Leading in ambiguity and change: an embodied leadership perspective

Many of the leadership development programmes that I am asked to take on have a theme of equipping managers to handle ambiguity and uncertainty. In today’s world where change and uncertainty are key themes, leaders are required who can remain calm and collected, who are able to think things through and come to reasoned responses.

Having recently read House of Cards and Too Big to Fail, books which focus on the fall of two once-great investment banks, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers respectively, it is easy to see how ego, pride and self-deception caused many of the problems the world economy is still experiencing. This was a situation of enormous ambiguity and uncertainty and the lack of such leaders described above, has had a very dramatic impact on all our lives.

So what does it take to develop leaders who can respond well to such circumstances? Well, first we need to understand what happens to us in those times of ambiguity and uncertainty, and here we can look to neuroscience for some answers.

An important discovery from neuroscience is that ambiguity and uncertainty (as well as other social factors) trigger the threat response in human beings, in the same way in which a genuinely life threatening situation does. We can speculate that for human beings, walking on the savannahs in tribes, inclusion and exclusion in the tribe was a life and death scenario, so social factors have evolved to be significant influence. It also suggests that Maslow’s famous ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ may be wrong in this respect. David Rock writes in Strategy & Business (Autumn 2009):

“Maslow proposed that humans tend to satisfy their needs in sequence, starting with physical survival and moving up the ladder toward self-actualisation at the top. In this hierarchy, social needs sit in the middle. But many studies now show that the brain equates social needs with survival; for example being hungry and being ostracised activate similar neural responses.”

The implication is that when leading others we need to be aware that their social needs are not about nice-to-have soft-skills. They will be responded to in the same way as a survival response. For leaders themselves, the need to be self-aware and respond to their own threat responses appropriately is of real importance – as you rise as a leader, your actions and inactions will be interpreted and loaded with social meaning. Your threat response to a situation may well provoke threat responses in those you lead.

Understanding the threat response

Karen Horney’s research has given us an understanding of the threat response, often referred to as the fight or flight response. Her work describes three categories of response:

  • Moving against: usually described as the fight response. It may show up in the workplace as competitiveness, political behaviours, challenging others in a meeting to establish authority, and engaging in conflicts.
  • Moving away from: usually described as the flight response. It may show up in the workplace as an avoidance of conflict, or challenge and can appear somewhat detached or withdrawn.
  • Moving towards: this is about making connection with another. It is a form of self-effacement and responds to the perceived threat by making friends and forming relationships. In the workplace this can play out as working very hard to be nice to people in the face of conflict, and occasionally as flirting.

Evidence suggests that most of us have one of these responses that we develop in childhood and which is deeply embedded. This means our threat response is a recurrent pattern which falls into one of three general categories, although each of us develops our own unique ways of carrying out this response.

Understanding this allows the possibility of becoming familiar with and understanding our threat response and thus breaking that pattern – a key requirement for successfully leading in ambiguity.

Breaking the embodied pattern

This is perhaps where I depart from much of the traditional leadership development literature. When we experience the threat response, neurons are activated, and hormones such as cortisol are released. However the effects of these hormones and neural connections are felt in our bodies, below the chin, rather than as an abstract thought in the brain. Just think about how it feels to have an adrenalin rush.

Additionally, not only do we feel these experiences in our body, we respond in our body. In a meeting you may see someone respond to a perceived threat by slumping back into their chair and withdrawing; by clenching their fists, leaning forward and tensing their jaw determinedly; or by turning towards in a concerned way and reaching out (physically or verbally) to establish relationship.

In the Embodied Leadership programmes, I have been running at Roffey Park Institute in conjunction with Strozzi Institute, we use these embodied experiences to help people work with their threat response. Through some simple exercises we allow people to see how their reactions come out from them, without thought, in response to social interactions which provoke the threat response. Through developing a familiarity with the experience of their threat reactions, these leaders can develop deeper self-awareness.
We then look at how leaders can practice doing something different in that moment. Why is that important? Well in his article cited above, David Rock writes:

“The threat response is both mentally taxing and deadly to the productivity of a person – or of an organisation. Because this response uses up oxygen and glucose from the blood, they are diverted from other parts of the brain, including the working memory function, which processes new information and ideas. This impairs analytic thinking, creative insight and problem solving; in other words, just when people most need their sophisticated mental capabilities, the brain’s internal resources are taken away from them.”

In the Embodied Leadership programmes we work with leaders to help them to see and experience their response, and then to practice centering themselves and attending to the issue at hand. Centering is about entering into a mindful state (rather than mindless) where we can see our mental processes and reactions and have choice about our responses. And how to achieve this? It comes from returning from our embodied threat reactions (clenched fists, slumping etc) to a present and engaged physical and mental state, a shift which participants are taught in these programmes.

The capacity to manage their deeply embedded threat responses is one of the defining characteristics of great leaders. And because our threat responses are likely to spark off the threat responses in others, leaders who can manage this will be essential for the development of organisational cultures which respond well to ambiguity and change.

There is a need to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty with pragmatic wisdom, as the recent financial crises have shown us, and our threat responses remove that capability. It is only by working to be familiar with the intimate details of our responses and through practicing to break that pattern that we can respond with greater choice and wisdom.

12:33 pm | by Pete_Hamill

One Response to “Leading in ambiguity and change: an embodied leadership perspective”

  1. breardybora says:

    very interesting, thanks


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