Change Your Lens
Many capable leaders have resigned themselves to pervasive stress and being overwhelmed. They push through with brute force — day after day — in a state of perpetual exhaustion. But there’s a radical alternative, according to Executive Coach Jody Michael — and it’s available no matter what the challenges may be.
In her new book Leading Lightly: Lower Your Stress, Think With Clarity, and Lead With Ease, Jody boldly asserts that each person CREATES the majority of their problematic feelings and energy depletion. The culprit — and the solution — is in the “lenses” or perspectives that we hold about ourselves, others, work, life, and the world at large. By developing our mental fitness, we first learn to identify and let go of our default “impeding” lenses that keep us in low to high levels of fight or flight. Second, we adopt powerful new “helpful” lenses that create authentically positive, generative moods, behaviors and energy — creating and sustaining overall optimized performance.
I recently spoke with Jody about her book.
What is mental fitness and how do we assess it?
Mental fitness is your measurable ability to engage constructively and positively in life and work every day — no matter what comes your way. You consistently respond to challenges with optimal performance in the moment and with minimal recovery time afterward.
Developing mental fitness is actually a process of changing your brain’s physiology. You intentionally disrupt neuropathways that run well-worn patterns of thought and mood. You intentionally create new neuropathways by “trying on” or adopting different “lenses” or perspectives. And then you solidify these new neuropathways to become your brain’s new norm, through repetition over time.
So, you can measure your mental fitness with two simple metrics. Both are based on time. First is your speed: How quickly can you minimize your reactivity — and shift out of your triggered state? Many people spend hours or days being upset. With mental fitness, you get yourself out of that state in just a few minutes. Or even less!
Once you can rapidly make this shift, your second metric is sustainability. With true mental fitness, you repeatedly make these shifts, and in many different contexts. It’s the very opposite of a “one-hit wonder.” Mental fitness serves you well no matter what you encounter at work or home.
How do we become conscious of some of the hidden habits in our mind that we are not aware of?
The ability to catch your own thoughts in the exact moment they are occurring is one of the most critical mental fitness skills. To do this, you take the stance of a detective. You become an objective observer, constantly on the lookout for useful clues.
You find those clues when you can name your emotions (in all their complexity). When you can notice your body’s physiological sensations that indicate stress. When you can read the room, seeing precisely how your state of fight or flight is negatively impacting people and outcomes.
As with any skill or habit, learning to self-observe (or self-assess) takes attention and repetition over time. One way to do this is with my brain-changing MindMastery™ app, available for free (iOS and Android). The app prompts you to do a quick self-observation at eight random times each day, every day. As it catches you by surprise in many different emotional states throughout the day, you’ll be able to detect clues you’d otherwise miss.
You practice this way for several weeks (or more) until you can reliably tune into your own thoughts — those hidden habits of mind.
You say that we have five muscles of mental fitness. Is there one generally stronger or weaker in most leaders?
I’ve spent over 40,000 hours coaching leaders. I can say with full confidence that leaders need development in all five muscles of mental fitness. That said, very few leaders have the capacity to accurately self-assess in the way I’ve just described.
Most leaders — up to 95% — THINK they are self-aware. In reality, only 10-15% ARE self-aware (according to Dr Tasha Eurich, in her book “Insight”). When I read my clients’ logged self-observations from the app, I’ll notice they repeat the same four or five emotions. They just don’t have the capacity (or vocabulary) to be more nuanced. And while many can name a chronic pain such as low back, shoulders, headaches and so on, they are not able to quickly detect the more subtle and fleeting physiological sensations of their own unique fight-or-flight responses.
Tell us about your six-step process to optimize your leadership performance.
Think of a pro basketball player who steps forward to score a crucial free throw in the final moments of a game. The stakes and pressure are high.
The successful players leverage more than the mechanical skills of handling the ball. They’ve mastered their mental game. In the work context, my six-step process represents that mental game.
When you’re triggered (upset, stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, etc.) you will use all five muscles of mental fitness in a rapid, fully integrated way. Previously, you have already honed each of the muscles in isolation (like the basketball player who practices skill drills between games). Now you combine these skills and choices in a way that feels almost instantaneous. You remember them with the mnemonic “ABC-SEE.”
First, you stabilize yourself with “ABC.”
You must not skip this step! When you’re triggered, you will not be able to “think” your way out of your mood. By definition, fight-or-flight physiology diverts your energy away from rational cognition. With ABC, you (A) assess yourself, (B) perform deep “belly breathing,” and (C) — choose to assume full accountability for your own thoughts and mood.
You’re then ready to “SEE,” to shift your problematic mood or energy state.
You self-assess to (S) spot your current lens. That’s the perspective that’s creating your current emotional state. You then (E) explore alternative lenses or perspectives. You’ve got several to choose from, because you’ve already intentionally been exploring divergent lenses (whether through my book or conversations with other people).
Finally, you (E) elect to adopt and act from one of these alternative perspectives.
But it won’t be just ANY perspective. It must be one that creates within you a neutral-to-positive mood state. You’ll feel an actual shift in your body and mind. Now you’ve restored your capacity to think and act rationally and with control. You’re back in your optimal performance state. And you have a new and different way to proceed within your situation or circumstances.
From blind spots to biases, there are many things holding us back that we are not aware of. You even talk about two different doctors who assessed your health quite differently in one week. We don’t know what we don’t know. What are some ways to uncover what would really help catapult us to the next level?
You’ve really nailed the big challenge: We don’t know what we don’t know! The most direct way to uncover this territory is through direct feedback from someone who’s not living in your head. Someone whose lenses or perspectives differ from yours. Often, this person is an executive coach or therapist. But they can also be a trusted friend, colleague or confidante. With your permission, this person provides you with a “mirror” in which you see yourself more objectively. This mirror, combined with your newly-developed skill to accurately self-assess in the moment, will completely change your approach to leadership and life.
You’ve coached so many leaders. What’s the best way to coach someone to lead in the moment and choose engagement and resilience instead of anxiety and stress?
It all starts with awareness. Most leaders are in almost perpetual anxiety and stress, but don’t realize how bad or pervasive it really is. I also help them become intimately aware of how much damage they are inadvertently causing around them. The behaviors that stem from their negative mood states invariably ripple out to their teams, colleagues, business partners — and family members at home.
Once they see what they’re creating, I coach them to choose to take ownership. They stop blaming everything and everyone else for their stress. At this point, they naturally desire to create resilience and engagement. It’s then just a matter of practice to develop skill and change their brain’s old pathways.
How do leaders engage in an accurate self-assessment and self-awareness process in order to know their starting point?
One of the most accessible ways is the brief Mental Fitness Quiz in Leading Lightly. In just a few questions, you will learn if you’re at the starting point — including whether you’re relying on avoidance strategies that simply “look like” mental fitness. Or you may find that you’ve gained some skill, but now need to increase your speed, and/or broaden your application to more areas of your work and life.
For an in-depth exploration with my clients, I use more detailed assessments as well as a rigorous 360° stakeholder feedback process. Through the combination of these tools, leaders come face-to-face with the “good, bad and the ugly” of their habits of thought, mood and behavior. This jump-starts their path to mental fitness and optimal leadership performance.
Where can we learn more about your work?
You can find a lot of information in my blog.
For more information about the book see Leading Lightly: Lower Your Stress, Think With Clarity, and Lead With Ease.
Image Credit: Bud Helisson.