Lizards and Leaders

  • Derek Roger

In the course of delivering the Challenge of Change Resilience programme, participants will from time to time suggest that rumination must have a purpose, otherwise it wouldn't have evolved. Evolutionary oversimplifications of this kind are widespread and persistent: as early as 1966 Robert Ardrey claimed in The Territorial Imperative that a human being is 'as much a territorial animal as is a mockingbird singing in the clear California night'.  The basis for his argument was that humans own property, but let's dispense with these sorts of glib notions by looking at the evidence. 

Land is bought and sold in the marketplace, and we don't need our backyards to survive.  Mockingbirds sing to proclaim their territory, which they depend upon for survival and which they'll defend with aggression.  Aggression in animals other than humans serves two fundamental ends: sexual selection and food protection. It is mostly engaged in by males, and a dominant male who can see off his rivals will impregnate more females and thereby ensure the predominance of his genes in the gene pool.  A more aggressive animal is also more likely to eject from its territory any other animals that might compete for the food available within it.

So how many males reading this had to engage in hand-to-hand combat to win their partners?  How many readers have an aisle in their local supermarket that is exclusively theirs, and will attack anyone daring to take food from the shelves in it?  Here's a different way of thinking about it: our 'territorial' behaviour is governed primarily by a desire for privacy. Unlike other animals, we don't defecate, urinate or have sex publicly, unless we're very drunk.  Humans are a species of animal, about that there can be no doubt at all, but we're not just subject to the dictates of our hindbrains. What we have going for us is a comparatively massive cortex, and with that comes the capacity to act using rational judgement rather than simple genetic imperatives.

So why do we ruminate?  Rumination is mistaken for reflection or problem-solving, despite the fact that it self-evidently never solves anything.  The real reason is that we have a distinct sense of self, described in the Resilience programme as the central character in all of our ruminations, called 'me'.  What we're attempting to do when we ruminate is to retrieve our self-esteem from perceived slights.  In reality it does nothing of the sort – professional ruminators go on and on round the same scenarios, putting the same perceived offender slowly to death 110 times.  The scenario eventually peters out, only to be replaced by the next one.  And when anger is involved, our language helps us to justify rather than to question our behaviour, as in, 'I was justifiably angry!'   No you weren't, you just lost it.  'It' here is control of attention, which is at the core of CoC Resilience: if you want to be free of stress, you need to start waking up from the nightmare of rumination and controlling your attention.

How does all this play out?  Suppose someone produces a report that doesn't quite meet the required standard.  Scenario 1: the manager sighs out loud, looks angry and says 'you've missed the point!  You're just not getting it.  We're out of time now, I'll get someone else to do it.'  Scenario 2: person's manager sits down with them, starts by making an explicit distinction between the work and the person who did the work, suggests that together they explore the shortcoming of the work and what needs to be done to improve the report, and asks what further training might be needed.  

The manager in Scenario 1 is a mere manager, the one in Scenario 2 is a leader.  Direct reports to the former are confused and anxious – they're not given any constructive pointers so they don't learn and give up trying.  Direct reports to the latter willingly do what they're asked because they respect their leader.  Unfortunately the first variety does get results, but at significant cost – the team ends up afraid and passive, and because the manager's style is to divide and rule, only their favourites develop.  If you wanted a physiological context, the manager in our example is a reptile, relying on what's sometimes described as our 'reptilian' (i.e. evolutionarily ancient) hindbrain; the leader is a human being, employing processes dictated by the pre-frontal cortex. 

Managers like the one in Scenario 1 are likely to engage in justifications, such as 'I may have nuclear explosions, but 10 minutes later I'm my wonderful self again'.  Nuclear explosions cause fallout and massive collateral damage, and there should be no room for this kind of primitive behaviour in organisations.  Unfortunately lots of people with work experience will have had one of these managers from hell, but they're also likely to have experienced enlightened leadership.  What distinguishes them is precisely the kinds of behaviour human brains are capable of.  One of the case studies we conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of the Challenge of Change Resilience training programme sought to discover the reasons for more positive feedback to team leaders from their direct reports, and the significant predictors were the ability of the leader to express emotion appropriately and to have what we call 'detached compassion'.  

A synonym for detached compassion is empathy, which is being able to understand how others feel but maintaining sufficient detachment to avoid becoming over-involved.  In other words, leaders behave in an emotionally intelligent way, motivated by cooperation and a genuine concern for the wellbeing of their people.  The only person lizards are concerned about is themselves.

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