How Your Body and Nervous System Impact Your Leadership

The past 6 months have seen some incredible shifts within our organization around how our teams operate. Interview Connections is becoming a fully agile company, using scrum and kanban to eliminate employee silos and create happier and more productive teams.

Seeing the ways I needed to improve my own leadership as a CEO to lead this change has been a humbling journey, but as we started embracing collaboration over control and leaning into agile methods, we immediately saw amazing results.

I started to ask myself, “Why isn’t every leader doing this?!”

My guess? Because doing what it takes to lead effectively can be SCARY!

Taking on organizational change and giving up micromanaging and traditional corporate structure to allow autonomous, agile, creative teams to thrive can feel threatening. So can facing your own gaps as a leader. But these scary things are what create great organizations, and great leaders.

What is Organizational Agility and Why Is It Terrifying?

Agility is a company’s ability to respond to challenges quickly and effectively. Under the umbrella of agility are more specific practices like scrum and kanban. These ways of working are not rigid frameworks, but a loose set of principles and basic agreements that allow teams to problem solve, test ideas, and work creatively, transparently and collaboratively to solve problems. For leaders used to a more typical corporate hierarchical structure, implementing agile practices can feel like totally giving up all control over your company. This can be terrifying. 

How Do We Need to Change Our Relationship with Control to Become More Agile?

Brandi Olson, founder of the learning and development consultancy Real Work Done explains that great agile leadership is not about relinquishing all control, but about being discerning about what to control;

“A lot of times leaders think, well, I need to be in control of the plan, I need to be in control of the people, I need to be in control of XY and Z. And we put a lot of energy into controlling how things happen, and how things get done, or put a lot of energy into trying to control the future and what happens next. But if we can flip that script to say, what are we actually in control of? Well, we’re in control of what problems we go after to solve, we’re in control of how we define success. We’re in control of how we plan so that when things change, which they always do, we’re able to respond without it being super costly.”

Why Does Changing Our Organization Feel So Dangerous?

Elisabeth Kristof, founder of Brain Based Wellness, a virtual platform where she helps leaders train their nervous system, explains why change is inherently threatening to the brain:

“Our brain functions on pattern recognition to make predictions in order to generate an output and keep us alive. So our brains are always looking for patterns. And the more difficult it is to find that pattern, the more inefficient it is, the more energy costly it is. So from a survival perspective, our brain likes to conserve energy. So change is threatening to our very survival at the level of the nervous system in the brain.”

Leaders who find themselves swinging like a pendulum from the two extremes of micromanaging (too involved) to avoiding their team altogether (not involved enough) may have their nervous system to blame. And by understanding what is happening in the nervous system and separating that from identity judgments (I’m just a bad leader) we create an opportunity to grow and improve. 

What Can We Do When We Feel Threatened?

Elisabeth recommends two drills in particular (she has lots more on her website) that leaders can do when they feel threatened and want to avoid panicking, dissociation or another ineffective coping strategy. 

Bag Breathing

“One of the most important things you can do is to start to train your respiration, because we take 20,000 breaths per day. What you want to do is start to bring that down so that you take fewer breaths per minute. A really simple exercise is to get a bag, a plastic bag or a paper bag, and just like you see in movies, when people are hyperventilating, put it over your nose, put it over your mouth, and train yourself for one to two minutes in the morning to bag breathe. What you’re doing is creating a different homeostatic set point for your body of how much co2 It needs in the blood, and then your breath will become more efficient because of that. So it’s a training process of making your breath more efficient. By breathing into a bag, work your way up to one to two minutes, it might feel a little panicky in the beginning. So start small 10 seconds, then go to 20 seconds, then 30 seconds and gradually make your respiration more efficient.”

Tongue Circles

“You could do some stuff to up-regulate your vagus nerve, that’s a nerve that helps our parasympathetic system or calm and respond network, and brings you down out of fight, flight or freeze. So something as simple as doing some tongue circles, taking your tongue and making big circles over your teeth just like this and going a little bit further each time, maybe five to ten in each direction. And that will actually bring you into more of a calm and responsive state where you can be connected and present.”

Leading an organization can be scary, and effective leadership isn’t always intuitive. If we as leaders can begin to understand what makes teams and organizations great, and also how we may be getting in our own way, we can have a massive impact on the world.

In what ways might your threat response be holding your organization back?