Have you ever heard the phrase two heads are better than one. In today’s complex and often challenging leadership space this has never been more true. The power of collaboration really has become the go to approach for today’s successful leaders. Building collaborative teams that problem solve together and share their collective wisdom is creating news ways of working and building a collective ownership that drives an organisation forward.
Effective leaders have always been open to suggestions and feedback on their plans, ideas and vision. Traditionally though this process has been limited and surface level at best. This method breeds suspicion and suspected self-interest around the decision making which are powerful tools that undermine leadership teams. What we are seeing more of now is an open and transparent model of leadership that allows the work behind a decision to be viewed and understood. This is creating environments where, whilst not everyone agrees, decisions are understood on the basis of the information provided. This greater transparency builds trust. When we give greater voice and inclusion to our decision making process we build a collective responsibility where the success is the responsibility of the team not the heroic figure leading the charge. It may not be possible or indeed practicable to have widespread collaboration on every decision this would in all probability grind our organisation to a halt but the big picture decisions that set directions must have high level collaboration.
Collaborative leaders understand the power of collective wisdom when problem solving. I’m not sure that I have ever been the most innovative educator, sure I have the odd idea that is outside the box but generally I’m sitting on the box looking over the edge wondering how these imaginative educators come up with these brilliant ideas. Successful leaders understand that they cannot be all things to all people so they build teams that have a balance of skills and knowledge. With a collective team effort we can expand ideas in so many ways, challenging our thinking to develop a single thought into a well-developed plan. This style of complimentary leadership uses the differences of the team to source solutions. Strong leaders develop norms and protocols that empower individuals within the group to identify when things are blocking a solution and take the group away from its intended purpose. These systems allow issues to be tabled respectfully and solutions identified collectively, building stronger commitment to the overall goal.
As a collaborative leader you have the perfect opportunity to build the skills of your team. Working in collaboration allows you to leverage the strength of the individuals in your team. As a high quality leader you have a responsibility to build the capacity of those you lead. Finding opportunities to coach your team to build individual skill or form complementary partnerships across the team allows others to learn from each other. This not only builds capacity but strengthens the depth of the decision making. Working through to a solution provides the perfect opportunity to access coachable moments where you have work based problems to solve and quarantined time to guide team members through change.
Collaborative leadership whilst not new is becoming an increasingly adopted model. There is a definite shift from the heroic rockstar leader to the strong focused team where there is strength and wisdom in numbers. The old saying the smartest person in the room, is the room itself has never been more true. I have a few suggestions that I believe can assist in building a collaborative approach.
- Know that you are not the font of all wisdom – No single person can have in depth coverage over every aspect. High quality leaders know they don’t know it all and surround themselves with experts. In large organisations there are experts within and external to the site, use this knowledge and skill to give you a broad perspective.
- Share information – Effective decisions are made on balanced judgement, true collaboration cannot occur when one member of the team withholds information.
- Ask for help – Effective leaders recognise when they need help. There is no shame is asking for assistance and utilising the wisdom of another.
- Ask open ended questions – As leaders we need to carefully consider our questions. With the increased tempo of our work it can become easy and convenient to ask questions that we already know the answers to or questions that guide toward a predetermined destination. At times we believe that a quick response will allow us to get on with the job. The effective leader though will ask open ended questions that could provide solutions or paths not thought of.
- Do what you say you’re going to do – When you are truly collaborative you rely on each other to get things done. If you say you’ll do something do it well and on time. The team is only as strong as its weakest link. Don’t be the weak link.
- Be brave but respectful – Successful collaboration requires honesty. If something is not right then call it out and offer a solution. Developing protocols for how this is achieved encourages honesty by providing a safe platform to work from.
- Listen – When we are truly passionate about an idea our ability to listen can be limited. As others try to add their perspective and we begin to advocate for our position, the ability to listen, compromise and act with humility show depth to your leadership.
- Use silence – I’ve often used silence as a strategy. Sometimes having the thought and sitting on it allows you to gain perspective. Sometimes it’s what’s not said that builds the solution.
As we move into a new model of operation I urge you to collaborate widely. The days of silo decision making have long gone. The role of the leader has evolved into that of a connector, someone who can identify hotspots of talent and merge them together to achieve what was not considered possible. Successful collaboration won’t just happen, many have tried only to build a group that works against each other rather than the problem they are trying to solve. Building collective impact takes time, careful planning and strong systems that support the collaborative culture. As all successful team leaders have found, high quality collaboration is no accident.
Why do we have a fear of failure? I guess it’s always been there. It’s natural to be a little apprehensive when trying something new for the first time, but if we let this feeling take over it could lead us down a path where nothing new is tried. Imagine the limitations we place on ourselves if we only attempt things we know we will succeed at.
Strong leaders accept failure. They use it as an opportunity to learn, they actively develop a culture where people are encouraged to push their limits, to step out of their comfort zones and take a chance. High quality leaders will look at setbacks, provide feedback and investigate how things can be improved. They provide encouragement and a supportive environment. They know that sometimes we learn best by seeing what doesn’t work. They understand that sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know. Some might say, if you haven’t failed you haven’t tried anything new. I believe it’s Ok to fail, as long as it is for the right reasons. Failure happens, it’s part of life, not learning from it and repeating the same process is the real mistake.
If we don’t allow people to try new things and fail occasionally we develop an unhealthy almost stifling culture, where fear of failure impedes progress. When we let our fear of failure stop us we are potentially missing out on some of our greatest learning opportunities. In some ways we may even get more out of our failures than we do from our successes. History is littered with people who have failed; Thomas Edison famously said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Imagine if Edison stopped after his first attempt. What if Edison didn’t have the resilience to carry on? Failure teaches resilience. I’m sure you have found that some people have this in short supply. Resilience can be taught however, but it requires you to pick yourself up, look at where things went wrong and devise a plan for the next time you encounter this situation. It also requires the right environment where mistakes are certainly not encouraged, but are accepted and used as teaching tools for further development.
Action research seems to be a big push at the moment. What is action research? It’s the process of testing a theory, collating some evidence and refining the practice to make improvements. In essence it’s the process of analysing actions so you can do better next time. It actively encourages you to look at your failures and learn from them. Action research often involves learning communities who work together to look at practices that are not as successful as hoped. This learning community is often embracing failure as a way of developing innovation and enhancing practice. A school that encourages action research is therefore developing a culture that supports its members taking calculated risks and expanding their learning. In doing so it is taking action to strengthen and further enhance its ability to respond to the specific needs of the community it serves.
I see learning from failure as one key difference between the successful and the unsuccessful. The successful keep going. They keep refining, refocusing and refusing to give up. They do not accept defeat and actively seek a new solution; they certainly don’t pass blame and point the finger. They take calculated risks, knowing why they try something new. They look at a potential hurdle, analyse current practice and actively work through a process to find a solution. Success is built on hard work, refinement and an unrelenting pursuit of achieving your goal.
In many ways we actually need failure. If we constantly succeed at everything we do we develop a false economy. Always coming out on top may cause us to never actually take time to analyse and find ways to enhance what we do. It can lead to a, if it works don’t mess with it attitude. Sometimes failure is the motivation we need to make real change. It should promote strong reflection and encourage commitment to ensure that the same mistake is not made again.
The fear of failure can be a really difficult obstacle to overcome, but the reality is that at some point it will happen to all of us. It’s how you deal with it and the environment that you fail in that is key. You can learn a great deal about a school by how they respond to failure. What strategies do they put in place to support the next effort? How do they encourage continued innovation? How do they help to build resilience? Consider these questions the next time someone in your school tries something that is not as successful as it was intended to be. I am by no way condoning repeated and ongoing failure. I am however encouraging us to support each other, to take risks and to make informed decisions that enhance the opportunities of the students we serve.
This year I’ve decided to get a coach. I’ve spent the summer listening to sport commentators discuss technical aspects of their sports, they’ve highlighted players blind spots, player weaknesses as well as areas of strength. They’ve had the ability to objectively observe and provide insight that if adhered to could improve player performance. As leaders we try to provide this to those around us. We watch, we discuss, we question, we guide all to assist in improving performance, but who coaches us?
As leaders we are committed to cycles of continuous improvement for those we lead, sourcing professional opportunities, constructing systems and routines that encourage and promote professional development. We extend this process to our own learning by actively seeking ways to sharpen our skills. Rarely though do we get solicited constructive feedback. For many leaders, feedback is only provided when things are not tracking as planned. So this year I’ll get a coach, someone who can provide one on one, objective, personalised feedback. Someone who can see different aspects of my leadership and shine a light on them. Someone who can ensure that I am very specific in my personal goals and hold me accountable. I know it might be challenging and at times may make me uncomfortable as I acknowledge that my practice may need to change. In the end though it’s about growth and continuous improvement.
As leaders we are usually very reflective. We take time to think through decisions, to review plans and strategy and adjust as necessary. Sometimes however, it can be difficult to reflect on our own performance as our underlying assumptions cloud our judgment. We observe, we assume and sometimes we look for the self-fulfilling prophecy to reaffirm. It’s not easy getting a gauge on how others see you and how this might be impacting on your ability to work with your team. This space is known as our professional blind spot and can leave you exposed if not identified.
When things are going well reflection can become even more difficult. At these times we firmly believe that our decisions are well thought out as our own data sources fall prey to confirmation bias. This is where your coach can provide an objective third party view with no stake in the decision. They will be able to dissect your data sources, operational approach and professional behaviour traits and challenge you on their validity. Quite simply your coach is the person who provides an objective view point based on unbiased evidence. Their ability to walk you through a process that provides clarity, grounds you and generates alternative viewpoints will be invaluable. This then places any required leadership change as your responsibility, allowing you to identify what it is you need to learn and what it is that you may need to change to achieve a more successful outcome.
In my early leadership days I thought of a coach as someone who observed using a tick and flick method to make sure I was not underperforming, that I was working at a satisfactory level. What I’ve grown to understand is that a coach is much more than evaluation and supervision. A quality coach can identify skill levels and work to provide a very individualised level of support. A coach has the ability to provide real-time feedback that can lead to behavioural changes being implemented immediately.
In a rapidly changing landscape with increased scrutiny on performance it has never been more crucial to have a sounding board who can provide you with constructive feedback. Athletes have long understood this, they realise that an effective coach can analyse their skills, knowledge and performance and provide feedback, that if adhered to can take their game to a level they would not have achieved through personal reflection alone. In times of challenge you can be the focus of heavy scrutiny and criticism, when there is an unpopular decision to be made you can bet that you’ll receive feedback. As we know this unfortunately comes with the leadership territory. What I am after though is feedback on my day-to-day performance to help me improve. Why? Because I can. My view is that an effective coach will equip me with the tools, knowledge, and opportunities I need to fully develop. Vince Lombardi, a former American football coach once asked the question how many self-help programs will it take until you improve? His answer, just one, it’s the one you commit to. In our day to day business we can get distracted and become absorbed in the tasks at hand losing sight of our own personal goals. A coach will assist in keeping you on track in your continuous improvement journey.
As we transition into a new year, some of us in new roles, we can be faced with new learning experiences and new role expectations. There can be increased demands which can stretch us, challenge us and leave us feeling vulnerable. It’s the perfect time for a coach. We invest heavily in the professional learning of our teams, building their knowledge base and technical expertise, ensuring that those we lead have the tools required to perform. As a leader you are in an influential position to make an impact at a broad level. For this if no other reason you need to ensure that you are at the top of your game. Your coach will keep you on track moving towards your goals.
This year I’d encourage you to think a little selfishly and find yourself a coach. Do your homework. It has to be the right fit, there must be a connection and sense of trust for it to work. It’s a genuine partnership. This person will hold you accountable and could push you to a level that you didn’t think was possible. Most leaders travel the safe and comfortable self-guided journey of continuous improvement. They seek opportunities that they believe will assist in their growth. For real change to happen, for strong growth, find a coach to challenge you beyond what you think is possible. It may be uncomfortable at times, but I guarantee it will be worth it.
I’d like to address the elephant in the classroom. The one that’s standing right in the middle taking up lots of space, crowding the learning environment. Data. Is it taking the fun out of teaching? I guess the answer is yes and ……… no. There is no question that systems, governments and schools needs big data to identify trends, predict patterns of behaviour, allocate resources to emerging and identified areas of need and provide high levels insights. Big data has its place but what about the small data? it can be structured and non-structured, it can be scheduled and randomised and is collected in usable sized chunks that are contextually relevant to a specific setting. Is it possible that using small data can be fun.
Many professionals are getting bogged down in the debate over what seems to be a relentless schedule of data collection. What we tend to overlook in the debate, is the purpose. If our data collection is serving no real purpose other than to complete a spreadsheet and rob us of teaching time then I agree, what is the point? On the other hand if we are using it to sharpen our focus, to specifically target our teaching then it is critical. Useful data connects people with timely, meaningful insights into student areas for growth and achievement and when used purposefully can be an extremely powerful tool that actually puts the fun back into teaching.
Whilst I agree that data walls, visible targets and performance measures have assisted in creating a sharp focus on evidence based practices and demonstration of impact, is it possible that the pendulum has swung too far in our pursuit of individualised accountability? Nothing is more important to the success of our students than high quality teaching. I am in the privileged position to be able to view our teaching staff in action across schools in our system. What I have observed are staff who have high expectations, are able to cater for the wide range of needs of their students and use highly effective techniques that both engage and challenge our students. High quality teachers are always striving for student improvement. They are possibly their harshest critics, analysing their lessons, their delivery, levels of student engagement and the impact of their work on students. They are using small data all day, every day as a way of improving practice.
Small data allows us to provide our own insights into the relationships we have with our students, it allows us to develop achievable bite sized chunks that we can celebrate and this is where the joy comes back in. I spent my last years on class as a kindergarten teacher. By the end of the year my students could read, write, work mathematically in combination with a whole range of social, emotional and communication skills. I did that. I gave a gift that they would have for life. No matter how old they are or where they are in the world I started that learning journey. When we are able to see the improvement, see the skill development, know that we have had an impact, that’s the incredibly powerful and rewarding element of teaching. The question is how do we know and what role can data play?
Data talks, data walls, data walks, assessment schedules, moderating, criteria analysis, individualised, tiered, standardised the list goes on and all play their role. What is more powerful though, is a strong focus on teams of teachers using contextually relevant small data as a powerful vehicle to drive student improvement. Time spent imputing data into a spreadsheet could be better spent in teacher teams working together to observe practice and refine our craft. Our system actually supports this process through the Performance Develop Framework. At its core it underpins the notation that every teacher, in every school will improve, not because they have to but because they can. High performing teams use this system developed process to increase levels of performance, to strive towards personalised goals that impact on student outcomes. How do we know if we have improved? Small data. Colleagues observe and provide immediate contextualised feedback specific to the individual, its formative assessment for teacher colleagues.
Spending time in teacher teams using our collective knowledge of our students and curriculum to design learning draws on a range of small data for a very specific purpose. In NSW Public Education a strong focus on collaborative instruction is driving this approach across schools. We have strong evidence based, system supported teaching strategies that provide high level direction for our schools. Our teacher teams have the ability to contextualise best practice to become relevant practice for their context. It’s the small data that allows teacher teams to contextualise and target the specific needs of their students. Learning sequences designed with the selection of appropriate assessment techniques allow us to identify what it is that will move student learning forward. This is supported by the purposeful collection of a range of small data. Without the small data it’s just another unsubstantiated opinion that offers little direction.
It’s not the quantity of the data it’s the purpose and how we use it. The fun comes back into teaching when we view data as an avenue to investigate ways to unlock student potential. When we take time to reflect on where a student is, where we want them to be and how we are going to get them there in small achievable and measurable segments we target our teaching. Working this way we identify what students can already do and what they need to learn next. When we bring this down to a very specific skill level and provide a definite timeframe for evaluation and refinement it has the potential to bring a sense of accomplishment that can be almost addictive. It’s the small data that allows us to really know our students. Understanding the purpose behind our data collection and using it to target our teaching will help us build a better relationship with the elephant in the classroom.
Empathy is generally described as the ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. It’s having the the capacity to recognise and understand the emotions of another person and then act accordingly. Leading human organisations, where feelings and emotions impact on views, thoughts and attitudes, we are faced with multiple perspectives and using this soft skill can have tangible results. When we take time to reflect on the perspective of others we cast away assumptions and avoid jumping to conclusions providing a clarity to our decision making. For this reason being able to empathise could potentially be one of the most important leadership skills of the 21st Century.
As an empathetic leader, you are aware of the feelings of others and are able to appreciate what another person is going through. This does not mean that you necessarily agree with them. There are times when those we lead feel a range of emotions as a result of a looming deadline, the introduction of a new initiative or a decision that has been made. We all feel pressure at various stages of our careers and question the expectations placed upon us. Empathy though, is not about lowering expectations it is about knowing when to reinforce them. There are times when a compassionate ear is all that is needed, but there may also be times when it is coupled with a supportive scaffold to assist with the task at hand. When you use empathy to identify why someone is behaving the way they are the person feels valued and heard and therefore, is better positioned to accept responsibility for their actions, understand the decision being made or the expectations being placed upon them.
Empathetic leaders are non-judgemental. The nature of our positions often find us time poor, looking to expedite decisions and conversations so we can complete our busy schedules. This presents us with a challenge where it can be habitual to listen to a colleague whilst running a parallel internal dialogue making judgements about the nature of their feelings, perceptions or reactions in order to efficiently identify a solution. Truly empathetic leaders are free of this, they know that if you are running a diagnostic internal process you’ve already cast judgement, meaning you can’t accurately perceive another’s emotional state. I’ve always been of the view that we feel the way we feel, no-one can tell us how or why we should feel a particular way, it’s the way we deal with it that makes the difference. An empathetic leader is able to reserve judgement, listen and then meet people where they are. A successful leader will then use this as the platform to build on for future success.
In times of heightened emotion people’s ability to make rational decisions can be significantly impaired. When meeting with a person whose emotions are overflowing it’s time to be a good listener. As leaders we are often good problem solvers, listening to our colleagues to find solutions or alternative pathways is important. As an empathetic leader we must put our complete focus on the person standing in front of us showing that we are fully present. This can be very difficult at times and can require a great deal of concentration, especially with a full agenda and a queue building at the door. Being a good listener and showing we are present in the conversation allows a better chance to have our colleagues open up and share the underlying reason behind the emotion. If we shift our attention too quickly and try to solve the issue we run the risk of stemming the flow. We must finely tune our understanding of body language and speech patterns to know the right time to intervene. The best way to do this is to remain open during conversations and place your complete focus on the person in front of you.
Empathetic leaders display enormous amounts of self-control. When dealing with a highly emotional person who may be expressing their concerns in a way that can be confronting, empathy can be the first thing that gets discarded. When hurtful comments get made we often feel the need to defend and can become impatient. The empathetic leader is able to park that rising emotion before speaking. You can feel the emotion rising in your body, some call it the red mist, the true leader will recognise it and allow time for a moment of reflection before speaking. It can also be useful to take a break in the conversation to clear enough space to communicate effectively. By creating space we provide time to reflect and see the issue through another’s perspective allowing us an opportunity to make sense of the emotion behind the response. You will never be able to be reactive and empathetic at the same time, displaying empathy for others means we must utilise self-control before we speak.
So much of our self is tied up in what we do. When we meet people at a social gatherings we introduce ourselves and follow up with I am a (insert Occupation). We don’t say I am a husband, a father, a brother, we say I am a (insert Occupation) what do you do? We are so heavily invested in our chosen career paths that it can be very easy to become emotionally charged when we don’t understand or agree with a decision or when we feel that it has a negative impact on our wellbeing. As leaders we must understand that the bottom line is our success comes through our people. Our people are the most powerful indicators of our ability to meet our organisations goals. People have emotions and feelings, they go through moods and at times attitudes vary. They have lives outside of the work place that impact on their ability to function at their optimum. Being aware of this, remaining open to understand the feelings and emotions of others is critical in our human centric environment.
Whether you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes or place the shoe on the other foot, remember everyone has a story that has led them to this point. Your job is to tune in to what the person standing in front of you is going through and respond in a way that shows that you acknowledge their feelings and understand the issue from their perspective. I’m not suggesting that you should always agree and I would never expect you to lower your standards. Just know that empathy is the fuel that powers effective relationships. It shows that we support our people and when we do that anything is possible.
What is a default option and why would you use it to lead? The default option is what is left when no active choice has been made between a set of possibilities. Well-designed defaults can be quite powerful in nature as they essentially simplify decision making effectively guiding desirable behaviour. Leading by default may seem like it lacks strategy and is potentially an ineffective route, but what if your default is a culture of high expectations built around collaborative professional learning communities that focus on cycles of continues improvement. Sounds more appealing doesn’t it? A well designed learning culture across your school lays the platform for an effective default. The question remains then, why would you want a default if you had such an effective learning culture prominent across the school? The answer I believe is that it allows your staff the freedom to experiment, to trial and to explore knowing that there is a high level fall-back position if they are not successful. A default position carefully designed to be the mainstay of your school’s operation is a safety net for successful student outcomes.
The challenge is to establish the default, which can be a complex and time consuming journey. An initial default is continuing the way things have always been, raising the bar can be difficult especially when many schools are doing an exceptional job to begin with. But the very notion of continuous improvement is based on the ideology that we can always get better. I often talk to my staff about what makes a champion. The champion never strives to be number one, they strive to beat number one to continue to do better by refining, refocusing and evaluating their performance. In the words of Dylan Wiliam “Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better”. We are fortunate to be in a period of education when we are supported by The Australian Professional Standards that identify the benchmarks for performance. In NSW Public Education we have the support of a system that encourages individual responsibility for self-improvement through performance and development plans. These tools provide a perfect springboard for raising the bar and establishing a high quality default position.
In the book Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein outlined the idea of choice architecture. They suggest that we have the ability to design our environments in order to influence behaviour. Just as an architect will design a building to meet a specific purpose, we too can design our default model to meet the specific requirements of our context. The default will be comprised of a variety of components which individually will have a significant impact on the overall operation of a school. As leaders we need to identify these components and understand their role in establishing the default setting we are seeking. Through a combination of high quality professional learning, collegiality, mentoring, coaching and knowing our students the default model can be framed within the context of our individual settings.
In an era where we are swamped by research articles and social media feeds us professional learning opportunities 24/7 we have the ability to source and develop high quality professional learning that can be adapted to our individual contexts. An effective professional learning model to develop a default position must have sound procedures in place that have a single schoolwide focus. This focus needs to be supported by evidence, what is the data telling us, and be classroom based with an emphasis on improving teaching strategies. The model is not about improving the teacher it’s about ensuring that high quality strategies form the basis of practice across the school. Be it instructional rounds, lesson study or PDP observations it has to have time for reflection, feedback and discussion of next steps. It must be based on the premise that teachers have a commitment to improve and an openness to be critiqued by their colleagues. I have found the use of technology has been invaluable in enabling staff to capture lessons, strategies and student responses and reflect on them in collaborative debriefing sessions at the conclusion of the lesson. This timely immediate feedback is extremely powerful in developing the default position acting as a social contagion spreading its influence. Just like athletes reviewing game day footage and identifying strengths and areas for development so to this technology affords our staff the same opportunity.
In business the default option is carefully designed to ensure that there is a benefit to the designer for not choosing another option. The default in most instances is carefully orchestrated to favour the design architect leading to increased profits. As leaders in schools wouldn’t it make sense that we design our default to ensure that it makes students the beneficiaries? Establishing norms, which shape expectations about how we learn together as professionals forms the foundation of the learning culture and can become the default. Social psychology research clearly demonstrates that when faced with any change processes people tend to resist until they feel comfortable. As change happens and it will, as you try to establish teacher buy in to a new strategy having a high quality default position to fall back on will place your students in a win win situation. So whilst leading by default may sound like a lack of strategy becoming the design architect of the new normal certainly has its benefits.
Have you ever had to make a decision and it just didn’t feel right? As leaders we make decisions all day that have a direct impact on those we lead. We aim to get them right and use all evidence at our disposal to ensure that we give ourselves the best chance of doing so. Occasionally, we’ll be faced with a decision that has us feeling uneasy and a little voice in our heads starts nagging that something is not right. You know that feeling that makes you go back and check that you’ve turned off the iron or makes you hesitate just that fraction before you cross the road in front of a car. We all have those stories when we ‘just knew’, when we had a ‘gut feeling’. Using our instincts has long been a mechanism used for survival. Our ancestors used instinct to recognise that big prehistoric monsters coming over the horizon were dangerous and needed to be avoided. In the modern world our instincts protect us from the metaphorical monster and if used correctly can assist us to navigate the complex nature of leadership.
There is a theory that trusting your gut instincts may be the result of years of experience playing on your subconscious guiding you away from a path you have been down before. Some call it instinct, some intuition, some relying on their gut. Research out of John Hopkins and Harvard Medical has supported a growing body of evidence linking the connection between the gut and the brain. They have identified that within the walls of our digestive system is the enteric nervous system (ENS) which acts as the brain of the gut. The ENS links directly to the brain via the central nervous system on what is known as the gut-brain axis. This axis allows for two way communication between the brain and the gut sending and receiving impulses, and responding to experiences and emotions. Any time you get a physical reaction when faced with decision the axis is at work. If you get a light feeling in the stomach when excited by an idea it’s a pretty good sign that this is an opportunity worth pursuing. On the other hand if you have a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach and there is a sense of apprehension it’s pretty clear that this is a definite no. This system acts like an internal moral compass.
There are many great stories of exceptional leaders who are said to have great instincts; they have the capacity to read situations and react to them with a clarity that defies logic. They are able to pick up on subtle clues, patterns and changes to behaviour and automatically make a judgement without a thorough analysis. Is it a skill they are born with or is it something that can be developed? I believe it is something that can be developed, if you take time to identity the signs. Intuitive leaders subconsciously tune into these signs. The gut- brain axis connects to the limbic system of the brain where all of our habits, emotions, experiences and feelings are stored. This section of the brain is actually where all decision making happens and plays a vital role in action selection allowing us to decide between several possible behaviours to execute at any given time. Intuitive leaders can tap into this subconsciously drawing on previous successes and failures using this stored data to guide their instincts. You know when you just can’t put your finger on it, you can’t explain why you know you just know, that’s a culmination of your previous experiences reacting to the situation and letting you know to think deeper about the decision you’re about to make. That’s why we ‘sleep on it’ or ‘mull it over’ our gut instincts are telling us that our first reaction needs further consideration.
So what does this mean for us on a day to day basis? For me, if it doesn’t feel right then it probably isn’t. In a system where rigorous analysis of data sets, increasing levels of accountability, compliance and fiscal responsibility challenge decision making it can be a brave decision to say no in the face of mounting evidence. Whilst all indications might be overwhelmingly in favour of a pathway, if it doesn’t sit right then take some time to think it through before making the final call. I’ve started to keep track of situations when I’ve had to make a decision and I’ve had an initial ‘gut reaction’. I am hoping that over time I can actually build up a profile of when my instincts where right and when they were off track. I’m not allowing my gut reactions to override all decisions making, that would be foolish, I’m just monitoring. What I’ve noticed is that my gut instincts have the ability to subconsciously read a situation, they pick up on ‘the vibe’ whilst my conscious mind is running the analytics. As my brain rationalises my gut will instinctively guide, the pair working in unison to survey the environment within which I am working. I’d have to say that so far my instincts have been pretty accurate and have aligned nicely to the supporting evidence behind the decision making process. In general, I’ve found when I’ve had to trust my gut; I have felt good about the decision believing that what I was doing was right. Obviously not all decisions will have a gut reaction, most made on a daily basis are founded in logic and reason, but tuning in when the odd situation arises may be useful.
We all have looming deadlines; we all feel pressure to make decisions but as leaders we need to take time to consider the implications prior to making them. When the situation arises when the gut says wait but the mind says go, I believe there are a few things you can do.
- Firstly determine if there actually is a choice, sometimes despite your instincts there is no choice, the decision can only go one way. If there is a choice, does it have to be a yes or no answer? Are there other possibilities that are a mixture of both?
- Take time to think of the pros and cons. Look at the decision from an alternate point of view and see if you’d make the same decision.
- Has your intuition clouded your judgment? Remember it’s influenced by past experiences.
- Does it feel right? Are you able to rest comfortably knowing that you made the decision?
- Finally, allow yourself time to make the decision.
I know there have been times when I’ve had to make a judgment call and for no particular reason it just didn’t feel like the right decision. Despite the logic, the reason and the mounting evidence I just had a gut feeling that this was not the right option so I chose not to do it. The next time you get that feeling in the pit of your stomach when making a decision and you just can’t seem to figure out why, I’d ask that you consider your instincts, they may be better than you thought.