How Leaders Access Optimal Performance

Out of the Question How Curious Leaders Win

Strong leaders, or "Learner Leaders" understand how to achieve a place of calm and flow in their daily responsibilities. They know when they're in their optimal operating state and when they're not. They take time to reflect on what conditions allow them to be in an optimal form as opposed to a weakened or depleted state. You can do this by instituting regular mood checks throughout your day and asking yourself, "How is my operating state? Am I feeling empowered, strong, and confident?" Or, "Am I in a bad mood? Am I not feeling on top of my game or triggered?" 

We all get thrown out of our optimal operating state from time to time. We land in a vulnerable state where our sea legs are a little wobbly and we're not standing on solid ground. When this happens, the important thing is to recognize the condition and know what to do to get back into our optimal shape. 

What are some of the things to watch out for, hazards along the way that can jeopardize a smooth engagement? When you get thrown off your game, there are two categories of pitfalls that are likely to interfere with powerful leading: There are internal pitfalls, or things that come from your own mood or beliefs. And, there are external pitfalls, or problems that arise because of the environment, conditions, or team dynamics.

Internal Pitfalls:

• You are triggered and you lose control

• You are triggered and don't recognize you're increasing your chances of moving to a "knower mindset"

• The trigger(s) produce limiting beliefs that throw you off your game

• Your mind enters the F.U.D. zone (fear, uncertainty, and/or doubt)

• You create a sense of "urgency" when it is not required 

• You create a false sense of urgency that you have to push through regardless of perceived difficulty

• You zoom in, or have tunnel vision, so you're focused on details, prescriptions, and directives instead of the big picture.

External Pitfalls:

• The environmental conditions are bad for conversation

• Other individual(s) are not in shape for the conversation; they may be triggered, coming from a knower mindset, or trapped by limiting beliefs 

• Decisions are being made from a vulnerable operating state

• You may fail to recognize the historical precedents

• You do not have the authority or permission to make changes you and your team identify

These are all circumstances that weaken leadership and put us on an unproductive, stress-inducing path. Psychologists describes the state our bodies reach in response to extreme stress as the "fight or flight" phenomenon. When you are triggered, when something catches you off guard and starts to generate a lot of fear, uncertainty, or doubt, your sympathetic nervous system, or the part of your nervous system that tells you to fight or run, may become engaged and take control. In this framework of asking genuine, creative questions, it's important to relax and not let yourself slide down that slope. 

We need to be aware of how we manage our reactions under stress, and to slow down, rather than react in a way based solely on patterns (e.g., thinking, "Uh oh, I've seen this before. I'd better take action now!"). Imagine that you went to the doctor, and as soon as you walked in, the doctor said, "Nice to meet you. Here's your prescription for cholesterol and blood pressure medications." You would probably say, "Wait a second -- you haven't tested my blood or checked my blood pressure." To which he'd reply, "Yes, but you're 45 years old, you're not as thin as you used to be, and the last three people who were in here needed those prescriptions, so I'm going to give them to you, too."

You'd be shocked, wouldn't you? Yet, that's what happens when you rely on automatic, pattern-based responses to situations. If we don't spend a little time zeroing in and getting real facts and information, the only thing we can do is give a response based on old patterns. In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes how "thinking fast activity," the stuff that happens in your automatic brain, is relatively effortless. It takes extra active energy to think, plan, and work your way through difficult situations. The key challenge is to think slowly. We suggest you do this by pulling yourself back, zooming your perspective out a little to look at the whole scene, and then saying, "I can manage this, I have control, and I'm driving this situation." Think about how athletes on ski slopes literally envision each of their moves before they compete. The same can be true for the leader. If the leader can recognize the negative voices or thoughts in his head and grab hold of those thoughts, he can then manage them and try to see things from a different perspective. Remember you're not just an actor on a stage reacting to what is happening; you are the director. You can manage the situation by redirecting it, and creating a clear, positive path forward.

This excerpt was adapted from Out of the Question: How Curious Leaders Win, by Allan Milham and Guy Parsons. This book offers readers a new and relevant framework to guide both personal and group decision-making. With rich stories and practical approaches, you will learn where you currently fall between two leadership styles defined as the Knower leader and the Learner leader.