“Don’t be pushed around by the fears in your mind. Be led by the dreams in your heart” (Roy T Bennett)
Being a leader is stressful – the constant pressure of being in the public eye and the overwhelming need to be successful. Too often, leaders feel unsafe, as if they are under a microscope, their every action scrutinised by those around them. As a result, they never take the risk of exploring new habits. Knowing that others are watching with a critical eye provokes them to judge their progress too soon, curtail experimentation and decrease risk-taking.
In those ways and many others, leadership is intrinsically stressful. Daniel Goleman (Primal Leadership) notes: “Early studies (Robert S Steele and others) on people who had a high drive for power – the need to have an impact – showed that their very desire for that power had the same arousing effect on them as if they were under actual biological stress”. Inter alia, the studies showed that when a person’s stress increases – or power motives are aroused – the body reacts by secreting more adrenalin and noradrenaline, the body’s stress hormones. The same leads to higher blood pressure, getting the person ready for action. At the same time, the body secretes the stress hormone, cortisol, which is even longer lasting than adrenaline, but which impedes new learning. Naturally, when leaders feel stressed, they no longer feel safe and are further inhibited in acting in new and creative ways. Instead, they become defensive, relying on their most familiar habits to see them through tough times.
For all of these reasons, learning for leadership works best under conditions where people feel safe – but not so relaxed that they lose motivation (see Kolb and Boyatzis: Goal-Setting and Self-Directed Behaviour Change). There is an optimal level of brain arousal that assists people with learning – the state in which both motivation and interest are high. Goleman notes further: “A sense of psychological safety creates an atmosphere in which people can then experiment with little risk of embarrassment or fear of the consequences of failure”.
Working with leaders in similar positions – for example, a group with other leaders like yourself who are venturing together to cultivate new leadership practices – offers one of the best arenas for change. When you see others overcome their inhibitions and take risks, it sets you free to attempt something a bit risky yourself. Cultivating special relationships, those whose sole purpose is to assist with your journey, is crucial to continuing development. Mentors or coaches provide the psychological safety to help you to discover your dreams, to understand your strengths and the gaps in your development, to be able to perceive your impact on others and to guide you through the steps in your learning plan.
Leaders should not be pushed around by the fears in their minds. They should be guided by the dreams in their hearts. Those in senior leadership positions should find trusted mentors to provide the psychological safety they need to nurture their dreams and develop their leadership ability.