Understanding the holistic way humans lead in sports, business and the military
On leadership issues, the world of business is often compared to the world of sports and to the military. There are of course, some dissimilarities between these three domains, in sports and in the military, results are everything and failure is not acceptable. The pressure for military leaders, with lives on the line, is of course much greater than the pressure in sports and business.
Nevertheless, as John Neal, Director of the Sports Business Program at Ashridge Executive Education and Head of Coach Development at the England Cricket Board (ECB) explains in his chapter contribution to the book, Inspiring Leadership: Becoming a Dynamic and Engaging Leader, the leadership environments in all three areas have much in common. Success is not as much based on capital and other resources, “but more upon the ability of the leaders, players and soldiers to make the right decisions at the right time and under pressure,” Neal writes in the chapter entitled, “Sport, military and business.”
According to Neal, transferring the leadership lessons of sports and the military to business requires understanding “the holistic way in which humans lead — with their brain, their body and their spirit.” This holistic perspective on leadership is the subject of his chapter.
He begins that in the context of leadership, we have three “brains” corresponding to three different levels of thinking. The first brain, what he calls Brain One, controls the automatic nervous system and the most basic and instinctual level of thinking, including the famous flight, fight or freeze response to danger. Brain Two is where our perceptions and our values reside. It is Brain Two that perceives the danger and activates Brain One’s response. Brain Three is the most sophisticated level of thinking, and involves making choices and decisions based on reviewing the past and imagining the future. This level of “cognitive” thinking is the slowest of the three types. It also involves two “sides” of the brain, one side more rational and logical, the other side more creative.
Leaders work with all three brains at the same time. The challenge, writes Neal, is to keep Brain Two from overreacting, which can lead to a domino effect: Brain Two creates too much adrenalin for Brain One, which causes heart rates to spike, which reduces the blood flow to Brain Three, which inhibits the ability to think cognitively. In short, too much adrenalin and Brain Three starts shutting down.
At the same time, there has to be some reaction. A disinterested leader is an ineffective leader. The best leaders, Neal explains, are “in the zone”: they have enough adrenalin to be excited and motivated by the pressure without being overwhelmed or fearful. While pressure is perceived in the brain, it will have an impact on the body as well. One physiological impact is the increased heart rate mentioned above, but pressure also affects such things as posture, voice, self-esteem, resilience, recovery, fatigue and even our image to others. Research has shown that decisions concerning the body — from how well we eat and sleep to how much we exercise — can make a big difference in our ability to cope with stress. A body that is rested and fit is in a better position to control the Brain Two reactions to stress. Confronting our fears — specifically the perceptions in Brain Two that cause stress — is also important.
In specific moments of high stress, interventions as simple as taking a deep breath and slowly exhaling, or even deliberately doing something enjoyable that draws a smile or a laugh, can help us manage. Another coping approach is Mentally Athletic Development (MAD), which involves physical exercises that stimulates the parts of the brain required for thinking clearly and managing pressure.
Finally, the third human component that contributes to effectiveness in dealing with stress relates to one’s spirit. The spirit is hard to measure or quantify but can be reflected in how well (or poorly) we respond to stress. It is also reflected in how well we motivate and inspire others, our ability to think “above the line” of current goals and objectives to a future that doesn’t exist, and the ability to deliver both short- and long-term results (rather than focusing short-sightedly on only short-term results).
Effective leadership based on understanding how the three elements of human being of mind, body and spirit contribute to leadership success can be summarized, according to Neal, in the Latin saying, “Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano”: “You should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body.”
Inspiring Leadership: Becoming a Dynamic and Engaging Leader, edited by Kerrie Fleming and Roger Delves, published by Bloomsbury Business Books, 2017, ISBN 978-1-47293-207-5
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