I have worked as a business psychologist for nearly 20 years. This has involved listening on a daily basis to the trials, tribulations, wishes and needs of senior executives, middle managers and high potential people in UK plc. Over time these conversations have allowed us to tap into the collective consciousness of our age. What is emerging in our consulting rooms are some irrefutable truths, to name but a few:
• That people have a deep desire for the climate of leadership within organisations to shift towards a more authentic style of engagement.
• They are seeking healthier, balanced more creative, connected and inspired lives.
• Money and material success is not enough. Individuals want to feel valued for who they are and deployed in a manner which helps to leave a lasting legacy and make a tangible difference not just on the bottom line but in a much broader value-driven manner.
The ability to address these issues have been foremost in the thinking of many in the world of business. What is breathtakingly exciting and somewhat astounding is that we are beginning to tap into the answers with considerable speed.
At the nub of this is a desire to understand the deeper needs prevalent in human beings across the globe. Beyond consumerism and what the external world can offer. We are beginning to take a deep and reflective approach to understanding how we want to serve our intrinsic needs through realising our potential and contributing to making a difference in a manner which is inspired and life enhancing. Navigating forwards in our life in this way this allows us to tap into hidden resources within us that we have failed to leverage - until now. It is common knowledge for example that we are only using a small proportion of our brain 5 to 10%. The new science and research is helping us to tap into our untapped 90% brain and to access our reserves in a wholly different way and in a manner which is shifting the paradigms by which we live and work and lead.
I want to use a series of inputs in this Changeboard online forum to give coverage to these emergent themes and to help people evolve their own approach in a manner which serves them in their personal and working lives.
YSC (the leadership consultancy where I work) began to explore these themes at the turn-of-the-century. At that time we began to experience that behind closed doors individuals were coming to our offices and despite surface success and the ability to adeptly follow "the corporate line", privately they were feeling spent, disenfranchised and asking probing questions of themselves along the lines - is this really what I signed up for, there must be more to life? As one executive put it when describing himself, "the wheel is still turning but the hamster is dead". Another stated that in terms of driving performance and change as a leader "whatever organisational levers I press seem to fall off in my hands.”
We undertook research to explore this in more depth and assumed that our exploration would give account of the reasons why uniformly people were feeling this way. Our intention was to write a book called Running on Empty because that is all we saw. i.e. hyperactive, soulless environments where people were weren't able to give their best. However, as we explored deeper we found something else outliers to the norm, somewhat surprisingly within specific organisations and with certain leaders we noticed something different was happening.
It was the outliers who harboured some fundamental truths and subsequently these organisations and leaders became the focus of our interest. They also resulted in the publication of a book called Meaning Inc.
As we looked closer at what the outliers did and how they operated we found that they had consistent patterns of behaviour, thinking and feeling and managing themselves which are deeply significant and gave these people and organisations a fundamental advantage over others. What was emerging that despite factors in external context some people were managing themselves and their work in a manner which brought about resilience, enabled creativity and the ability to leverage extraordinary power in all aspects of their lives. At the heart of this was the capacity to deliver success in the win-win manner which enabled results to be delivered but through a process whereby empowerment, energy and creativity were maximised.
How have things changed?
10 years on our focus continues to be on unpacking the patterns and psychological underpinnings which govern those who are at the very top of the game so that others can follow suit.
To give you a flavour of the new reality which is emerging on our horizons I'd like to relate a couple of areas which are examples of neuroscience and positive psychology heralding a new way of working, thinking, creating and leading.
In 1995, a series of experiments were conducted at Harvard Medical School which were profoundly important but largely unnoticed by the public. The researchers had asked some volunteers to practice a simple piano exercise for five days. Their brains were wired and observed with the expectation that new circuits would be established through the process of playing the piano consistently. This indeed was the case but what was to follow astounded everyone. In a second experiment volunteers were asked to play the piano but this time instructed to merely think about practising the piano, imagining their fingers moving in line with the notes. The results revealed that through mental rehearsal exactly the same neural circuits were formed. What this shows is that the brain does re-wire itself in response to the environment but we now know that this can also be achieved through our self-directed efforts i.e. by directing our consciousness and our imagination in the right way. The notion that the adult brain is fixed is now outdated. It prompted an eminent neuroscientist to say, "Not only is this theory wrong but it is spectacularly wrong".
In short, the adult brain retains impressive powers of neuro-plasticity and importantly that neural wiring continues throughout all stages of our life. This is profoundly transformational news in that we can rewire ourselves and refocus at any point in our life. We are not just passive respondents to the world we live in but key contributors to shaping our lives through marshalling our consciousness in the right way.
At the turn-of-the-century Martin Seligman, an eminent professor who had delivered some of the key thought pieces around depression decided to study happiness, when his five-year-old daughter admonished him for being cranky. Surprisingly, no one had researched happiness in a comprehensive way, in fact happiness was officially thought to be a disease by some in the profession. What he uncovered has heralded a new field of psychology to emerge which maps out the key factors which are determinants of not just happiness but the capacity to flourish in our lives. His research was able to give credence to the understanding that enhancing happiness or flourishing in our lives is largely "an inside affair. “What this means is that external factors commonly associated with well-being i.e. material rewards, health, education et cetera, have a short lived impact on the quality of our well-being. Seligman was able to establish very clearly that the way we manage our internal world i.e. our emotional climate and our ability to be aligned was centre stage in helping us flourish. This has resulted in an abundance of research and lead Tal Ben Shahar, Psychology Professor at Harvard University to run the most attended course ever in the history of Harvard which was called "Happiness and the Psychology of Leadership." I will talk about the Positive Psychology work in considerable depth at a later date.
But for now I want to finish off this entry with a few quotes quote from my favourite poet Bob Dylan and from Einstein which captures the gestalt of our times...
"Are you busy being born or busy dying?" Bob Dylan
"Imagination is more important than intellect" and "The most important decision we make in our life is whether we live in a hostile or a friendly world". Albert Einstein