Previously published on Forbes
In the Middle of Difficulty Lies Opportunity
— Albert Einstein
What will you do with this difficulty? Will you waste it on fear and hand-wringing and complaining? Will you focus on what you cannot do and what privileges have been taken from you? Or will you step up into the unknown with calm and generosity and a dedication to serving others?
Crisis provides an opportunity for us to be better, to engage at a higher level than the last crisis we muddled through. In short, you have the chance to grow and evolve yourself and your responses. When you are anxious and uncertain, the best place to start is by engaging the most evolved part of your brain.
The Science of Leadership
Leadership is evolving as a science. Neuroleadership, a term coined by Dr. David Rock in 2006, points to the intersection of brain science and leadership. What makes neuroleadership innovative is that it provides solutions for leaders based on science for improving performance, managing diversity and facilitating better learning.
To apply these concepts to your leadership, you first need to understand a few things about the brain — specifically, the old brain and the new brain.
Your Old Brain
The “reptilian brain” is the oldest part of your brain and sits just at the brainstem at the top of your spine in the base of your skull. It has three simple responses: fight, flight or freeze. It is highly reactive to the environment and what seems to be a threat. But it also blocks your ability to plan and create.
What that means for you as a leader: If you lead from this old brain, you will most likely react to your environment in rather primitive ways. You’ll be focused on reducing threats (whether real or perceived) to you and your team.
David Rock uses the acronym SCARF to refer to the threats we most commonly respond to: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. If one of your team members is hooked or triggered, one of these five threats is likely at play. I imagine that certainty (being able to know what’s coming, what to expect) is very much being challenged in this time of disruption and uncertainty globally.
Your New Brain
The new brain refers to the neocortex, which is the most evolved part of your brain. The human brain reached its present-day level of evolutionary complexity 250,000 to 300,000 years ago. At that time, our ancestors experienced a 20% increase in the mass of the thinking, reasoning areas of the human brain. You got a bigger brain. You’re welcome.
Dr. Joe Dispenza, author of Evolve Your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind, writes, “The seat of our conscious awareness, the new brain houses our free will, our thinking, and our capacity to learn, reason and rationalize.” With the neocortex comes all kinds of goodies. We can calm ourselves down. We can discern friend from foe. We can catch ourselves and change. We can learn and integrate new ideas. We can talk ourselves out of irrational threats.
The other morning, I was out on a walk in upcountry Maui. My husband and I were there for a month — part work, part pure joy. It’s a little bit untamed up in Haiku. There are wild boars and big bugs. As I walked around a corner, I saw a wild boar standing near a stack of beehives in a roughly fenced yard. I panicked. My heart began racing. I reached for my cell phone to call my husband to come and get me. I walked slowly, slowly, slowly (maybe it wouldn’t see me?) past the boar with as much distance as I could, my breathing ragged and short.
With fight, flight or freeze as my options, I chose a quiet, slow flight never taking my eyes off of the boar. My knight in shining armor came driving up in the banged up mini-van we had rented. He stopped near the boar and then started to laugh. It was a statue! I was embarrassed, but still, my heart hammered in my chest. It took a while to calm down. My mind and body had responded to an irrational threat. Just like that.
“We see the world not as it is, but as we are,” Anais Nin wrote. I realized that, as I walked in the rugged upcountry, I was on guard for something bad to happen. I was focused on what could jump out of the bushes and ambush me. I wasn’t even seeing the beauty all around me.
Are your worries an inevitable response to this uncertainty, or are they a reflection of how you are?
Leading yourself means that you find repeated ways to access your big brain (you’re welcome) and compassion, hope and clarity, and you use this to provide reassurance to others. I’ve always believed that leadership is a privilege. You have the privilege of speaking and having people listen to you. You influence others. They watch you and sometimes mirror your response. You come up with ideas that others implement. With this privilege comes responsibility. You have to grow up. You have to stop being small and thinking only of yourself. You have to look out there and take good care of people. This is the heart of leadership in the midst of adversity.