The science of learning to lead

Written by
Vicki Culpin

19 Jun 2017

19 Jun 2017 • by Vicki Culpin

In the past decade the nature of work has become increasingly complex. Technological advances, widespread globalisation, and an increasingly diverse workforce have created a highly competitive marketplace that is fast-moving and ever-changing. In few places is this more evident than the GCC, where today’s leaders can find that the pace of change across geographies, functions and cultures presents greater challenges than ever before.

Leading in this environment is becoming an increasingly tough proposition. How do you know which task should be delivered first? How do you make the right decision in time-pressured and often stressful circumstances?

Understanding your brain and the way you learn provides a big advantage to leaders in this situation. We know leaders are best prepared for leadership through experience, from the real work and real life situations they encounter. But for such experiences to have long-lasting impact, they need to be emotionally charged.

When a stressful situation is perceived as a challenge, the brain and body become moderately aroused, optimising brain functions such as decision-making, learning and memory. Memory of the event and the learning it created is more likely to ‘stick’ when emotion is involved – an obvious plus in tackling future critical incidents. If the situation becomes too stressful, however, the brain becomes over-aroused and engages a fight or flight response, reducing our ability to think clearly.

So how can we avoid overstretching (and therefore overstressing) those we want to grow as leaders, while still cultivating the personal resources and skills to deal with the unexpected on demand? Part of the answer lies in being aware of our strengths and areas for development, and in watching out for some of the key traps both new and experienced leaders can fall into. Knowing what these look like and how to confront them is a valuable asset in the race for better leadership.

Imposter syndrome

Managers are particularly likely to experience this when entering a new role, or leading on unfamiliar ground. As the name suggests, it can leave even the most competent leaders feeling like they are a fraud and will be ‘found out’ as incompetent. Use practical techniques such as mindfulness to stop negative or irrational thoughts from dominating. Remember that even the most successful business leaders have admitted to feeling the same way.

Know your stress triggers

When we are under stress or trying to avoid anxiety, we often stop feeling and thinking to engage in ‘driver behaviour,’ fixating on what we know to turn our strengths into disadvantages. Attention to detail becomes perfectionist paralysis, while responsibility grinds others to a halt with a sense of having the world on their shoulders. Knowing what triggers you to start this behaviour gives you the ability to stop and moderate your response before you and your team start to feel the effects.

Maintain your work/life balance

Yes, you have probably heard it all before, but don’t underestimate the effect sleep deprivation, lack of downtime, and poor dietary habits can have on your ability to lead. These all have a cost for your brain, which is even more noticeable in leaders as they drain your ability to switch focus quickly – a key leadership competency. Maintain your mental agility by taking care of yourself outside of work, as well as within it.