· 3 min read · Features

Developing leaders who can deal with times of uncertainty


Having recently read a couple of books on the banking crisis, it is easy to see how ego, pride and self-deception caused many of the problems the world economy is still experiencing. This was a situation of enormous ambiguity and uncertainty and the lack of leaders who could deal with this effectively has had a dramatic impact on all our lives.

So what does it take to develop leaders who can respond well to such circumstances? Well, first we need to understand what happens to us in times of ambiguity and uncertainty, and here we can look to neuroscience for answers.

An important discovery from neuroscience is that ambiguity (as well as other social factors) triggers our threat response, in the same way as a life-threatening situation. We can speculate that for human beings walking on the savannahs in tribes – inclusion or exclusion in the tribe was life or death, so social factors have evolved to be significant influence. David Rock writes in Strategy & Business (Autumn 2009): "…many studies now show that the brain equates social needs with survival; for example, being hungry and being ostracised activate similar neural responses."

The implication is that when leading others we need to be aware that their social needs are not about ‘nice-to-have soft-skills’. They will be responded to in the same way as a survival response. For leaders themselves, the need to be self-aware of their own threat responses is of real importance – as you rise as a leader, your actions will be interpreted and loaded with social meaning. Your threat response to a situation may well provoke threat responses in those you lead.

Understanding the threat response

Psychologist Karen Horney’s research has given us an understanding of the threat response, often referred to as the fight or flight response. Her work describes three categories of response:

Moving against: usually described as the fight response

Moving away from: usually described as the flight response

Moving towards: this is about making connection with another. It is a form of self-effacement and responds to the perceived threat by making friends and forming relationships

Evidence suggests that most of us have one of these responses that we develop in childhood and which is deeply embedded. Understanding this allows the possibility of becoming familiar with and understanding our threat response and thus breaking that pattern – a key requirement for successfully leading in ambiguity.

Breaking the embodied pattern

When we experience the threat response, neurons are activated and hormones such as cortisol are released. However, the effects of this are felt in our bodies, rather than as an abstract thought in the brain. Just think about how it feels to have an adrenalin rush.

Additionally, not only do we feel these experiences in our body, we respond in our body. In a meeting you may see someone respond to a perceived threat by slumping back into their chair and withdrawing; by clenching their fists and tensing their jaw determinedly; or by turning towards in a concerned way and reaching out to establish relationship.

In the Embodied Leadership programmes we run at Roffey Park, we use embodied experiences to help people work with their threat response. Through some simple exercises we allow people to see how they carry out their threat reactions. We then look at how leaders can practise doing something different. In his article cited above, David Rock writes:

"The threat response is both mentally taxing and deadly to the productivity of a person – or of an organisation. Because this response uses up oxygen and glucose from the blood, they are diverted from other parts of the brain, including the working memory function, which processes new information and ideas. This impairs analytic thinking, creative insight and problem solving; in other words, just when people most need their sophisticated mental capabilities, the brain’s internal resources are taken away from them."

We work with leaders to help them to see clearly their response, and to practise centring and attending to the issue at hand. Centring is about entering into a mindful state (rather than mindless) where we can observe our mental processes and reactions and have choice about our responses. It comes from returning from our embodied threat reactions (clenched fists, slumping, etc) to a present and engaged physical and mental state – a shift that participants are taught in these programmes.

The capacity to manage their threat responses is a defining characteristic of great leaders. And because our threat responses are likely to spark off threat responses in others, leaders who can manage this are essential for the development of cultures that respond well to ambiguity and change.

There is a need to deal with ambiguity with pragmatic wisdom, as the recent financial crises have shown us. It is by working to be familiar with the details of our responses, and through practising to break that pattern that we can respond with greater choice and wisdom.

Peter Hamill, consultant at Roffey Park