VUCA. Mindful Leadership. Neuroleadership. Vertical and Horizontal Development. Conscious Capitalism. The Nine-Box. Emotional Resilience. Measuring Potential. Long Term Talent Pipeline. Spiritual Intelligence. Social Intelligence. Integral Coaching. Systems Thinking... If you don’t know what these mean, you have fallen behind the leadership development industry’s own development of concepts.

Our business society has fallen in love with the concept of leadership and continues to reinvent ways to talk about ideas that have been with us since the Bhagavad Gita was written, which is a source of wisdom I still rely on in my own leadership development - amongst many other ancient sources of wisdom.

I head back at the end of the month to address my 20th reunion of my 1995 graduating Stanford MBA class, which includes the likes of Jeff Skoll, 2nd founder in EBay and Steve Jurvetson, venture capitalist who discovered Hotmail and now on boards with company names such as Tesla Motors, SpaceX, Rethink Robotics, and Planet Labs.

My contribution? It is certainly not the billions that Stanford Alumni Association would like me to donate. Instead, I thought I would come to the Palo Alto “manger of technology” bearing gifts of insight.

I am making a speech on The Dark Night of the Soul to the class about what I have learned in my own life and particularly how it applies to 21st Century Leadership. I thought I’d get my author’s juices going by writing this article as a warm up.

We do believe we live in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous world (VUCA).  I’m not sure it is any more VUCA than it has ever been. There are certainly more people than the Earth has ever seen, and our corporate organisations have grown in technological, global, and production complexity.

On a relative basis, however, I wonder if the development of hundreds of languages from no words at all represented the same level of “VUCA” shifts as we are claiming now — or the discovery of fire, the wheel, the steam engine, the atom, the theory of relativity — or dare I say, the woman’s right to vote.

I do know that neuroscientists tell us that our brains are the same as ever — still living in constant fear that we are going to die at every moment — shifting constantly from what Daniel Kahneman would say the System 2 of our rational brain back to System 1 of our emotional and survival brain.

Despite the fact that we are not seeing sabre-toothed tigers at every corner and thereby really needing the survival brain, our brain still sees False Evidence Appearing Real in everything — and this is all throughout the day.

I define leadership as “conscious choice”.

In neuroscientific terms, what I mean by this definition, is the power we humans have to choose System 2 over System 1. The consciousness part of this choice is extraordinarily elusive for us humans.

Most of us on this planet do not have the foggiest idea that we actually do have choice, and we find ourselves the victim of a very stuck System 1 survival thinking.

The “Secret” which seems to not have been shared across our population is not so secret at all. So, we find ourselves turning to the ancient wisdom of the world — carried by such extraordinary teachers as the Dalai Lama and wondering how these humans seem to have access to such conscious choice.

We ponder enlightenment and say that it is not for us but we would sure like some of that happiness that guy has on the stage. Wouldn’t it be great to just have a moment of serenity, elucidation, ease, and kindness in our lives if even for a moment?

That is SEEK — opposite of VUCA.

So the trick in leadership development is to train our brains how to make that conscious choice between the predominant use of:

  • the mid-part of our brain that wants our body to flee, fight or freeze and
  • the front part of our brain that wants our mind to make rational decisions, create new thoughts (innovate), connect to people (collaborate) and access the wonderful systems of dopamine.  Amongst many other neurotransmitters, dopamine is critical in the ever expansive learning circles we are capable of accessing when we are in the SEEK state of mind.

And our brains seem to enjoy two things to make this choice possible: one is a tiny bit of information on how the brain itself actually works and two is constant feedback on how the system it is controlling is responding.

And that brings me to the use of “360” tools that are in use across the corporate world — tools that are essentially surveys of leaders in which their manager, peers, direct reports and peers are asked for their input on how they perceive the leader’s behaviour.

We in the leadership development industry use these 360’s for indicators of behavioural change, and when used wisely, they are a wonderful aid to the feedback our brains are seeking from the people we like to hang around with. The issue I am seeing in the market, however, is that the results of many of these 360s are being debriefed as “the truth,” when in fact they represent the perceptions of people.

The brains of leaders who receive a “bad” 360 that identifies all of their negative qualities have a hard time forgetting all of these negative qualities and find it difficult to replace these negative qualities with constructive “System 2” behaviours. It’s a bit like telling you to stop thinking of a pink elephant. Good luck with that.

I look for 360s and leadership models that call upon some of the behaviours that we need for this so-called VUCA world — leadership that transforms VUCA into SEEK. 

And it turns out that our brains get turned on when we see words like integration, inspiration, imagination, and intuition (known as the i4 Neuroleader Model).

Our brains after all are built around our egos, and apparently our egos quite like the concept of “i”-words. But of course, it is more than “i” — and our hearts like words such as collaboration, generosity, courage, and communication. 

Our guts seem to like the concepts of drive, ethics, balance, awareness. Our minds like the concepts of mental readiness, adaptability, attitude, and performance. Our minds also need simplicity — i.e. give it a framework that has no more than four components, and it will cope.

We didn’t need the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine to tell us what has always been the characteristics of noble leadership. And as far as we know, we don’t have a way yet to use the likes of positron emission tomography (PET) or fMRI to scan for this leadership.

We can, however, revel in the use of neuroscience, as well as the new findings around the gut and heart to help us understand how to re-acquaint ourselves with this noble leadership. This is a neuroscience that will need to expand beyond the brain carried in our head and to the brain carried in our gut and our heart.

The science over the next decade will show us how to use this expansive brain much more effectively. If we want to have that noble leadership in corporate life, we will have to start eating radically differently, exercising radically differently, and loving radically differently.

I hope that our ancestors looking over us are breathing a sigh of relief that perhaps we are beginning to rediscover some secrets that they have always known and that we as the forgetting society have left behind us in our rush to the sharemarket.

If you are finding yourself not up to speed in the latest trend words of the leadership development market, fear not. Remember it is False Evidence Appearing Real. We have had the wisdom of leadership development since man was man and woman was woman. We can use the discoveries of science AND the re-discovery of our ancient philosophies to help us to transform a so-called VUCA world into a world of SEEK.

My ego calls its-self a very experienced leadership advisor, but in my heart and gut I like to known as an eternal “Beginner’s Mind” - passionately SEEKing out the best ways to live and to govern our planet.

I loved discovery About my Brain Institutes’ 360 Tool and the i4 Neuroleader Model & Methodology which develops a leaders’ mind via brain, gut, heart and whole body.

Originally posted on: 21 April 2015
Last updated on: 18 February 2024
Katharine McLennan

Katharine McLennan

Executive Coach & Psychotherapist
About my Brain Institute

Katharine is passionate about sharing her endless expertise and thought leadership on talent development, strategy, neurocoaching and psychotherapy.

Katharine McLennan has a career that spans corporate strategy, execution and leadership. Her specialty is facilitating executive teams in the integration of strategy, operations, team dynamics and self-transformation. Her ideas on the future of work, leadership culture and HR transformation are provocative and inspiring in seminars, speeches, or writing.

Katharine is now an executive coach and psychotherapist for a range of corporate, government and non-profit leaders of organisations. She focuses on corporate strategy, talent and psychology. She also works with individuals facing depression, anxiety, addiction, trauma, and career transition.

Her corporate roles have included: Head of Strategy and HR for the Federal Government's Export Finance Australia, Vice President of People & Culture of Cochlear, Head of the QBE Global Leadership Academy and Executive General Manager, Talent and Business Unit HR for the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.

Prior to her corporate career, Katharine spent TEN years in leadership consulting, providing advisory services on behalf of three major organisations: Heidrick & Struggles, the Mettle Group and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Through this work, she led projects in succession planning, CEO team strategy facilitation and executive assessment and development for ASX Top 50 clients, helping these clients to manage their internal pipeline.

Comments (1)