From firing blanks to conceiving some new life in your leadership
In 1st June this year, I helped a friendly middle-aged woman understand something she’d never figured out:
“Why am I happy donating to children on Comic Relief,” she asked me, when I mentioned working with charities “but when a well-known children’s charity knocks on my door, with pictures of children, I feel the opposite of generous, and want to slam the door?”
I explained that to be generous, her brain needed some level of emotional connection and the fellow at the door – by intruding on her evening – had burned any possibility of that. I was lying on my back and I had an ulterior motive in explaining this to (we’ll call her Carol). An ageing Polish man sat nearby, fiddling with my intimate regions.
The Diazepam® Dilemma
She was the nurse. He the surgeon. I was the patient and I’d been a naughty boy.
If you’ve had a vasectomy, you’ll know you’re meant to take 10mg of Diazepam (another name for Valium), a powerful prescription relaxant. But my mate had warned me off it: “I came out of the operation, and staggered past others waiting for theirs, shaking all their hands, telling them what a great doctor he was and what I’d just had done. I was off my head. I could barely walk.”
When you work for yourself, a day not working, or worse, off your head, firing off Valium-induced insane emails to clients, is bad news. So, I skipped the Diazepam, but had to then prove I was relaxed enough without the drug for Dr Snip to proceed. I convinced him by calmly explaining to Carol what was behind her reactions. Thankfully, the doc was convinced.
I also have some smart clothes
I’m Steve, I’m married to Ruth, have four kids (hence the snip) and love the outdoors. As I write, we’re packing for three weeks under canvas, when we’ll be snaring rabbits, catching fish, cooking on fires.
I also have some smart clothes, which I put on for my day job helping people, organisations and good causes work out how to lead, to persuade, to affect the thoughts and behaviours of others. Leadership by another name.
So, sit back, relax, and see the next ten minutes as a ‘reverse snip’: helping you conceive a seed of leadership in areas where until now you might have been firing blanks.
All of us either try to lead what hits us each day, or we follow circumstance or the path of least resistance when stuff hits us. A fellow called Howard Gardner, in a book called Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership, brought leadership down to its basics when he put it like this:
“A leader is an individual … who significantly affects the thoughts, feelings, and/or behaviors of a significant number of individuals.”
Leadership gets dressed up more than a mannequin in a shop window – but underneath all the garments, leadership hasn’t changed: it’s still about affecting people in a way which changes their thinking, feelings and how they act. When did you do this recently? Might have been your partner, wife, girlfriend, parents, children, mates, boss – whoever. When did you last ‘lead’ your boss (or, to dress up the leadership mannequin, “manage upwards”)?
To avoid being forced to take the Diazepam, I had to show the surgeon I was relaxed enough and not going to freak out when he started pulling tubes from my privates. I managed to ‘affect’ him and he went ahead. I ‘led’ him the way I wanted him to go, despite his medical concerns. And after, I went home and did a day’s work (wearing Y-Fronts for the first time in 20 years).
A huge elephant and a naked mannequin
In the next five minutes I’ll frame leadership in a way you might not have come across: by understanding what fires people’s brains and prompts them to respond and follow your lead.
But first, let’s undress the mannequin: let’s take all the layers of clothing off leadership and bring it back to a simple, everyday decision. And, let’s name the elephant – and it’s a huge one – in the leadership room.
Though elephants in rooms have a way of not being named, heck, let’s name this one. He’s called Stooge. And his job is to steer ‘leadership’ so that it remains in one arena, catering to one style of leader – corporate suits (or, a less favourable term: corporate stooges) in office blocks, leading change processes and wrestling with strategic scenarios. Important stuff, but well removed from everyday life. And that’s the problem – though leadership is an everyday thing for everyday f people, it’s now seen by the corporate clothes it’s been dressed in.
I’ve run long and involved days with corporates to help extract what is blindingly obvious – but the leadership approach has prevented anyone saying what’s obvious. So, one of two things happen:
A consultant (like me) gets called in to help frame the questions in a way which doesn’t directly name the problem but points to it – with the consultant then drawing up a lengthy paper revealing – and owning – what they diagnose the issue to be.
Mid-level staff call in a consultant and explain the problem they see and the solution they know will work (given their knowledge of the business). But, they explain, when they’ve suggested it, senior leaders closed it down. So, they want an external consultant to come in and present it as their own idea – one that’s gaining traction in the market. Invariably this works, and the idea is implemented. But – there’s a cost. This leadership approach creates the ‘stooge leader’ (someone who appears to just toe the corporate line, and follow the corporate leader). And so, the elephant in the room is born…
Elon Musk – the chap behind Tesla electric cars – nailed the problem in less than 30 words:
“The problem is that at a lot of big companies, process becomes a substitute for thinking. You’re encouraged to behave like a little gear in a complex machine.”
Happily, Google, Tesla and an increasing number of corporates are rethinking what leadership can look like in business, making it more accessible, less ‘stooge-like’.
What they show is that when we bring leading down from the corporate scaffold it’s been lynched to, it’s less about platforms, and more about persuading. Less about change processes and more about influencing the thoughts, feelings and actions of people around you.
Milliseconds not months
Let’s dethrone the assumption that anything which is properly useful – anything that could change how you approach life and improve your lot – has to involve lots of time, weeks, months, even years. It doesn’t.
Your brain works in milliseconds. It’s processing this article now, and unknown to you using stored images gathered since you were born to help it decide whether you think it useful, or not.
You’ll know if you run a small business – say you’re a plumber employing two others – just how fast you can make key decisions on a job. And so it is with leading.
So, in less than the time it took you to calm down after seeing England beaten in the World Cup semi-final (writing this the day after), you can understand the brain’s action area – which is where people are influenced to act…
There’s lots of triggers in your brain, and mine, and in the people you need to lead. Every decision you make is because this action region of your brain’s been triggered. It’s the same for those you’re leading. Know the triggers and you know where leading happens…
There are four steps, each of which triggers the action brain and enables you to lead:
Find connection with the person you’re trying to lead
Emotional connection triggers the action area of the brain – making the brain ready to listen and act. A common interest, a question about them – what they do, how their partner is, will create connection on which you can introduce the nitty-gritty…
Start with WHY not WHAT
Instinct tells you to start with the details – the WHAT – but ‘what’ will trigger the ‘conclusion’ area in the brain. You’ll get questions and theoretical conclusions but no action. It’s WHY that triggers the brain region responsible for action. So, start with the WHY: start with the reasons why you want this to happen; why this will be a good thing to do. That why will form a backdrop to make sense of, and give life to, the ‘what’ information.
Paint a picture for their brains to lock onto – and take away
Their brain sees the world in pictures. Think of a red bus – your brain provides a picture/image for you. And it’s pictures that’s are so critical to give the person you’re leading – because pictures speak to the action area of the brain. Their brains form this picture, and they’ll see themselves in it. Your words are a vehicle: you need to load them with pictures.
When you reach the point of a decision – use contrast
If there’s a new product you need – bike, car, phone – and in a store, someone offers you one, your brain is a lot more likely to say no, than if they offer you two to compare. Imagine in the brains of those you’re leading are a pair of weighing scales. Their action brain makes decisions using these – and if only one ‘product’ is placed on one side, the brain will balance and weigh this with its own alternative – which will be “Don’t buy this one”. If, though, the brain is given two options to weigh, the probability that it will select one is increased.
Let me wrap by naming that when you lead something, you shape it. And when you don’t lead something, you still shape it. Alexander the Great said, “I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.” Even if the lion-leader within has been dozing by the fire, it’s never too late to wake him. Use the four brain-triggers above, and if you love a good book, visit Amazon and get your hands on Centre Brain.