TRUE LEADERSHIP: The Neuroscience of Effective Leaders: #2

The interview continues on True Leadership-Part 2:
Peter: That’s really interesting. Let’s unpack some of these a little bit, James. It seems to me one attribute here that certainly most great leaders have is they are risk takers, they are willing to take risks, they are willing to step out of their comfort zone to again achieve that vision that they have.

James: I think there’s two reasons for that. That’s a good point about risk taking. One is that the way the mind works, whatever picture or image we hold of the future – it could also over the past but we’re looking at the future vision – is going to guide us to move left, right, up or down, forward or backward because that is based on the primitive brain and we never have to work to make a fear vision. I mean we do that naturally. So the vision of fear, if it is stronger than the vision of possibility, we’re not going to take the risks. If the vision of possibility which is the future vision of wherever we’re going is stronger and it has to be to take a risk; within the neuroscience of brain, it has to overcome.

There are a couple of questions that I ask people and they’re simple questions. I call it the golden questions and that is “what’s the worst that can happen and are we willing to have it happen?” which sounds simple but it isn’t simple because that forces you to look at what the risk is and most of the time we have invented something that is far beyond reality. What’s the worst that can happen? Well, I’m not going to die. I doubt if my company is going to go bankrupt. What’s the worst that can happen? Do I look like a fool? Am I willing to have it happen? Often the answer is yes and it propels people to move forward.

Peter: To this fourth point of looking at neuroscience as part of this foundation of creating and building a leadership model, can you expand on that?

James: Well, I think to understand, the brain gives a little bit of insight and that is the primitive brain is the center of our emotions, is the center of our memories but it doesn’t think. It literary doesn’t think. Because of the fight or fight thing, it kind of goes forward and backward. You know, let’s move forward, let’s move backward, let’s move left, let’s move right, stop, go kind of thing. But there’s no reasoning that goes on. But the interesting part of that part of the brain is it’s emotionally centered. See the prefrontal cortex, the newest part of our brain if you will, the reasoning center, that little voice in our head that we talk to ourselves with is not about emotion. It’s about reason, critical thinking. It easily gets overwhelmed by too many choices so there’s pluses and minuses to both and understanding how the brain works gives us the advantage as leaders to be able to touch other people. So if the primitive part of the brain responds to emotion, you can’t have a vision that isn’t emotionally charged. You listen to Martin Luther King, you listen to Steve Jobs, you listen to these other wonderful leaders, they move you and that’s part of what has to be done.

So when we look at visioning, let’s look at making a mental movie.

Peter: Okay.

James: Right? If you don’t go back to when our ancestors were around the fire telling stories which is how we communicated, then people don’t understand what moves us. It is storytelling. A vision is a story. I mean how else and why else would anyone follow a leader into unknown territory and take risks and probably scary, really the unknown? It’s because that picture becomes embedded as part of us.

When I work with people in the audience, we have to start with values. So I’ll do a value exercise with people because values are the compass, they’re the guiding force. I have to tell you, most people don’t even know what their values are, not really. So what I do is I get people to look at what’s called the hierarchy of values so that they understand this from the beginning. Each person lists their five values and then through a series of questions, I have them put them in a hierarchy so if forever you can only keep one of those, what would you keep? So someone may say integrity – I’ll make it up – or someone may say love, or someone may say making a difference. Once you get people to understand their highest two values, you can start to help them expand that into their vision because if their vision isn’t passionate for themselves, how else are you going to make it passionate for someone else. So that’s the individual vision, then you have to look at the team in the organization of course.

The second exercise that I do – and by the way as human beings, we do not like to turn inward – yet if you’re going to be a leader, you better do it, you better look to see what makes you tick. So what I do is I do another exercise. I’m not going to explain how it works but it’s very dramatic, it’s fast, but it gets people to look at their top two or three life priorities.

At the end of this True Leadership workshop, they actually have to create a vision for themselves on paper and the only way you can create is a vision is to step into it and pretend it is already there. In other words act as if because if you can’t go in and write that down for yourself, you can’t do the fifth trait of a leader which is communicating, if you can’t communicate to yourself. So I actually get people to write a paragraph as if they were already there, what does it look like. Then I ask what I call the miracle question. If you were to go to bed and during the night a miracle happen, and the vision that you had for your team or your company or yourself happened and you woke up, how specifically would you know it happened? Became most people are vision is vague. They don’t even know. You know customer service, what’s customer service? How would you know if it happened? Let’s be rich. What does that mean? It doesn’t mean the same to you as me or wealthy or prosperous. So it has to be value specific, point specific and you have to be able to communicate it as if it were already happening and then you have to back up and you have to say what’s the first step, second step. This is like the old goal setting routine but most people don’t look at vision that way but as a leader, you better because you can’t measure that.

Peter: I want to return to something you mentioned which I think is so important in this whole conversation and that is the art and craft of storytelling. Any great leader that I can think of is a storyteller and has the ability to tell a story in a compelling way and engage that audience within that story and have that audience then adopt that story as part of their story.

James: Absolutely true. The ability to tell a story means that I got to get my attention off you. I have to become a child-like person to tell a story. One of the stories I tell in the leadership workshop is many, many years ago, a friend of mine created the first fire walking workshop ever given in the United States and I went with 40 other leaders and we had to build a fire. We had to experience the terror of thinking about walking on the fire and then we had to take our shoes off and we had to get at the end of this runway of hot blasted coals and we had to step across it and we had to walk. I mean that’s a story. That’s vivid. It head fear. It had drama because in order to do this, you have to be able to project in the future of already seeing yourself across the fire. You had to be there.

Peter: So that’s like Richard Bandler and –

James: Neuro-linguistic programming, John Grinder and Richard Bandler which years ago I studied which by the way was taken from the study of hypnosis.

Peter: Right.

James: The ability to be able to move a person in the direction you want them to hope and hoping even though this isn’t one of the traits of True Leadership, let’s hope it’s for the good.

Peter: The other thing about storytelling is it doesn’t require PowerPoint.

James: You know, I recently put PowerPoint in my presentation because I do a little thing on the neuroscience of the brain but I have to tell you in truth with me I have avoided PowerPoint for almost 30 some years because most people don’t know how to use it as an adjunct to storytelling, as a highlight to provide another depth because we’re also visual, we’re also auditory, we also feel so all those points have to be put into a story in order to make a story work.