The fast-brain leader

A new breed of manager has emerged from the pandemic

The fast-brain leader

by Dr Wesley Payne McClendon

At a time when most of us are just trying to manage the unrelenting vestiges of a global pandemic, a few leaders have emerged after guiding global enterprises, government agencies and small countries through the unknown with relative ease. It would be reasonable to assume that neither presidents nor prime ministers anticipated a global pandemic. Even fewer were adequately prepared to manage a phenomenon that happens once in a lifetime. However, the relative calm of leaders to take the hands of others through crisis compared to the abject chaos created by other leaders to attempt a leap of faith on their own has put the cerebral machinery of leadership under a microscope once again.

There’s a misplaced perception about leaders who thrive in crisis. Common wisdom suggests that leaders who’ve recently triumphed over crisis must have done it all before. It’s impossible to consider that today’s leaders somehow led their way through the last pandemic in 1918 or previous to that, in 1889 of the Spanish and Russian flu varieties, respectively. It’s more likely that today’s successful leaders have just figured out something the rest of us have yet to realise: the power of shared purpose; the strength and agility of leadership muscle memory; and the acceleration of the fast-brain to operate quickly with unconscious precision.

  • Purpose drives leaders to think, make decisions and perform in any circumstance.
  • Leadership muscle memory strengthens leaders’ ability to routinise and consolidate cognitive and motor tasks, and optimise effort, proficiency and success.
  • Fast-brain leaders operate to quickly recognise patterns, decipher new and discard irrelevant information, develop habits and embed shortcuts to accelerate outcomes.  

How leaders think, make decisions and perform in crisis

If past is truly prologue, the driving force underpinning leaders is purpose. Purpose is a deeply held commitment motivating thinking, decisioning and behavioral intent necessary to achieve  a goal, objective or imperative. Purpose is as much a cerebral ritual as it is a tangible, outcome-focusing aspiration. As a result, it permeates everything purpose-led people think about and decide upon, and forms the intent in which they focus in any given circumstance. Once shared with others, purpose becomes as defining to others as if it were their own. The power of purpose isn’t limited by the aspirations of an individual, but its true purposefulness can only    be fully realised by the multiplying effect of a shared purpose sought through many.

The mechanics of purposeful leadership are built on muscle memory. Leadership muscle memory is a set of established cognitive and motor task memory that consolidates and strengthens through active repetition. As leaders execute tasks repeatedly, cognitive efforts decrease, efficiencies increase and motor memory strengthens. As repetitive tasks become routine and development peaks, leadership muscle memory reacts like muscle twitch – unconsciously responding to situations, stimulus and circumstances without prompting. 

When shared purpose and leadership muscle memory combine to confront change, choice and uncertainty, leaders learn to adapt their thinking and decisioning, and apply cognitive dexterity to adjust behaviour to meet the situational and circumstantial demands around them. A leaders’ ability to thrive in the unknown is guided less by the unique circumstances of a crisis, but rather by the learned unconscious retrieval and utilisation of leadership muscle memory. The pace at which purposeful leaders operate and the trajectory of their success is determined by their ability to recall and apply muscle memory unconsciously in real time.
Purpose, leadership muscle memory and the brain

Driven by shared purpose and strengthened by leadership muscle memory, the brain seeks out, identifies and adopts useful patterns of thinking, decisioning and behaviour. The search qualifies the utility of the pattern to discern usefulness and ensure effectiveness. The brain adopts and memorises applicable patterns to orchestrate the most resourceful and energy-efficient utilisation. Habits developed over time and shortcuts derived from the speed of success are embedded into the fast-brain leader.

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner and author of Thinking Fast and Slow, likens the fast brain to the unconscious mind and suggests it drives as much as 95 percent of behaviour.     The slow brain, in contrast, manages conscious and arduous tasks requiring contemplation    and difficulty, but with significantly limited capacity and capability. Social psychologists estimate that 45 percent of behaviour is repeated almost daily in similar or related circumstances even while thinking of something else. Even under the most awakening circumstances, the brain works largely unconscious leading to behaviour that is not only repetitive, but also habitual. This leaves the most challenging pursuits to the part of the brain with the least capacity. No wonder fast-brain leaders learn to fail before learning to lead.

What Kahneman’s fast-brain analysis and social psychologists’ research suggests is that a significant portion of how our brains operate and the unconscious mind’s ability to think,     make decisions and perform is on autopilot. Touch a hot stove and quickly move your hand. Answer a simple or familiar question before the sentence ends. See an amber traffic light    flash at the intersection on the road ahead, and speed up or slow down depending on your conditioning, perceived risk or circumstances. Guided by a deliberate and shared commitment   to purpose? Then push straight ahead without considering alternatives to the left or right.

The fast-brain on autopilot

While the majority of aeroplane flights are flown by autopilot, a pilots’ singularly complex     role is take off and landing. With multiple data sources continuously updating and feeding information into the autopilot’s microcomputer, the plane’s ‘brain’ learns, unlearns and relearns on the fly. The plane’s fast-brain constantly gathers and processes situational data, dispenses with out-dated information while simultaneously recognising new flight data, adjusting flight patterns and optimising its position. In the end, autopilot virtually flies itself. 

Much like an aeroplane’s autopilot, the fast-brain leader operates by constantly absorbing and learning from new information. While deciphering vast amounts of data, the fast-brain leader tosses aside obsolete or unrelated information that fails to support and accelerate outcomes.  The fast-brain leader continuously identifies patterns that reflect their shared purpose and learns from critical incidents to develop habits and embed shortcuts, realise efficiencies and acquire new capability. By converting everyday critical events into routine habits, the fast-brain leader can lead on autopilot with shared purpose-driven acuity as if it were just another day.

Learning and development critical incidents

According to the 70-20-10 learning and development model created by researchers and authors at the Center for Creative Leadership, 70 percent of leader knowledge is optimally derived from engaging in challenging, real-world experiences. This optimal source of knowledge is compared with only 20 percent from developmental relationships such as coaching and mentoring. An important but meager 10 percent of knowledge is gained from coursework or curriculum-based training.

As a result, the most significant learning and development platform for building fast-brain leader capability is through first-hand critical incidents. Critical incidents are everyday occurrences, challenging experiences and interactions that, upon deeper reflection, can be pulled apart, analysed and reassembled to test and learn. Key learning from reflection forms patterns of success and develops habits that can be applied in the context of both business as usual and at inflection points of change, choice and uncertainty. Practiced analytical routines serve to consciously reflect on critical incidents can evolve into unconscious fast-brain leader habits to accelerate thinking, decisioning and behavioral outcomes. Over time, shortcuts embedded into leaders’ fast-brain have the potential to operate on ‘autopilot.’   

Three fast-brain leader reflective exercises

As an experience-based platform to develop fast-brain leader capability, there are three core reflective exercises. Reflection exercises provide tangible learning experiences to: 1) explore and define purpose; 2) build and strengthen leadership muscle memory; and 3) identify patterns and develop habits that embed shortcuts into the fast-brain leader. In each capability development opportunity, exercises should include people both within and outside your personal and professional sphere of influence to apply appreciative inquiry - a process that seeks to engage stakeholders in self-determined change – as a platform to test and learn strengths-based focused possibilities, collaboration and success.

Defining Purpose

There are three stages of defining purpose likely to be realised in succession: happiness – knowing what brings you joy; meaningfulness – recognising what is significant and important   to others; and purposefulness – a shared determination to achieve a purpose. While happiness is taking or receiving something of value and meaningfulness is giving something of value to others, purposefulness is striving toward something of value that becomes more valuable when shared. Sharing or finding common purpose is the absolute manifestation of purposefulness.

As part of a method for defining purpose, critically consider the following questions

  1. What defines your happiness? How do you bring meaning to others?
  2. Under what circumstances do you give of yourself or something of value to someone else?
  3. How do others define you? How does their thinking align with how you define yourself?
  4. Who are the people you choose to surround yourself? How do they influence, inspire or motivate you and bring out your best or contribute to defining your purpose?
  5. Who are the people that choose to surround you? How do you influence, inspire or motivate them and bring out their best or contribute to sharing a common purpose?

Building Leadership Muscle Memory

The core of leadership muscle memory is developing, strengthening and optimising the repetitive process of thinking, making decisions and driving behaviour. Building leadership muscle memory requires establishing routines to strengthen and apply: reasoning – rational thinking to make sense and draw conclusions from new, dynamic or existing information; intent – a clear and present state of mind that determines forethought, decisions and commitment to carrying out a future action; and behaviour – actions aligned with a shared purpose with the agility and flexibility to make adjustments necessary to confront change, choice and uncertainty.

 To begin building leadership muscle memory, consider the following questions:

  1. What informed your thinking or rationale prior to, during and following the critical incident? How did you absorb, process and apply relevant information?
  2. How and to whom did you communicate your intent, planning and commitment to act? To what extent did a broad range of factors (e.g., data and information, peers with competing interests, experience, perspectives and priorities) guide your decisioning?
  3. What drove the basis for the action taken? Did the action and behaviour align with the requirements of the situation, your purpose, and shared or common purpose?
  4. Who did you seek out to engage, participate in or take along on the change journey?     At what point did you influence, inspire or motivate thinking, decisioning or action?
  5. Which leadership muscles – reasoning or rational thinking, intent and decisioning, or action and behaviour, can be further developed, strengthened, routinised and optimised?

Fast-Brain Patterns, Habits and Shortcuts

The lens through which the fast-brain seeks out, adopts and memorises patterns found in critical incidents is dependent on the strength of leader’s purpose as both a magnet and a shield. Purpose not only attracts and gains strength from that which is shared or in common, but also deflects elements that could potentially weaken the motivation and commitment to achieve a goal or objective.

To seek out patterns, develop habits and embed shortcuts, consider the following questions:

  1. How do you reveal, communicate or present your purpose to others as a leader?
  2. How do you distinguish what works from what doesn’t, and adopt suitable patterns        of thinking, decisioning and behaviour that attracts others to your purpose?
  3. How do you capture, internalise and repeat successful everyday critical incident patterns?   

Psychologists define habits as the development of cue-response relationships etched in memory that are learned through repetition in constant and unchanged circumstances        (e.g., “groundhog day”). Habit automaticity, single-step memory retrieval without guidance     or calculation, establishes a stimulus-response association achieved with minimal conscious intentions or demands on working memory. There are five attributes of optimal leader habit automacity: goal independence; unconsciousness; efficiency; stimulus-driven; and speed.

  1. Goal independent leader habits are cued directly from a situation or circumstance. What leader habits do you maintain in the absence of goals, fixed outcomes or perceived value?
  2. Unconscious leader habits are demonstrated through an “unconscious competence” executed as second nature in which multiple habits can be performed simultaneously.  What leader habits do you execute with unconscious competence as second nature?
  3. Efficient leader habits focus on the speed of learning translated into habit execution. What determines how quickly you translate learning into efficient habits?
  4. Stimulus-driven leader habits are cued directly by the perception of the environment or context. What stimulus response most directly predicts your leader habit behaviour?
  5. Fast habits are small to initiate, broken into chunks to develop and maintain, and transformed into permanence through repetition. What increases the speed and disaggregation of leader habit initiative, and how do you develop and sustain habits  over time?

Noted economist and political scientist Herbert Simon defined bounded rationality as a concept used to describe the realities of making decisions with limited time, mental resources and information. Psychologists followed with heuristics, a limited set of specific mental processes used to simplify decision-making.

In today’s constant state of crisis, shortcuts rationalise the trade off between accuracy and effort to make faster and more efficient decisions, albeit at the expense of exactness. However, the reality of the brain is the lack of capacity to process information at a high level of precision. Shortcuts provide a time and effort saving method to embed decisions predictability into three context-specific environments: representativeness; anchoring and adjustment; and availability. 

  1. Representativeness is a shortcut based on an object or event belonging to a similar  group or category that represents the most relevant example of an existing and familiar prototype. How quickly do you apply what you’ve seen or done before to reduce the time and effort it takes to make decisions about similar objects or events in the future? 
  2. Anchoring and adjustment is a shortcut that seeks to estimate an initial starting point as a number or value from which to increase the speed of up or down adjustments. To what extent do you estimate a starting point to speed up and influence decisions? 
  3. Availability is a shortcut that relies on the likelihood or frequency of an event occurring based on the ease or familiarity with which the event can be recalled. How effectively do you insert recency – a bias toward events, ideas or arguments that came last and recalled more easily than those that came first – to increase the speed and efficiency of outcomes in the process of decision making?

A leader archetype for the future

There’s no doubt that crisis will continue to be an ever-present and unavoidable challenge to leaders even if not manifested in the form of a global pandemic. Fast-brain leaders are well positioned to take the hands of others not because they have done it before, but through the strength of their purpose. The barometer of fast-brain leaders is measured by the interdependence of shared purpose, leadership muscle dexterity and speed of outcomes.

Applied as a reflective, holistic and enterprise-wide approach to building leadership capability, the fast-brain leader archetype provides not only individual present day leader development, but also embeds shared purpose thinking, decision making and behavioural intent necessary  to lead the future realities of change, choice and uncertainty.

Dr Wesley Payne McClendon is Executive Director, McClendon Research Group, Inc., Distinguished Visiting Scholar, Victoria Graduate Business School and Independent Director and Chair, People and Culture Committee, Australian Institute of Architects.

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