Exercise and “Smarts”: The Link

Exercise and “Smarts”: The Link

“Healthy body, healthy mind” is an old maxim, the validity of which has long been accepted. The more that scientists investigate this link, however, the more startlingly relevant it appears to be.

It is only 40 years or so since psychologists believed that intelligence is largely an inherent capability: born not made. Thankfully, we now know that this is not the case. This article explores recent research which has discovered how beneficial exercise can be in this regard, benefiting cognition and inducing the creation of new brain cells that can aid learning.

Read the Article: Running Makes You Smarter – Here’s How

Why Balancing the Brain is Vital to Great Leadership

Why Balancing the Brain is Vital to Great Leadership

The majority of leaders, in my experience, are already familiar with the notion of ‘Level 5’ leadership, a term coined around 20 years ago by Jim Collins and made famous in his best-selling book, Good to Great. He used it to describe the very best leaders: those possessing the capabilities to enable the transformation of a company from good to great.

Collins’ work was remarkable because it challenged the accepted wisdom of the day – that CEOs should be charismatic, larger-than-life figures. He initiated a major shift in leadership thinking by showing that, far from being high-profile individuals with big personalities and a love of success for their own glory, the most effective leaders avoided the limelight wherever possible. In his words, “They weren’t aggressive, self-promoting or self-congratulatory, but diligent and hardworking, self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy.” He discovered that these outstanding leaders were absolutely committed to the success of both the team and the organisation, whilst at the same time being the first to pass credit to others when things went well and to accept the blame when things went badly.

In summarising their qualities, Collins said that such leaders were remarkable because of their ability to:

“Build enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will.”

Unfortunately, Collins stopped short of providing guidance on how such leaders could be developed; indeed, he even suggested that to propose a method to do so would be “speculation”! The means of developing emotional intelligence to this level are not well understood, so perhaps it is unsurprising that both research and anecdotal evidence suggest that very few leaders have achieved the goal of mastering leadership at Level 5. How few? According to one study, by David Rock, director of the Neuroleadership Institute, where he evaluated the related qualities of goal focus (similar to professional will) and social skills (within which humility is a uniquely powerful resource), scarily few! He discovered that less than 1% of leaders were rated high on both goal focus and social skills.

As this article explains, some of the difficulty involved in developing a balanced capability in both analytical and social leadership skills may be due to fundamental characteristics of how our brains work. When we focus on either of these two types of task, we engage specialised areas of the brain. However, countless neuroimaging studies have shown that, with few exceptions, there is an antagonistic relationship between the two areas, such that the more one of these networks gets activated, the more the other quietens down. This means that once we are engaged in one type of thinking it is much harder to engage the other, or even to recognise that the other type would be beneficial. I call this a neural seesaw.

This article describes the interaction between the two networks in greater detail. It also explains the importance and value of recognising that we all have a “natural”, or preferred, approach in terms of which network we tend to default to, and addresses what you can do to begin to learn how to create an optimal balance between them.

Read the Article: The Best Managers Balance Analytical and Emotional Intelligence

My Advice

Leadership, like most things in life, requires balance. As such, the seesawing nature of mental function described in this article has huge implications for leadership development and performance. We are much less likely to succeed without focusing on our people, and they won’t succeed unless we’re focused on results – neither characteristic on its own will consistently produce great leadership. Furthermore, it is insufficient simply to understand or remember that we need both task and social capabilities, because so many of the decisions about where and how we focus are made unconsciously.

In the modern, high stress working environment (and life more generally), people are often juggling many priorities at once. When this happens, switching from one side of the brain to the other becomes too difficult, resulting in those tasks that are less automatic getting neglected. The solution requires us to overcome the inevitable neurological conflict that makes it difficult to switch between task and social roles. The foundation of that capability is:

To learn to be able to intentionally choose which parts of the brain to use.

… not easy, I know, that’s why it’s the subject of one of my in-depth workshops!

Disliking Others – Is it Really About Them?

Disliking Others – Is it Really About Them?

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world.

Today I’m wise, so I’m changing myself.”  ~ Rumi

The conditioning we receive throughout life is so pervasive and powerful that it’s literally impossible to be aware of the psychological influence that it has on our feelings, including – perhaps especially – on our feelings relating to others. We are fundamentally social beings, so even the presence of other people can dramatically affect our experience of situations and things that we come across. For example, in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini quotes one study where “men who saw a new-car ad that included a seductive young woman model rated the car as faster, more appealing, more expensive-looking and better designed than did men who saw the same ad without the model. Yet, when asked later, the men refused to believe that the presence of the young woman had influenced their judgments”.

What is happening is that we naturally interpret everything through the lens of our own experience and belief systems. If you’ve read my book, The Little Black Book of Decision Making, you’ll know that I love the following Sufi proverb, because it captures this idea so powerfully and in so few words: “When a pickpocket meets a saint, all he sees are pockets”. Another way of saying this is that we see the world, not as it is, but as we are.

The psychological truth is that our emotional reaction to any experience cannot be attributed to any sort of objective “reality”, any more than a roller coaster can be said to be objectively exhilarating or terrifying. Rather, our emotional reactions are the result of our subjective interpretation of whatever is happening. Inevitably, this means that the way we see others – how we label or judge them, has more to do with ourselves than with them, as this wonderful story that I’ve paraphrased from Stephen R. Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, illustrates:

Stephen was travelling on the underground when a man got on with his children. The peace and calm that had previously existed was immediately shattered as the children’s terrible behaviour disrupted the other passengers. Irritation levels in the carriage understandably started to rise, but the father had closed his eyes and seemed oblivious. Astonished by this obvious lack of sensitivity to others, Stephen spoke politely to the man, suggesting that perhaps he could control his children a little more. The father then seemed to become aware of the situation for the first time, acknowledging he should do something, and saying, “We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either”.

This article offers some useful starting points to think about the root cause of negative biases that you might experience towards others.

Read the Article: Are You Biased Against That Coworker You Don’t Like?

My Advice

There is one capability that both comes before and sits below all the techniques mentioned in the article, and which is, therefore, an essential enabler to developing emotional balance: to become much more highly attuned to our own emotional state in the moment. To do this, we must learn to use our minds differently.

By keeping some of our attention on the inner world of our emotions, we create the opportunity to change how we feel. This focus enables us to become aware of negative reactions. Having done so, we can then track back to the underlying thoughts, developing the capability to look at the thinking associated with the emotion. This capability is sometimes called metacognition, which means thinking about what we are thinking about. By becoming more conscious of your thoughts, the self-awareness generated will enable greater conscious regulation of how you feel, improving your ability to build constructive and empowering relationships.

Take the Opportunity for Growth

Take the Opportunity for Growth

You may well be aware by now of the work of psychologist and Stanford University professor, Carol Dweck, who identified the important difference between what she called “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. The fixed mindset belief is that our capabilities are innate capacity – we were either born with them or we weren’t – while individuals who have a growth mindset believe in the capacity for development through effort. Dweck discovered that a growth mindset is a prerequisite for the achievement of excellence, while a fixed mindset is almost guaranteed to result in mediocrity. This is true at a corporate and individual level.

The fixed mindset is so powerful that it will often lead people to turn down opportunities to improve, even when they are obviously necessary and require no initiative or effort to take advantage of them. For example, a study was conducted at the University of Hong Kong, where all classes are conducted in English. This gives some students a considerable advantage because not all of them arrive with equal skills in this area. A group of students with poor English were identified and sorted into fixed- and growth-mindset groupings. They were then asked whether they would like to take a remedial language class (that would not affect their grades).

Amazingly, most of the fixed mindset group refused the offer. In total contrast, the growth mindset group showed a high interest in taking the class. Those with a fixed mindset were prepared to jeopardise their future success rather than risk the possibility of failure in the remedial course.

The differences between these two mindsets are so deep-rooted that they even show up in brain scans. The brains of people with a fixed mindset “light up” to show interest when given feedback on their strengths, but during discussions where there is an opportunity for them to learn, their brains can be seen to switch off. They even fail to show interest in learning how to make corrections when they have made mistakes. As such, neuroscience proves that only those people with a growth mindset are genuinely interested in learning and being stretched.

Clearly, this is a critical issue for businesses, and leaders will always benefit from helping their employees to become more growth oriented. This article discusses some mechanisms by which you may be able to take advantage of crises, such as Covid-19 and is consequences, to help to cultivate this type of mindset more strongly.

Read the Article: 6 Ways a Crisis Can Help You Cultivate a Growth Mindset

My Advice

Research has clearly shown that, contrary to what most of our education, training and experience to date may have led us to believe, it is not innate ability or talent that brings success: the most important fundamental, underlying everything else, is mindset. The good news is that the key to a developing a productive, success-oriented mindset is to focus on learning.

During a crisis, the need to change can be even more evident than normal, so there may be no better time to practice the skills needed to stimulate learning and growth. With this in mind, there are two ideas in this article that I particularly love:

  • The concept of a “learn it all” culture, as opposed to the typical expertise-based culture which is described here as “know it all”.
  • Making a practice of asking people what they’ve learnt.

Whenever we ask a question it changes the thought processes that are taking place in the other person’s mind. It literally hijacks their thinking to focus it on the subject of the question, not only changing what the brain is doing in that instant, but also starting to shift future behaviour. By asking great questions you can align thinking and behaviour with growth, thus orienting your people and your business in that direction.

The Germ Vs. The Terrain, Part 2: Time for a Change of Model?

The Germ Vs. The Terrain, Part 2: Time for a Change of Model?

In Part 1 of this article, we looked at the process of scientific revolution, and I described how the world came to accept what has now become the central pillar of Western medicine – “germ theory”. We looked at:

  • How difficult it can be for scientists, explorers, or leaders, to challenge the accepted understanding and recognise the implications of new data.

  • How germ theory – the idea that disease is caused by harmful, microscopic organisms – transformed the practice of medicine.

  • An alternative model to germ theory, known as “terrain” or the “cellular” theory of disease, which emerged at around the same time. This suggests that the internal environment within each person’s body mainly determines their susceptibility to disease.

I find it fascinating that Pasteur, one of the leading advocates of germ theory, who succeeded in changing scientific thinking once, was ignored when, on his deathbed, he declared that, “the microbe is nothing, the terrain is everything”. Should we have listened to him for a little longer?

Resistance to new thinking is often very strong, which is why revolutions – where new ideas are ridiculed and censored – have been so commonplace as scientific understanding has evolved. This is a critically important point, not only for scientists but also for all leaders, because over-reliance on “conventional wisdom” and best practice is becoming a greater and greater risk as the pace of change in the world increases.

Let’s think about some questions which might suggest that the body’s environment, not germs, holds the key to health:

  • It is estimated that we have 60 trillion bacteria in our bodies all of the time. On top of that, there are an estimated 380 trillion viruses. Many of these microbes have the potential to cause disease. So why is it that most of us, most of the time, seem unaffected?

  • Why, for example, does the same flu virus, in the same flu season, affect only a small percentage of the population?

  • Why is stress so strongly linked to the development of disease?

  • If disease is caused by germs, which result in the body breaking down, what difference could placebos possibly make (yet they have been proven to have a huge impact!)?

  • Why is it that small exposures to germs often make our bodies more resistant to disease?

  • Why have well over 99% of all of the people who have sadly died of Covid-19 been either old or suffering from at least one (usually around three) other illness? Why has this virus affected so few people below the age of 65?

Germ theory offers little explanation in response to any of these questions. Not so, terrain theory. Its core principle is that a diseased, toxic, or otherwise unhealthy body, when subjected to disease-causing germs, may struggle to defend itself, whereas a healthy body would be much more able to repel them or limit their impact. If this theory is valid, all of the observations highlighted by the questions above become easy to understand…

As science has evolved, many examples have been discovered to provide evidence in support of terrain theory. One is the power of vitamin D to transform our health, as covered in a previous article, where the study I referenced concluding that avoiding the sun increases risk of death as much as smoking. The reason for this powerful effect is that vitamin D regulates many functions in the body (the terrain), including hormone balance, metabolism, blood pressure, bone density, fighting cancer, and immune function, so low levels of it can be hugely detrimental. Another example is the link between gut health and the effectiveness of the immune system. As this has been recognised, it has enabled us to realise the great importance of maintaining our microbiome, if we want to be healthy.

Moving from an emphasis on germs, to thinking about terrain, shifts the focus for maintaining health away from reactively dealing with illness through the treatment of symptoms, to proactive management of the conditions in our body and the strength of our immune system. It places importance on creating a healthy body through detoxification, nutrition, and lifestyle, optimising our microbiome and internal environment to prevent disease and improve recovery.

Despite the lack of widespread acceptance of terrain theory, scientific research in the area is highly advanced. At the leading edge of this field study is a specialism called epigenetics, which looks at how environment can change genetic expression. I’ll delve into this area in another newsletter, soon.

For those interested in learning more about terrain theory, and how we might benefit from it, I’m offering two articles this time. The first presents a counterargument to germ theory, building the case for why Bechamp’s terrain theory should have won the day.

Read the Article: Louis Pasteur vs. Antoine Bechamp: Know the True Causes of Disease

This second article provides further evidence of the extensive benefits of ensuring that we maintain adequate vitamin D levels. Contrary to its name, vitamin D is actually not a vitamin, but a hormone, and it contributes to health in many ways. This article looks specifically at how vitamin D might aid the prevention and treatment of viral infections, including Covid-19. For example, this chart, taken from one of the studies referenced in the article, shows that almost everyone with vitamin D levels above 30 mg/ml gets only mild symptoms if they contract the disease.

Leaders Who Give, Gain

Leaders Who Give, Gain

There’s no doubt that the people who work for you are much more likely to give their best if they, emotionally, choose you to lead them. One way of achieving this was highlighted by a fascinating study conducted at the University of Kent.

The research was based around a “cooperation game”, in which a group of participants were each given a small amount of money and invited to use it to make a contribution to a common fund. The fund was then doubled in value and shared equally between all members of the group.

This experiment cleverly confronted participants with a common dilemma:

  1. Cooperate with the collective interest by continually reinvesting their money, thereby maximising the overall gains, or…
  2. Act selfishly, by holding back some of their money, which maximises personal gain at the expense of others.

Thriving businesses need maximal cooperation, yet, as the experiment showed, there are always people who prefer option 2. It also demonstrated just how critical it is that leaders don’t fall into this trap! In the second phase of the experiment, participants were divided into teams and each was asked to elect a leader. They found that:

82% of the leaders elected were those who had given the most during the first phase.

The study showed that the act of giving is recognised as a leadership quality, and that this is true even if that person is a complete stranger.

This article provides helpful advice to anyone seeking to give more. It warns, for example, that while givers may be the best performers, they can also be the worst, and why this happens. It also identifies six different profiles of generosity, to help you to understand where your skills and interests may fit most naturally, and highlights the danger of going too far and giving too much of yourself!

Read the Article: The Power of Giving

My Advice

“The greatest gift is a portion of thyself.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

When we give, it says to others that we are seeking to serve; it shows that we are interested in placing their interests ahead of our own; it demonstrates that we are willing to invest in their world, not just our own. Perhaps it is unsurprising then, that when people witness us to be givers, they will see us as a leader.

Please remember that the power of generosity will not enhance your leadership if applied as a technique. If you fall into the trap of giving in order to get something, that is NOT influence, it is manipulation. To unlock the power of giving, it must be done authentically, without expectation of return. It is about being, not doing.