Leader insight, entrepreneurial intuition and the extreme sport of business

Martin contemplation sunriseI lived and worked in Scotland for a while giving talks on entrepreneurial thinking at colleges and coaching business owners. In the evenings I would often go running in the hills nearby. There were several reasons for doing this. I loved the scenery, it was a good way of keeping fit and it also helped me tap into new insights. I would arrive home with fresh ideas with which I would write articles or design new models for my work. It never failed to occur unless I was particularly stressed about something. I wondered how this worked and if it was possible to re- create the conditions that produces insights, intuition and peak performance in the workplace.

One could argue that the reason we’re at the top of the evolutionary tree, is that we have the ability to remember and predict where danger is and relate that information to others. I believe this was the turning point for us. Instead of reacting to danger, we avoided it. Others could pass on information vital for our survival and we’d pay special attention because of our ability to empathise. We felt their fear. When scary emotions are attached to memories, it makes them easier to access. This was humankind’s advantageous evolutionary trait and as an off-shoot, it’s useful today in lots of social situations. A disadvantage to this style of thinking is that it is difficult to turn off. In fact, even though there are less predators, whilst we’re awake, our mind is busily predicting and remembering. In fact you might even be predicting what I’m going to write ….. next?

We also know that there are different levels of brain wave activity thanks to the work of Hans Berger who developed the EEG machine. The more relaxed we are, the slower the brain activity. There is a difference in the types of thinking we can do based on our state of arousal. Generally when stressed or scared, blood drains from the brain and we practically stop thinking. When we’re busy mentally predicting and remembering, we’re in the Beta or busy zone. When we’re relaxed, we move into the slower Alpha zone. We can also slow right down and drift off into theta and deeper delta which happens when we’re asleep. So mentally we can be stressed, busy, relaxed and focussed, relaxed and unfocussed or asleep. Guess which is the best state to be in for peak performance?

I’ve used this understanding about arousal and the way we use our brains to help people become more effective. Whether it be in sports, therapy, business or coaching leaders who want to access their deeper intuitions and insights at will.

For example, if a client wants to ride their horse more effectively, I’ll ask them to use their busy beta mind to focus on a simple task such as counting the horse’s footsteps. The busy mind – the part you can hear talking to you – has always got to be doing something, so direct it. This allows the body mind i.e. muscle memory and intuition, to ride effectively because there is less interference from the busy mind that wants to predict disaster scenarios. I’ve found that the busy predicting mind and peak performance are mutually exclusive, but as mentioned previously, you can’t just shut it off. If you want to perform at your best or access deeper wisdom, we have to do three things. Achieve a sense of calm, control the busy mind and connect with the deeper reservoir of our wisdom mind.

Calm-> Control-> Connect

My running in the hills followed the model above because the running would fill me with endorphins calming my body mind. I’d focus my busy mind on counting my breaths in and out developing into a rhythm. This would soon lead to me being able to connect to my wisdom mind. Ideas would begin to pop into my awareness. If I started thinking about anything stressful, I’d let it go by returning my attention to my breathing.

Intuition vs insights

Good Ideas (2)Intuition is our ability to access information without having to consciously figure out the answer. As humans we like to reduce the amount of conscious thinking we do – because it uses up a lot of energy- by making everything a habit, an unconscious process.

All the knowledge and experiences we’ve amassed becomes programmed into our intuition or gut instincts. So again, referring back to ancestral times, we didn’t need to make a conscious decision about whether a predator might be dangerous, we knew intuitively.

In the workplace, problems we’ve encountered before and resolved successfully can be become part of the knowledge and experience we’ll use as our intuition in the future. Experience in the workplace therefore is valuable and is more easily accessed if you’re relaxed. Stress is the antithesis of peak performance and hence why happy people are judged by researchers at Warwickshire University to be more productive and profitable.

Insight is primarily an unconscious process like intuition, but it is looking into the future. It often involves accessing disparate sources of information and making unusual connections to arrive at new conclusions. Think about Einstein dreaming about riding on light beams and coming up with his theory of relativity or Newton relaxing under a tree, having an apple fall on his head and discovering gravity. In my experience, the workplace generally doesn’t tap into our ability to insight as much as they should.

So the ability to solve challenges based on previous experience, when done in a relaxed state is through the use of intuition. Producing novel solutions done in a deeper, relaxed way I refer to as insighting.

Entrepreneurship, the extreme sport of business
Entrepreneurs are often very intuitive. Generally they tackle challenges with their intuition and jump to solutions. Being tolerant of risk is an essential ingredient in the ‘start-up’ stage of an organisation. The autonomy to make snap decisions despite the risks, being fully immersed in the activity, creatively solving problems and setting clear goals are all triggers that lead to flow states which are autotelic – that’s psychological code for addictive. Most flow research is done with extreme athletes because they often access flow states in the pursuit of their sport.

It’s also risky setting up in business so one could argue that entrepreneurship is the extreme sport of the business world because the mental and emotional activity is similar. However, if the entrepreneur is moving into uncharted waters just as an extreme surfer might choose to, they need also need to be able to penetrate into the future with insight.
It’s a common misconception that extreme athletes are tolerant of risk to the point of being foolhardy. Actually the opposite is true, they spend a lot of time in preparation, minimizing the risk as much as possible. Once they’re committed to action they quickly move into a flow state and use intuition to guide their actions. Their lives depend on using both insight and intuition skills to the nth degree.

The rise of adaptable entrepreneurial leaders
An adaptable entrepreneurial leader also needs to be able to tap into both insightful and intuitive powers at the appropriate times. When you’re looking at complex situations, normal busy mind will not be effective and jumping into novel situations using only intuition isn’t always the ideal answer either.
This need to be able to understand and access various mental states has become an important part of today’s entrepreneurial leader skill set. It means developing the ability to move instinctively then think strategically and then be able to jump back again as the situation requires.
I use and teach the following method for accessing paradigms shifts into new territory so leaders don’t just solve problems, they soar to new heights:

If in doubt …SOAR!

Suspend Judgment: Not jumping to conclusions sounds easier than it is because we’re meaning searching animals. Our minds don’t like not knowing all the answers, so we come to quick conclusions about situations even if we don’t know the answer. We’ll often fill in the blanks based on our intuition and biases. In rapid succession we’re constantly making ‘judgements’. To stop doing this, we’ve got slow to down and be more self-aware or as its becoming more commonly known; be mindful.

Developing insight can mean the difference between coming to a symptomatic solution or a fundamental one. For instance, you might be stressed at work, come home, kick the cat off the sofa, drink a bottle of wine and begin to feel better. That’s a symptomatic solution because you’ve escaped feeling stressed…for the moment.

The next day when you go back to work, you find that the same problem is still there and giving you more headaches to add to the one you’ve already got from drinking the wine. Furthermore, when you go home after another stressful day, your cat’s not speaking to you and because you’re spending so much time on the sofa sulking, you’re getting unfit and less able to handle the stress of work. A vicious cycle ensues.

A fundamental solution is to be able to come up with an insight that solves the challenge once and for all. It doesn’t mean that all your challenges will disappear, you begin to get better problems though. So what’s the next step?

Observe keenly: Just as a General doesn’t command a battle from the front line, you need to get some space, at least mentally, from the situation. You’ve got to achieve an enlightened perspective. Remember a beach ball might look a certain way to you but from the other side the colours are different. You’ve got to see not only many sides, but also into the future too.

An entrepreneur at this point would probably take a glimpse of a situation and then jump to a conclusion. Filling in the blanks as they go because they’re use to having more control. A leader of a growing business has to deal with more complexity due to the increasing numbers of people involved. It also can’t change direction or recover from mistakes as easily. Intuition is okay when you’ve a small agile team, insighting is also necessary when you’ve a bigger organisation.

Allow time for wisdom to arise: When I first go out running or walking or I decide to meditate, everyday ‘stuff’ intrudes in on my mind. This continues until I’ve burnt some energy off or done some deep breathing and the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, are slowly replaced by calming endorphins and others which allow access to different areas of the brain. Steven Kotler of the Flow Genome Project, describes this as the ‘release’ stage of entering into ‘flow’ states.

Emotions are mutually exclusive. You can’t be stressed and calm at the same time just as you can’t be drunk and sober. Different bio-chemicals produce different ‘states’. If you want to access wisdom thinking and peak performance, you’ve got to become relaxed and focussed.

This state takes a bit of effort to achieve with will power alone. It’s easier if you focus your attention on something mundane and repetitive, like washing the dishes or counting your breaths. You’ve probably found this happening when driving your car, although that’s probably not ideal!

I will often pause a coaching session after the observing stage and ask a client, who is dealing with complex issues, to go away and sleep on the problem. This letting go of effort also enables them and me time for processing the information. I find clients will often come back with fresh insights that they wouldn’t have access to without some release time in between. Don’t rush to conclude the process, let ideas percolate up from your wisdom mind.

Respond entrepreneurially: Once an insight has arisen, it now becomes time for the enlightened leader to move quickly. To be entrepreneurial again and with high emotion drive the new idea or solution into creation. This means garnering the support of others. Gathering resources and focussing on implementation. Now they can get back into the zone of extreme sport in business and rely on their entrepreneurial intuition to guide them.

Co-Founder of the Wellbeing Lab and MIT lecturer Otto Scharmer said:

“The ability to shift from reacting against the past to leaning into and presencing an emerging future is probably the single most important leadership capacity today.”

An adaptable entrepreneurial leader has to have the ability to step off the merry-go- round mentally and access a quieter space from which they can co-create with the universe, the future. It means tapping into something deeper than everyday thinking. Being mindful and self-aware isn’t just a new fad in leadership thinking, it’s an essential element of adaptive leadership necessary into today’s complex and transforming world.

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