The ‘invisible’ moods of our leaders

This is a partial re-post of an article by Jan Hills, a partner at Orion Partners. Comments are included…

No-see-ums is the name given to a very small biting insect that is prevalent in warm climates. I came across them on a recent holiday is South Carolina in the USA. When I first hear people say the ‘no see ums’ are out and slapping their neck I thought they were using some weird scientific name. Once I got the spelling I could see it was actually a literal description of the insect.

This sounded to me like an analogy for the way many leaders think about their own behaviour. The working assumption is people don’t see um. Most of the time so they can act as they wish only putting on the leadership mantel when they are in formal settings or one to ones.

This continues dispute the vast amounts of evidence that followers monitor leaders very closely and that the demeanour and mood of the leader is infectious. Some research even suggests that leaders stress transmits to workers across space. Raising the workers stress levels also.

In this context I was intrigued by a video on Harvard Business Review (HBR) of Gill Rider president of the CIPD, saying that teams perform best when managers are calm and authentic. She has an interesting personal story about how she learnt this lesson. You can watch the video here.

Gill’s closing advice is to be like a Swan; calm and graceful on the surface but paddling underneath the water line, out of sight of followers. This is good advice to an extent.

But further research by scientist Sandy Pentland, also in HBR describes how little we can actually hide our true feelings and moods. Sandy uses a clever machine that measures the non-verbal cues that others pick up. His research basically shows there is no hiding. At some level your team will know how you are and even if this is not consciously articulated it will impact their performance, for good or ill. Good if you truly are calm and in control and for ill if you are paddling fast.

So what is the answer for leaders? Well increasingly science is finding that exercise and a regular practice like meditation or yoga goes a long way to making that calm real. Yet more recent research has found that  just five weeks of regular training of 5-15 minutes a day in attention focused meditation, that is relax and focus on the breath, resulted in stronger brain waves in areas associated with positive emotions.

This suggests leaders can access the benefits with very little effort in terms of their time.  But it also shows the devastating impact on team members who demonstrate outright contempt for other members of the team.  Team members who use express verbal language to show their disapproval and contempt for other members will destroy a team.  The extent to which leaders allow this to occur is the extent to all the group members regard the leadership of any team.

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