The Power of Quiet Leadership


The Power of Quiet Leadership

How effectively are you using your Inner Director?  Science is now catching up with ancient wisdom and showing that we need to change our approach to management.  The latest experiments in neuroscience are showing us the need to use our Inner Director to think more about our thinking and inhibit our reactive impulses.  But this takes effort because it means becoming more perceptive of the triggers below our normal conscious awareness.

Our brains are hard wired to protect our status, seek more certainty and to have more autonomy.  These are primary-threat and primary-reward mechanisms.  If they are challenged we automatically feel threatened and get a surge of neurochemicals that make us more pessimistic and reduce our ability to think clearly.  In fact, when we feel threatened we become prone to making accidental connections like thinking that people are being difficult or awkward on purpose just to upset us.

However, if our status, autonomy and sense of certainty are increased we feel rewarded because the brain releases a dose of dopamine and serotonin, the hormones that make us happier. Cortisol levels, a marker of stress, go down and testosterone levels go up, helping us to feel strong and confident.

Lazy Management
It is very easy to unwittingly neglect staff when things are going well.  We are all so busy and concerned with the millions of outstanding things that still need to be done today.  But when things go wrong, it feels easiest and quickest to just dive in and provide the solutions.  In fact, I know many senior Directors who complain that a lot of their time is taken up answering questions or providing solutions for their people.  This is lazy management and only makes things worse.

Managers frequently think they have to have all the solutions.  If they don’t have an answer to a particular problem they feel an unacceptable drop in status because they feel it is their role to provide the solution.  If others come up with a solution they will also experience uncertainty, because it means things may go in a different and unknown direction.  And if others are making decisions about how things should progress they will have less autonomy.  This combination of primary threats creates a cocktail of neurochemicals that feel intolerable and shift perceptions into a very negative and pessimistic frame of mind.  Do you recognise any of the above?  It can be very subtle and often takes place below conscious awareness.  This makes it tricky to manage.

In order to control these primary and often irrational fears, you need to be aware of the feelings that come when any of the stress hormones like adrenalin and neurochemicals like nor-epinephrine are pumped into your system.  If you catch them early enough you can take a moment to reflect rather than react.  Just take a few deep breaths and focus your thinking on what you are feeling by noticing the sensations in your body, or what you notice in your immediate surroundings.  This could be listening to what people are actually saying and noticing their posture and the expressions on their face.

This may seem like an odd distraction but it allows your brain to calm down and consider how you can best help others think things through for themselves.  It gives you a chance to be in the ‘here and now’, not in your thoughts about it.  It allows you to focus on what is actually happening, not on what you are making it mean.  It also allows you to connect with your inner Director.

Wise Management
All ancient wisdom encourages self-awareness and the ability to reflect on what is real, rather than what we are making it mean.   In his bestseller ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ Steven Covey speaks about ‘finding the gap between stimulus and response’; i.e. the micro-seconds of choice we have before we react to the surge of neurochemicals.  The scientists are now calling this ability ‘Mindfulness’.  It’s a term that comes from Buddhism and refers to true awareness.  Being more mindful gives you access to your inner Director, this means having the ability to think about your thinking.

When things go wrong and you want your people to be more responsible and accountable, the science now shows that it is important to raise their status, certainty and sense of autonomy.  Once you do this, they will be in a better state to make useful connections in their brains and resolve their own problems.  Helping people to find their own insights and solutions is actually the fastest way to getting people to improve performance.   If you always provide all the answers, you are inhibiting their growth and reducing their ability to think for themselves.

If someone comes to you with a problem or something has gone wrong, it may seem counter intuitive but a good place to start is to ask their permission to assist, for example “Can I ask you a few questions to see if I can help you with this?”.  This automatically raises their status and autonomy.  It will reduce their stress and helps them think more positively.  If they are already stressed because they know things have gone wrong, despite doing their best, it doesn’t help if you just increase that stress by being angry with them.

Quiet Leadership
The focus should be on their thinking not the details of the problem.  In fact, getting them to state the outcome they want in one simple sentence is a great way to help them to focus their thinking on the solution and avoid getting lost in the details.  Asking them to think about their thinking is also a way to help them focus on their own subtle thoughts that have been inhibited by the cocktail of neurochemicals caused by stress.

In his book ‘Quite Leadership’ David Rock suggests helping people think about their thinking by asking questions like:

  • How clear are you about this issue?
  • How important is this issue to you, on a scale of one to ten?
  • Can you see any gaps in your thinking?
  • How do you feel about the resources you have put into this so far?
  • Do you have a plan for shifting this issue?
  • How clear is your thinking about the plan?
  • What are you noticing about your thinking?
  • What insights are you having?
  • How could you deepen this insight?

It is also valuable to encourage people to give themselves feedback on their approach to date.  By asking them to look at their actions, from a different point of view activates their inner Director and enables them to get a better perspective on what is happening and what could be done about it while increasing their status, certainty and autonomy.

Noticing your own Inner Director
While it takes a bit of effort and practice to notice your Inner Director by being more mindful, there is now plenty of scientific evidence to prove it has beneficial affects.   Studies by Kirk Brown, Professor of Psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and Richard Ryan, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Rochester have demonstrated that people who practice mindfulness are healthier, happier and less prone to illness.

I have recently developed a simple Mindfulness Series with a number of very simple and practical exercises as well as some valuable food for thought about the science behind it all.  It is currently free to all followers of these articles.   It includes a specially recorded relaxation exercise and you will also get a copy of the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) Questionnaire which was used in Brown and Ryan’s study so you can measure your progress.

You can download the Mindfulness series here.

Why not have a go at developing your mindfulness to access your inner Director because you have so much to gain and absolutely nothing to lose.

If you have any questions or comments about any of the above please contact Amanda at

Remember . . . Stay Curious!

With best regards
David Klaasen

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