The art of sustainable leadership

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Executive coach Kate Lanz looks at how to maximise the brain’s full potential for sustainable leadership.

 

Not many boards consider the emotional impact of strategic decisions on their leaders. But they should. New discoveries in neuroscience demonstrate that our brains do their best thinking when we feel emotionally and psychologically safe. However, organisations can often create a culture of moral indifference that by definition does not enable their business leaders to function at their brain’s full potential.

Since the global economic crisis, the drive for more efficient business models continues. There is now little or no fat in most organisational systems. 'Do more with less' remains the order of the day. This ongoing command creates points of tension and sometimes outright competing demands inside organisations.

For instance, financial institutions are under pressure to lend at the same time as improving the balance sheet; global companies centralise procurement and product design to cut costs at the same time as expecting products that match and meet local market demands; brand marketing becoming skeletal whilst the business expects a globally coherent execution with limited resource. These competing demands pit colleagues against each other to compete for customers and resources. At the point in the system where the 'do more with less' decisions bite there are human beings – leaders – who are impacted.

The board of the business has two fundamental options in the emotional environment (or to put it another way, culture) they create around their decisions. One is much more effective and importantly sustainable than the other.

The first and the least sustainable is when the organisation sleepwalks into moral indifference, neglecting these leaders and leaving them to sort out the ‘hot’ point impact in isolation. Why does this happen? Keeping an emotional distance enables the board to make the demands without getting over stressed themselves. If they were to truly engage in the emotional impact on their leaders they might run the risk of becoming paralysed by being too tuned in to how these competing demands are impacting their people. Alternatively they are simply so taken up with task focus that they forget to think about the energetic impact their decisions have on their leaders. In either instance the mentality and culture that gets created is one of escape and avoidance. Highly-paid senior leaders are simply expected to just get on with it.

"A brain that is not being sustained by trust and a sense of enjoyment will spend energetic resources in managing fight or flight reactions. In the long term, producing high levels of adrenaline and cortisol becomes corrosive and impacts health through chronic stress."

Basic human connection and relationships begin to suffer and when these suffer so does business performance. Our brains function best when they are connected via trusting relationships. The sense of emotional and psychological safety created by trust enables the brain to switch on its learning and creativity centres and think well. When our brains do not detect a safe environment they deploy their energy to keep us alive, putting us in survival mode. When this is activated, less attention is deployed to the thinking and learning centres. A culture of fear or moral indifference cannot produce top quality thought from leaders. It is simply not possible from a brain-based perspective.

A brain that is not being sustained by trust and a sense of enjoyment will spend energetic resources in managing fight or flight reactions. In the long term, producing high levels of adrenaline and cortisol becomes corrosive and impacts health through chronic stress. Executives in this type of situation will often put on a brave face in order to survive and not to appear weak. This becomes a vicious cycle, not a sustainable one.

Leadership coaching at the ‘hot’ point can help the individual leader to survive to the best of their ability given a culture of moral indifference. Coaching can also help that leader find ways to provide as productive a micro-culture as possible, acting as a protective bubble for their own team. Executives who find themselves in such a survival culture will do well to seek coaching support.

As an example, Adrienne is a COO in a large division of a financial institution. Through coaching she learned how to tap into her own experience, allowing her to access the best of her brain’s positive productive capacity and keep the escape avoidance reactions to a minimum. She shifted the micromanagement she was receiving from her own direct boss; took a major stand against prevailing processes on a couple of key issues; and drove a different set of decisions on a key strategic issue that helped to raise the performance bar in her area. Part of the function of the coaching work was to provide her with a safe space to do some quality thinking through the context of a trusting relationship.

There is an alternative. Boards who seek to stay connected to their leaders and really understand the emotional impact of the strategic decisions on the organisation and the emotional impact of what happens at the ‘hot’ points can set up a different neurochemical culture. By staying connected, and fronting the conflicting demands and the stress, they can create with their leaders a sense of psychological safety, which in turns builds trust. This enables their leaders’ brains to work better and a cycle of sustainable leadership begins.

Another recent example is of a top team where business results were poor. Silos of mistrust had built up and the team’s ability to work effectively together was eroding. Through team and one-to-one coaching the team was enabled to hold the honest conversations that needed to happen in a way that felt safe and understanding of the issues. They experimented with ever-higher degrees of exposing and handling vulnerability, both personal and professional. Trust began to build. Business results followed faster than they themselves had imagined possible.

Creating real connections and thereby trust creates sustainable leadership. It is a brain-based truth. Boards who figure this out and get it right will - and do - see the results.

 

Kate Lanz leads Lanz Executive Coaching specialising in work with senior leaders and their teams. She focuses on applied neuroscience in her work. She is also a coach at the International Global Leadership Center at INSEAD. She speaks and writes on coaching and coaching supervision

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