Great leaders are thoughtful and deliberate, not impulsive and reactive

by Tony Schwartz and Emily Pines

You set aside the first hour of your day to work on a strategy document that you’ve been putting off for a week. You haven’t been disciplined about getting to it, but you’ve had one crisis after another to deal with in the past week. Now, finally, you’ve carved out 90 early morning minutes to work on it.

First, however, you take a quick peek at the email that has piled up in your inbox overnight. Before you know it, you’ve used up the whole 90 minutes responding to emails, even though none of them were truly urgent.

By the time you walk into your next meeting, you’re feeling frustrated that you failed to stick by your plan. This meeting is a discussion with a direct report about the approach he’ll be taking in a negotiation with an important client. You have strong views about how best to deal with the situation, but you’ve promised yourself that you will be open and curious rather than directive and judgmental. You’re committed, after all, to becoming a more empowering manager.

Instead, you find yourself growing even more irritable as he describes an approach that doesn’t feel right to you. Impulsively, you jump in with a sharp comment. He reacts defensively. You worry for a moment — and rightly so — that you cut him off too quickly, but you tell yourself that you’ve worked with this client for years, the outcome is critical, and you don’t have time to hear your direct report’s whole explanation. He leaves your office looking hurt and defeated.

Welcome to the invisible drama that operates inside us all day long at work, mostly outside our consciousness. Most of us believe we have one self. In reality, we have two different selves, run by two separate operating systems, in different parts of our brain.

The self that we’re most aware of — the one that planned to work diligently on the strategy document and listen patiently to your direct report — is run by our pre-frontal cortex and mediated through our parasympathetic nervous system. This is the self we prefer to present to the world. It’s calm, measured, rational, and capable of making deliberate choices.

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