One of the most counter-intuitive notions of true leadership is smallness. In a culture where size seems to matter a lot more than it should, we’ve lost sight of the real proportions at play in life and business. The unbelievable truth is that the higher up you rise in business hierarchies, the smaller a fly you become in the pie of affairs you manage. Trying to stay big is a sure way to mess everything up. The Spanish country manager for one of the big four consulting firms told me recently that he felt smaller and smaller every day. He had realized that his role was more about channeling requests and needs to the right people than it was about anything else.
His learning efforts were completely focused on navigating the oceans of complexity with maximum efficiency: Which were the problems he needed to attack and which ones should he ignore? How fast could he get a grip of what each issue implied for his organization? And how quickly could he hand it off to somebody who would solve it autonomously? Spreading his reach and influence on the market was directly related to how small he could make himself in each deal. Sadly, his insightful perspective as leader of several thousand employees does not abound like it should.
Too many CEOs still think of themselves as larger than life, falling into delusions of grandeur and risk miscalculations like the ones that blew up global financial markets just a few years ago. What’s this obsession with size about? For one thing, it’s unconscious. We don’t realize our bodies and minds are itching for opportunities to make us look and feel big. Some won’t even admit to it when told through friendly feedback or hostile third-party gossip.
Our bodies automatically inflate like blowfish before we’ve even had the chance to analyze our context: we separate our legs stiffly into cowboy-like positions, or our voice booms out with excessive volume. We may pet colleagues on the shoulder in patronizing fashion or always shake hands with our own hand on top. We may use exaggerated language and superlative words, or use up too much meeting time to ramble on in an effort to be more present than others. Dressing in eye-catching color schemes and fashion styles, or buying flashy cars are also ways our bodies favor to get the largeness they’re looking for.
A lot of bulky behaviors across the animal kingdom are about alert and fear. Humans are no different. Our bodies choose to enlarge because they perceive danger. Often our bodies still insist on over-stepping once we’ve judged the room to be safe and alert-free, silently telling us they don’t trust our judgment. We could even ask ourselves whether our judgment is biased by the feelings of false security we draw from our bodies’ swollen stances. Once we go large, we feel safe, and everything else around us seems small. But our bodies could be over-reacting for many reasons completely unrelated to the present moment.
Remember that our emotional reading of context happens in the amygdala, inside the limbic brain. The amygdala is known for reacting very fast, though it does so by loosely associating scenarios without considering details. Thus, our amygdala can trigger a full-fledged Master of the Universe type statement in a conversation just because the other person’s features vaguely remind us of a scary school teacher from childhood. Our oversized behaviors can involve old episodes of fear, but also grief or anger.
Another reason why we unduly jack up is our inherited love of forceful whips. For many generations before us, violence, excessive discipline and punishment were seen as ideal remedies to many problems. When we inflate our egos into comically bloated Buzz Lightyear costumes or tough Marlon Brando attitudes, we literally armor up against our own sensations, emotions or impulses. We demand good behavior from ourselves and forbid our bodies to express or even hint at any unpleasant feelings. Forcing ourselves to play big when our bodies are feeling like itsy-bitsy spider is exactly like using a whip to dominate a horse, a dog or any other innocently honest animal. It’s fast and it’s effective. But it’s also cruel. And as experience shows, it destroys our own body’s trust in anything we say. Which would explain why our body would distrust our judgment.
Just as horses and sea lions rebel against unfair masters as soon as opportunity arises, so will our bodies override our mental instructions with apparently random panic attacks or fury frenzies. When we over-discipline ourselves to appear confidently oversized, our bodies wait to get back at us the second we loosen our grip, get distracted or relax. Sound familiar? In every case you can bet it’s impossible to focus on nimbleness, fluidity and effective channeling of demands for a person engaged in fierce battles with his own body. Now you know why we seem to use only ten percent of our brain power.
The rest of our brain is too busy bickering internally behind the closed doors of that mysterious closet we call unconscious. Giving into smallness is not only counter-intuitive to our modern business minds, it’s far beyond our current ability to practice. But only because we’re focusing on the wrong things. Instead of investing so much useless energy on analyzing business scenarios before us, all we need to do is focus our attention on what’s going on inside. Stop obsessing with outside information, other people’s words, macroeconomic indicators, world issues and negative micro-gestures on your shareholder’s face.
Start paying attention to what your body feels right now. You’ll be on your way to the kind of spontaneous petiteness and adaptability historic sports heroes have always displayed. A little bit of looking at ourselves at work can go a long way to deprogram our bodies’ excessive displays of power. Write down how many times you catch yourself over-inflating each week. Examine the details of your oversized reactions: what were you thinking about? Which details of the context did you focus on? What ways did your body choose to make itself bigger? What kind of sensations or emotions did you feel and where were they located in your body? Register how many times your body retaliates against you as well.
Ask yourself if there is a pattern, or a connection to highly important events in which you overdid your self-discipline. Learn to make yourself small by helping your body release excess emotions from its past.
Slowly, with patience and trust, like you would train a child or an animal. The smaller you become, the bigger and more flexible your leadership will be. The farther your influence will reach. And as a bonus, the more relaxed your will feel: you will lead with the flow!