Recession-Proof Your Leadership With One Important Skill
This article was originally published in Forbes.
After a destabilizing week of unanticipated turmoil in the banking industry, the probability of a global recession has risen dramatically. This reality, alongside the continuing war in Ukraine and a stark wake-up call from the UN panel on climate change, has intensified the landscape of uncertainty that executives are trying to navigate. “We are in uncharted waters in the months ahead,” write economists at the World Economic Forum.
Uncertainty is anathema to leaders, and frankly to most human beings. Our minds constantly try to predict what will happen next, and uncertainty can throw us into one of two states: a Zoom In state or a Zoom Out state. Neither is great for very long. The best approach, especially for leaders, is to toggle between the two, to both zoom in and to zoom out. What do we call this “both/and” state? Mental agility.
Zooming in and Zooming out
Imagine that you are actually in unchartered waters, trying to figure out which way to sail without the benefit of clear course. If you are a “zoom in” person, your first instinct is to manage the situation at hand, focusing in on what needs to happen in the present moment. Perhaps you calculate how much time it will take to get to a safe port, work out an allocation for the remaining fuel and food, and ensure everyone on board knows the emergency evacuation plan. You are controlling what you can and not getting paralyzed into inaction by the lack of clarity.
If you are a “zoom out” person, your first instinct is to take a step back and figure out how you arrived in unchartered waters in the first place and what the options are for navigating out of them. Perhaps you look at data from previous voyages to locate similarities or patterns, or you scan upcoming weather forecasts. You are both literally and figuratively lifting your eye to the horizon to figure out the best course to follow.
Both of these approaches are important, but neither is sufficient by itself. Getting stuck in either state can torpedo your leadership effectiveness. When we zoom in, we remain present in the moment and don’t get lost in a sea of “what if’s”. We focus on the important priorities, and we keep the ball – and our teams – moving forward despite uncertainty. However, the downside of operating too long in a zoomed-in state is that we can lose perspective. We become so focused on doing and executing that we miss opportunities to pull back and incorporate new data or a shift in priorities. We can become action-addicted even if those actions are now taking us off course.
When we zoom out, we see the bigger picture which allows us to notice patterns and connections amidst the uncertainty and complexity and to strategize new ways forward. We are able to look into the past to identify learnings and then apply them in fresh ways to the future. We don’t get overwhelmed by uncertainty because we see from history that there is always a way forward. However, the downside of operating too long in a zoomed-out state is that we can float too much above reality, trying to see multiple things at once or jumping around between too many ideas. We become so focused on choosing the best path forward that we can’t commit to any actions.
As Rosabeth Moss Kanter has said, “The best leaders work the zoom button in both directions. Faced with a crisis, they can address the immediate situation while seeking structural solutions. They can zoom in to see problems while zooming out to look for similar situations, root causes, and principles or policies that will help prevent the crisis from recurring.”
Building Your Mental Agility
Mental agility is the ability to toggle between zooming in and zooming out, shifting between a laser-focus and a bigger picture perspective. What does that look like? When we zoom in, we focus with single-pointed attention on the present situation and effectively execute on our priorities. Then we pull back to look at the bigger picture, the future, and the road ahead. We grasp the meta-view of our organization and separate the signals from the noise. And then we zoom back in to respond decisively, to deploy the necessary capabilities, and to execute with discipline.
This sounds straightforward, especially for experienced leaders. But there is a challenge: our minds are not naturally built for agility. Evolution has wired our minds for distraction because, in eons past, constant attention to a dangerous landscape helped us to survive. Distractibility – when your mind jumps from one thing to the other – is not agility. It is following whatever calls for attention, without strategic focus or diligent prioritization. According to our research, we are distracted, on average, 37 percent of the time that we are at work. The average employee loses 2.1 hours a day to distractions and interruptions and is distracted roughly every 10.5 minutes. And stress makes this all worse, increasing our distractibility by 2-3x.
So, as we face uncertainty ahead when mental agility will be both necessary and difficult, what is a leader to do? One thing we often recommend is to spend 10 minutes a day “rewiring” your mind to increase your mental agility. Here’s what to do:
- Sit in a way that allows you to be both alert and relaxed.
- Allow your mind and the body to just settle.
- Now simply notice your breath and the experience of breathing. Don’t try to control your breath; this isn’t a breathing exercise. You are training your focus, and the breath is simply the object of your attention. Your only task is sustained focus on the breath.
- Notice when you get distracted by a sound, sensation, or thought (because you will get distracted). Be aware of this – “ah, my mind has wandered.” Then, let go of the distraction and return your focus to your breath.
- If it helps you to maintain focus on the breath, you can try breathing in and breathing out, and on each out breath counting silently to yourself from 1-10.
- See if you can do this for 10 minutes.
What’s going on inside as you do this exercise? Very simply, when you zoom in and focus on your breath – or anything else during the day — your prefrontal cortex is activated. This is the “executive center” of the brain responsible for complex cognitive activities, such as planning and decision-making. At some point, your mind naturally wanders off, and very old parts of the brain, called the default network, are activated. When you zoom out enough to notice that your mind has wandered and redirect your attention back to your breath, you return to the prefrontal cortex. Every time that you go through that zoom in and zoom out loop, your prefrontal cortex is strengthened, and your mental agility deepens. Researchers have found that even just eight weeks of a 10-minute practice like this results in a measurably thicker prefrontal cortex.
Why It Matters
Mental agility increases your effectiveness as a leader during turbulent and uncertain times. Interestingly, it also correlates significantly with higher personal well-being. Recently, we surveyed 265 leaders who, through a series of questions, identified themselves as either a Zoom In Leader, a Zoom Out Leader, or a Both/And Leader.
Zoom In Leaders see themselves as one who focuses on a single task at a time. They believe that being successful at one’s job means not jumping between things. Zoom Out Leaders see themselves as one who is able to quickly switch between different tasks. They believe that being successful at one’s job means holding different priorities at once. Both/And leaders see themselves as a bit of both, able to both focus on tasks and pull up to switch gears when necessary.
Across a variety of indicators, Both/And Leaders – those with the mental agility to toggle between zooming in and zooming out – fare much better relative to an average leader. Conversely, leaders with a Zoom In or Zoom Out bias fare worse. Mentally agile leaders have 37% less tendency for burnout in their jobs, 22% higher satisfaction and engagement with their job, and 32% higher commitment to their organization. On the whole, Zoom In Leaders seem to have the worst outcomes, with significantly higher tendency to burn out and lower satisfaction with their job and commitment to their organization.
The waters ahead promise to be choppy, and no analyst or economist will give leaders a clear chart to follow. The wisest course of action is to prepare your mind for the journey ahead. With mental agility, you and your team will have a smoother, more satisfying ride.