Friday, June 26, 2009

How to Win Brains and Influence Motor Neurons (or Star Wars Leadership)

A note before we proceed: A few of my friends who read my previous entry on this topic suggested that I was a bit too academic for most blog readers (and long winded). In response I would like to announce that for the purposes of this blog I’ll attempt to exchange the stereo-typcial tweed jacket with elbow patches of the academic for a more appropriate t-shirt with a catchy phrase.

If you have aspirations of upward mobility then at some point on your upward journey you’re going to learn that your value to the organization draws less from functional expertise (how to do the job of the people who work for you) and more from social intelligence (how you interact with the people who work for you). Leaders with high social intelligence are often seen as chameleons who can go into any organization and begin engaging their teams regardless of their knowledge of the work they do. If you have your eye on a C-suite then you should be looking at your social skills.

So, brilliant widget designer who is not allowed to talk to clients directly because you piss them off, accounting wizard who has the power to bring others to tears in a single email, engineer who can force others into a comatose state as you describe a flange, and any other person who feels their social interactions with others are forced and uncomfortable, this entry is for you!

Remember in Episode IV of Star Wars when Luke Skywalker was about to blow up the death star and he hears the voice of Obi wan Kenobi telling him to stop thinking and use the force? Turns out his advice was actually pretty applicable to all of us when it comes to social intelligence (if you have a lot of this you are a mirror neuron master); just replace “the force” with “intuition.”

Research into social intelligence and leadership shows that leaders who are highly effective at engaging others through authenticity and sincerity do so intuitively. So does that mean the rest of us are screwed? Absolutely not! Intuition, in many ways, is simply learning to do something so well that it is second nature and happens at an unconscious level.

In the first day of our Leadership Fundamentals program at the University of Houston we talk about levels of awareness. I won’t go into them here but intuition and second nature level knowledge is at the top. It’s what you know how to do but can’t easily explain to someone else. For example, you know how to breath, but you don’t know what muscles are involved or how you determine the rate of inhaling and exhaling you just do it. Socially intelligent people are the same way when it comes to engaging others and guess what? They learned it. You know what that means braniac? You can learn it too. Yes, it comes more easily to some people than others, but it can be learned.

Where do you start? Start with smiling and laughter, they are the abc's of engagement. I know, I know you’ve always heard “you should smile more.” I hear that too. Guess what? Turns out there are a bunch of mirror neurons that light up when we see someone smile, and when they smile at us. A smile really is contagious. So try to smile more, especially if someone makes eye contact with you. You do not have to know them or need to speak with them, just smile. Start there. Next will come laughter. You may not be a comedian, but you can appreciate humor and doing so openly and authentically with a big laugh, giggle or snort may make you feel a little silly but I promise those around you will be tickled too and they’ll make a connection with you in the process.

Remember, when you force a response or mold your authentic reaction into something different for the sake of acceptability you are using a different part of your brain and others will sense it. I once heard Dr. Phil tell David Letterman something on his show that stuck with me, “You wouldn’t care so much about what people thought of you if you knew how often they really did.” I believe that’s true. Start with smiling, you’ll be surprised. Once that becomes second nature go a little further. You may feel silly at first, do not fear, that is a sign that you’re on the right path. And if Dr. Phil is right (may be one of the few instances) other people won't even think negatively of you.

Let me say this, authenticity is not the same as “telling it like it is.” Authenticity goes deeper than that. Calling someone names because they pissed you off is not authenticity. Authenticity is telling that person how their actions affected you. Not creatively using adjectives that you feel describe them. We see this logic used all to often in society. "Look I tell it like it is so if you're a _____ I'm going to say it." That's not telling it like it is, that's giving an opinion and it's not based on anything but a need to defend a fragile self image.

To win brains and influence motor neurons you have to make authenticity second nature. Expanding social intelligence really is a thousand mild journey. One that you can start today with a single step, in this case it can be as simple as a smile.

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