Author, Consultant, Executive Coach - Helping people and organizations grow into desired results

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Clear Mountain Leadership Retreat: musings on gearboxes and transformation

Another weekend, another workshop…. It’s unusual that I book back-to-back weekends with professional development courses, especially when I’ve got significant client work in between. For this one, however, I could resist neither the topic – an intensive look at integrated leadership styles through application of the NeuroPower framework (as developed by author and strategist Peter Burow) – nor the location: Clear Mountain outside Brisbane in Queensland.

So I’ve been sitting atop a mountain surveying the vistas of the river valleys spilling out to the sea, in a quest to “rediscover the leader within.” I’ve also been mindful of the line from my favourite novel, The Razor’s Edge: “It is easy to be a wise man on the top of a mountain.” The point for me in such courses is in the practical application of insight and knowledge and the task is therefore not merely to go up the mountain in search of wisdom, but to bring one’s integrated perspective back down from the heights and help others along their own path to insight, knowledge and wisdom. And since arguably corporations are the cathedrals of today inasmuch as many people want to derive meaning and purpose from the work that they do, I like those insights to wherever possible have a business application.

The limbic reaction: fight/flight/freeze revisited
All forms of change, be they in work or relationships, whether in the areas of learning, shifts of mindset, altered circumstances or new developments, will provoke a limbic response. Whether we ultimately perceive the change to be positive or negative, the immediate response at a very basic level of the brain will be “something is changing the status quo, what does this mean?? Am I under threat?? Am I going to be OK??”

You have probably heard of this as the fight-flight-freeze response. It’s a critical part of our survival mechanism. It’s hardwired into our neural circuitry and happens even before we’re consciously aware of it. This is to the good: it’s the reason your distant ancestors dodged threats (like Australia’s infamous three S’s: snakes, sharks and spiders) and defended their turf long enough to produce the people who, in turn, eventually produced you.

The fight-flight-freeze or limbic response gets some bad press because it can lead to really dumb decisions. The point is, it’s not the place you want to make all your decisions from, but without it you can’t make decisions at all. Let me explain.

Your limbic responses are absolutely not the noble, rational, thinking part of your brain that goes so far toward making you uniquely human and particularly you. Still, I’d like to revisit the limbic/fight-flight-freeze response and suggest a bit of a reframe, a more nuanced understanding of what this part our brain is about.

The parts of the brain responsible for this automatic, seemingly knee-jerk reaction that happens beneath our conscious awareness are also the bits of the brain that provide the energy required for your higher brain functions. These higher functions are the ones that help you to define what you feel about the reaction you’ve just had and in turn what you think about that feeling about what’s just happened.

For example, the unconscious reaction when you first meet someone might be strong attraction, which produces a feeling of both pleasure and embarrassment (perhaps because this person happens to be your boss’s new wife) at which point your thinking brain comes up with a story to explain the situation to yourself in an acceptable fashion (“she reminds me of an ex-girlfriend,” or, “she must have been flirting with me somehow”).

The mental gearbox

People who’ve had the limbic part of their brains surgically “shut off” end up being incapable of making a decision – they simply can’t be bothered about anything in particular because they can’t decide if they want to fight it, flee it, or freeze. You could therefore think about this function in less sinister, life-threatening terms, by simply understanding them as gears that you switch in your mind depending on whether you need to go forward, be in neutral, or reverse.

You may be thinking, “OK, forward makes sense, that’s how you get stuff done, but why on earth would I want to be in neutral or even reverse!?” Well, think of a conversation between two people constantly in forward – they’d be talking over each other and not hearing anything the other person said. While you may well have engaged in conversations like this in the past (or even today) you’d probably agree that it’s not a very useful means of two-way communication. So “neutral” in this context is the part you play in the natural flow of conversation when you let other people take their turn to speak and have their say.

What about reverse? Think of reverse as the reflective gear, where you withdraw to gather your thoughts, make new connections and create knowledge out of the raw information that you’ve gathered.

We all need reflection time – it’s the key to developing awareness of oneself and others. Hence my decision to spend time this weekend on the mountain, learning (among other things) how to manage my own mental gearbox of limbic reactions and becoming attuned to what gear other people are currently using so as to have more successful interactions with them.

When people have developed this capability and happen to be in an organization, this function is the key to achieving transformational leadership, which (in a triad along with management and leadership) will be the theme of future postings on this blog.

For now, I appreciate your taking the time in neutral/reverse gears to read/ponder my musings from the mountain, and encourage you to get into forward gear to seek out my further posts on this subject…


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