, it is isn’t really about will power. Rather, it requires what David Rock, the Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, calls “won’t power”.


Pausing for Thought

The first requirement for building won’t power is to be able to recognise when we are moving into reactivity. By far the most useful warning sign that enables us to do this is a negative emotion being triggered. From brain studies, we know that such emotions will suppress our ability to think rationally, regulate emotions, be creative, empathise with others, and make effective decisions, as well as a host of other higher-level human capabilities.

The practical starting point is to develop the ability to keep a portion of our attention on our inner emotional world. It is a form of intentional attention that stays alert for the first sign of a negative emotion. As we do so, we’ll build the emotional self-awareness which is at the heart of emotional intelligence. This enables us to notice the need to slow down, which then enables us to choose not to act – to exercise our won’t power.

By deliberately introducing a pause between any external trigger and our action in this way, we can create the space necessary to regulate emotions – one of the most important emotional intelligence capabilities. This creates the space to consider alternative options.

Breathing offers a remarkably powerful way, probably the simplest one I know, by which we can centre ourselves enough to do this.

Research has shown that it can take as little as five seconds of conscious, deep breathing to short-circuit even the ‘neural highjack’ which occurs when our threat response is triggered. If you can maintain this type of breathing a little longer, just 20 seconds has been found to allow the brain to reorganise itself and for there to be an increase in activity in the frontal lobe. This then automatically improves attention, emotion regulation, creativity and decision-making, which will enable you to find a more adaptive, appropriate and evolutionary solution to whatever problem you are facing—a small inner shift which can result in huge external changes.

By practicing intentional attention in this way, we can predictably and reliably learn to slow down and reduce our reactivity. As a direct consequence, we will develop the responsiveness, flexibility and adaptability needed to handle our fast-changing fast world 

Slow down …. and watch your performance improve.

How to Handle Criticism

How to Handle Criticism

All leaders will be criticised. Their actions will be second-guessed, broken apart, and analysed in the smallest detail. As a leader you will never please everyone and will need to deal with the many people who utterly refuse to celebrate the success of anyone else because of their own limitations.

We see this behaviour frequently, for example, in the treatment by the press and the public of international athletes. These are people who have the focus and dedication to make the sacrifices necessary to get to the top, yet if they stumble when they finally reach the pinnacle of their sport, any momentary lapses or inadequacies can be met with anything from ridicule to outright condemnation and character assassination.


The People in the Stands

This kind of negative treatment was directed towards Tim Henman, whose failure to win Wimbledon, despite getting so close so many times, is generally portrayed in the UK as a failure. He attracts much criticism – the fact that he stayed close to the top of the world rankings for so many years, which at the time was virtually unknown for a British male tennis player, is commonly discounted by those who prefer to watch from the stands or their armchairs at home.

The people who exhibit this behaviour cheer when their idols win, enjoying their feel-good emotions, but are intolerant and critical when they lose. Such people are merely spectators – and spectators can never really understand what it means to be a player.

We can also readily see this behaviour directed at our statesmen and politicians, and at famous names from the entertainment industry.

The people who engage in with this kind of criticism don’t realise that they’re displaying a belief in their own inadequacy, or that seeking to bring down anyone who rises above them will never make them feel better. They are spectators as well, but this time in life, and their behaviours are purely an expression of their own limitations and insecurity. On the other hand, people with high self-esteem simply don’t spend their time trying to pull others down – they would have nothing to gain from doing so.


Sour Grapes

Egotism dictates that your leadership may even attract criticism from other people simply because they would like to enjoy the success that you’ve achieved but don’t believe they have the ability to do so. This was the moral of Aesop’s classic 3,000-year-old fable, “The Fox and the Grapes”. The story is of a hungry fox that tries to eat some grapes hanging high up on the vine, but he can’t reach them. Rather than admit defeat, he decides that he didn’t really want them anyway, because they are probably either unripe or sour. This is where the expression “sour grapes”, which is used to describe the envious disparagement of others, originated from. Clearly, this trait is deeply rooted!

Equally clearly, such envious disparagement has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the detractors. They aren’t really describing you, so much as they are defining themselves. Successful leaders even get rejected by people who have never met them.

So, if you are going to achieve unusual levels of success, it will be important to your happiness that you learn to deal with such criticism: you will have high-profile failures from time to time, but you’ll very likely attract criticism even if you didn’t. The most important element in dealing with it effectively is to be able to adopt an attitude where you don’t take it personally.


Cultivating Our Inner Strength

To rise above the criticism of others, we need to change our mental orientation towards it. I don’t believe there’s a much better starting point than to remind ourselves:

  • Of the courage required to step into a position that could attract people’s negative attention.
  • That, as long as we have behaved ethically and with integrity, criticism stems from the inadequacies of others. It is a product of their character which may have little or nothing to do with us.

I love the way that Theodore Roosevelt put it in his 1910 speech in Paris:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face in marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

We can isolate ourselves even further from the negativity of others by understanding that anyone behaving in this manner is actually suffering – having the low self-esteem that drives this people to criticise doesn’t feel good. This can allow us to empathise and have compassion for their position.

The power of compassion to create positive outcomes is enormous. By raising our awareness of why others behave as they do, our own self-management will improve, and we will be able to remain calm and comfortable even when facing serious challenges. That’s why our understanding of others is such an important element of emotional intelligence.

It also helps not to take ourselves too seriously. Much unnecessary upset comes when people feel that they have been insulted, when tolerance or a sense of humour would actually serve them much better. There is an old Zen story that illustrates this point well:

There once lived a great warrior. Though quite old, he was still able to defeat any challenger. His reputation extended far and wide throughout the land and many students gathered to study under him.

One day an infamous young warrior arrived at the village. He was determined to be the first man to defeat the great master. Along with his strength, he had an uncanny ability to spot and exploit any weakness in an opponent. He would wait for his opponent to make the first move, thus revealing a weakness, and then would strike with merciless force and lightning speed. No one had ever lasted with him in a match beyond the first move.

Much against the advice of his concerned students, the old master gladly accepted the young warrior’s challenge. As the two squared off for battle, the young warrior hurled insults at the old master. He threw dirt and spit in the master’s face. For hours he continued the verbal assault. Through it all the old warrior merely stood there motionless and calm. Finally, the young warrior exhausted himself. Knowing he was defeated, he left feeling shamed.

Somewhat disappointed that he did not fight the insolent youth, the students gathered around the old master and questioned him. “How could you endure such an indignity? How did you drive him away?”

The master replied, “If someone comes to give you a gift and you do not receive it, to whom does the gift belong?”

The master knew, as his students did not, that peace of mind is something over which we can develop conscious control. And such is the power of this inner strength that it can allow us to overcome many tough external conditions.


Our Experience is Not Passive

“Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”  ~ Aristotle

Contrary to Aristotle’s famous quote, even doing nothing isn’t an option for leaders, making criticism something they are all-but-guaranteed to attract. Therefore, the only positive choice is to take active control of the meaning that we give to others’ behaviour towards us, to cultivate a similar attitude towards criticism as that demonstrated by the great warrior facing his challenger: not to allow ourselves to be affected by it. By doing so, we will be able to avoid feeling insulted, hurt or unfairly treated by others.

This is where the power lies, because it gives us the ability to shift our experience of reality – actively shaping our perceptions in a way that serves us – so that what once felt like criticism literally becomes something else. We might, for example, perceive it instead as others’ intolerance, or their pain or stress, or perhaps it could even simply be registered as feedback.

Once we’ve achieved the ability to consciously shift our experience, it is easy to see that no one can criticise us nor, indeed, in any other way negatively affect our mental state, without our permission.

Permission is a choice – don’t allow it to be automatic!

Leadership: Is it Really a Skillset?

Leadership: Is it Really a Skillset?

“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

This quote is one of my favourites because of its power and relevance in so many areas of life. No where is it more relevant than in the context of leadership development.

Where should an organisation start in order to develop its leaders?

According to Harvard Professor Barbara Kellerman, there are now some 1,500 definitions and around 40 theories of leadership! This doesn’t help. Neither does the fact that the debate, and many training programmes, regularly become obsessed with conceptual arguments about what the word ‘leadership’ means, rather than working out what matters most. There is still a tendency to focus on outdated and largely useless questions about whether leaders or ‘born’ or ‘made’, or concepts such as how ‘leadership is doing the right things’, whilst ‘management is doing things right’, or the need for strategic vision.

It’s not that these things aren’t important, but there is much more to it. At this level, we can’t explain how we instinctively know a great leader when we meet or work with one, because such debate is conceptual. It is a bit like the difference between observing that a car needs a reliable engine, when the real question is, what are the factors necessary to produce reliability?

With great leaders, what is interesting is that everyone uses similar adjectives to describe them. I’ve done an exercise with thousands of people, where I ask them to come up with a description of the best leaders they know, and the results are always the same. In every case, almost all of these adjectives refer to aspects of mindset, not skillsets. What’s more, this exercise highlights that the attributes that are most valued are those that foster an environment within which people feel good. It is never about title, or status, and very rarely even about what a leader may have done—true leaders move us emotionally, ignite our passion, and inspire us to do our best, and we follow them for it. They help us to thrive.

Leadership of this nature is true “emotional intelligence” in action. So, the question is, how can we build the engine a leader needs?


A Different Form of Development

A huge part of our challenge as we seek to develop any capability that is based on mindset is that we are used to thinking about our personal growth in terms of skills. But, because of its reliance on emotional intelligence (EI), leadership cannot be developed through traditional forms of training which work well for the development of skills and knowledge. Neither can another vital aspect of leadership: effective decision making in the face of complexity and accelerating disruption.

The problem is that we are too comfortable and familiar with analysis, logic and rationalisation as the basis for personal development. We read a book or grasp a concept, and then seek to build on that understanding in the way that we would for any skill. But engaging people, or making great decisions in the face of volatility and uncertainty, have much more to do with having the right mindset than any skillset—and to develop aspects of mindset we need, quite literally, to focus on a different part of the brain to that which copes with skill development.


Turning Learning Inside Out

The capabilities needed by leaders today do not arise in the part of the brain which takes care of analytical and technical ability – called the neocortex – the one that most training programmes focus on. EI arises in the emotional brain – the limbic system – which looks after our feelings, impulses and desires, and this part learns in a totally different way.

Ronald Heifetz, co-founder of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University, describes the two forms of personal development:

  • ‘Technical’ changes, which are enabled by the development of skillsets. They have a cognitive basis, founded in the neocortex, and whilst they can be vitally important and the changes involved may not necessarily be easy, the skillsets required are well known and understood. Here, the traditional, outside in, approach to learning is effective. It has an external world orientation, founded on a basic (albeit largely unconscious) assumption that we can prepare for life by learning about things.
  • ‘Adaptive’ changes, where there is a need to transform at a deeper level than purely to develop new skills. These changes must be addressed from the inside out, through a process of realisation and self-discovery rather than instruction, and involve the creation of new connections in the emotional and instinctive parts of our brain. Such learning impacts the way we perceive the world, our level of self-awareness, and our inner relationship with others and to life in general. It is not so much about what we know, but how we know, and for change to occur it must resonate with an inner validity that cannot be achieved when someone else tells us. This is about the transformation of mindset.

Wherever a technical approach is taken to address an adaptive challenge, focusing on the neocortex rather than the limbic system—and leadership development definitely fits into the adaptive category—it is almost guaranteed to fail. In fact, doing that can be worse than doing nothing. Research by Daniel Goleman and the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations has found that when a rational approach to emotional development is adopted, it can even have an adverse impact on people’s job performance.

As such, internationally recognised expert on EI, Daniel Goleman, is not wrong in his assertion that, “far too many programs that intend to develop leadership skills – including EI – are a waste of time and money”, when they focus on outside in training. But flip it to inside out, mindset training, and the results can be transformational.

Clearly then, the type of learning required for leadership development which has EI at its centre, must create change at the level of the limbic system. This part of the brain learns best through motivation, extended practice, and feedback, and it takes place most effectively when we focus on developing what are called meta-skills. 


Focusing on Meta-Skills

So called, “meta-skills” aren’t really skills in the normal sense of the word. They are mental competencies—higher order thinking capabilities which play an important role in the delivery of many other skills. For example, in competition the technical skill of hitting a tennis forehand is of little value without the meta-skill of being able to stay calm under pressure. But that same capability to stay calm under pressure will benefit many other areas of life. Meta-skills can also be used in a wide variety of circumstances, including some we have never directly experienced before.

All such meta-skills are inner capabilities of mindset, which is why taking an inside out approach to this kind of leadership development is so important. Effectively, as Emerson articulated so well, it is about focusing on a set of core principles. By adopting this kind of principle-based leadership development, improvements can be achieved across a wide range of superficially unrelated capabilities, such as: communication skills, the ability to develop more robust, collaborative and empathetic relationships, teamwork, resilience under stress, creativity and vision, and responsiveness to change.

The good news is that all of the necessary emotional competencies for effective leadership can be learnt, and in many cases they are complementary and mutually supporting. As one competency is improved, others automatically rise with it. We must simply make sure that we focus in an effective way on the limbic brain.

It’s about Mindset. Not Skills!