Real Leaders

Why Instinct is Important for Leadership

What do you feel right now? Where do you feel it in your body? Can you score your body tension between one and ten? These are questions I ask clients every day. At first, they answer in monosyllables, like “fine” or “uh?” Today’s CEOs think they are good leaders. But if they are caught off guard by questions like these, it means their leadership is more theoretical than real.

We know that instincts are important to leadership. It’s an intuitive truth that we’ve read about forever, but how can we follow our instincts if we don’t know how our body feels? And how could we, in a society that does nothing to teach us the importance of looking inside ourselves from time to time?

Instincts are felt as bodily sensations. Your gut tightens up with a contraction against a certain person or situation. Your skin may crawl, as the expression goes, or it may constrict in a way that makes your hair go up in spikes. Our breath is also quick to change in the face of unexpected events, and our heart may miss a beat or beat faster than usual. All of these cues tell us that our body is reacting to something right here, right now – something that is critical to our present survival or our future progress. In a culture that medicates us to subdue every inkling of discomfort or pain, body reactions can go unnoticed.

I’m presently thinking about this because we separated a two year old foal from his brother last Sunday. Both horses had been separated from their mothers about six months ago, and after a couple of very stressed days, had settled into the new routine of sharing a big box like flatmates. As a new baby came to the moment of separation from its mother, my foal was taken to an adult horse box to live alone for the first time in his life.

Suddenly alone in this new space, he is acutely sensitive to every little noise or sound happening around him. If an airplane goes by, he pricks his ears up and tenses his eyes until the engines stop disturbing the quiet of the fields. If his caretakers wheel a barrow across the lawn, he again reacts nervously. His entire body posture and his breathing immediately betray his level of tension. It rises and falls with the smallest change in the environment. So my question is: shouldn’t we be doing the same?

Nothing is happening to this horse that wasn’t going on before. The difference now is that he is not distracted, or comforted, by the company of another horse. And while their is no real danger to his survival, his most feral instincts are completely alert, just in case. Watching him I realized how humans should be paying a lot more attention to the sounds, changes and tiny cues triggering around them in order to survive and thrive. Nobody’s survival is more threatened than that of a CEO.

But our CEOs are busy analyzing market trends, or looking at multiple screens with data, or focusing on complex negotiations all the time. Rarely are they simply noticing how their own body is reacting underneath all those intelligent and strategic words.

A client of mine, Ryan, for example, came out to get some feedback from our horses last week. He went to the stable door to pet one of the younger mares. His right hand was held up front, petting her on the head, while his left shoulder kept yanking back every time she moved her head. If the mare had been his boss, or a client, or even his team, Ryan would have been forcing himself to keep up a strategy that his body was very uncomfortable with. Ryan’s focus on the content of his own words, the words he was getting back and the mental plans he was trying to materialize was making him blind to his body’s instincts.

When I pointed out the yanking shoulder, I helped Ryan step back to a distance where his body stopped shrinking away. Then I asked him to think of how he could advance in a way that felt comfortable, and I suggested protecting his space with his left hand at all times. A few minutes later he was hugging the mare over the fence. Ryan was forgetting to protect his own position while advancing, with the mare.

His negotiating position was unstable and thus his rivals could take advantage of him. His attempts at making his own team feel safe were not successful because his team sensed his own yanking back in small details: a dumb comment here, a bad joke there, a tricky email, a way of phrasing instructions that betrayed a feeling of discomfort.

Horses and all mammals in general help us focus back on our instincts, body feelings or reflexes. There is an age-old wisdom to them that protects us even if we are distracted thinking of something else. Being mindful of all these little warning signs and alerts is critical to incarnate strong leadership.

So ask yourself these questions every few hours or every time you remember to: what do you feel? Where do you feel it in your body? What level is your tension now? By turning your attention to your body a few times a day you may begin to notice your yanking shoulder, tightening guts and crawling skin. What’s more, you’ll begin to realize there is a connection between what your body expresses and the business challenges you’re facing

This is what meditation is all about. And it’s way more useful than forcing yourself to sit in silence for twenty minutes in the morning. Trust me. Effective leadership is about “right here right now”… all day long!


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