The Physiology of Successful Executive Leaders
Executive Leaders have an enormous impact on the way businesses function. The way the executive leader behaves with and treats their employees can have a tremendous ripple effect right down to the customers.
Becoming an executive leader is a decision, not a rank or a position.
If you have chosen to become an executive leader to your employees, you have promised that you look out for the people beside you.In an excellent talk by Simon Sinek on 99u, the Executive Leadership expert explained how the best kind of Executive Leaders are the ones who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that others may gain. In the military, for example, the example of a brave pilot covering for his mates on the ground despite difficult flying conditions. The soldiers down below feel confident knowing that somebody else has got their back and fight on without looking behind them. Why did the pilot risk his life? Because he knew, his colleagues would’ve done the same for him in a heartbeat.
In a business context, wouldn’t people working in an organization feel more confident and safe knowing that others they may or may not know within the organization will sacrifice themselves the same way so that they may gain? It seems hard to imagine such a scenario these days when people do not give up credit, let alone a life.
So where do such people come from? They are not born, but rather made.
The human animal is like a machine. It is a system that works to make you do things to survive. Just as people work towards a goal for which a business offers an incentive, your body works the same way with chemical induced feelings working in our best interest.
All our happy feelings are brought about by four dominant chemicals: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. The first two chemicals do not need a person’s help to trigger them while the latter two depend on other people and bring balance.
Endorphins mask physical pain. They bring on feelings of extreme happiness in times of pain like laughter or the high you get from an intense workout. Your brain releases dopamine after you accomplish something. It makes us get stuff done focusing on our goal. It is easier to pursue goals that are visual that is why it is better you write down your goals, and keep it detailed and tangible.
The danger of dopamine is that it is highly addictive. When unbalanced, it is dangerous and destructive. Addiction to alcohol, gambling, mobiles, nicotine and other addictive are all a result of dopamine. It makes you distracted and gives you a short attention span (which is probably why 66% of youth today addicted to their phones are misdiagnosed with ADHD). In businesses, employees get a dopamine addiction out of hitting target numbers.
When there is danger outside, we protect ourselves by grouping up with other people to be safe and extinguish external dangers. Outside dangers are constant and unknown. They can be ups n downs in the economy, competition, terrorism, the list goes on. Dangers of an organization, however, are not constant. They are variable and depend upon how safe the decisions of the Executive Leadership make employees feel when they go to work.
Remember the Aesop fable of 4 oxen teaming up against a lion? When they stood together, the lion was not able to harm them, but when they disbanded the lion easily defeated them. Take the lion as the extreme danger faced by a company. When you do not feel safe inside your company, then you spend more time and energy saving yourself inside, and ultimately expose yourself to outside dangers. This destructive behaviour uses energy which could’ve been used for productivity instead, yet it is not.
The responsibility of an executive leader is two things:
- Who gets into the safety circle? What values and beliefs define the circle?
- How to create a safety circle that is truly meaningful? Should it just be C-level executives or should we extend it to the outer edges, including the bottom most junior levels?
The last two chemicals (serotonin and oxytocin) focus on these thoughts and balances endorphins and dopamine to make Executive Leaders achieve their goals.
Serotonin is an Executive Leadership chemical. It makes us feel pride and values status. Humans are social animals and need the recognition of others for their accomplishments. That is why we have award shows and commencement ceremonies. Serotonin gives you confidence and reinforces relationships: between a parent and their child, or a boss and an employee. We want to make other people proud, and look out for others so they may accomplish the same.
In our materialistic society, we find that wealth raises our status, and many people flaunt it. The problem is that no relationship is established because of it and at the end of the day we don’t feel satisfied. It’s like tricking serotonin.
Working or living together in a group has value, but it only works if we trust each other within the group. Only when we trust each other can we turn our back and innovate and take risks to increase performance for the company.
Relative to your industry, there is always a dominant personality or talent. Like in the military it may be courage, or in art school it might be creativity. So how do you know who’s the alpha? Well if your nervous meeting someone else, you just might not the alpha.
When we recognize an alpha, we automatically step back and let them take over and serve them. Everybody wants to raise their status to alpha and get favours and special treatment from everybody else. For some reason, nobody has a problem that his or her boss makes more money than them or has a bigger office. Somehow, we just accept the fact that the alpha gets treated better.
However, being an alpha comes at a cost. When danger threatens the group, the group expects the best – the alpha – to go out and protect them. The boss should be ready to give up their perks when it matters. Executive Leadership has more work and requires you to put yourself at risk to help others. Executive Leaders fail when they do not protect the group and work only in self-interest. It angers the group and causes them to instantly mistrust the executive leader.
The last chemical of happiness is oxytocin. It is a feeling of love, trust and friendship. It is the reason you like to spend time with your friends or sit by someone you know. Oxytocin is the intense feeling of safety that somebody’s got your back. You get it through intimate contact like a hug or a handshake. Not all business relationships are rational. It is more about feeling safe. Physical touch makes a difference because if you don’t shake hands before signing a contract, you’ll either end the deal or go into it feeling nervous.
You get oxytocin through acts of human generosity. We value people who give their time rather than money, because you can get back money but not time. An executive leader who takes the time to help others is a good executive leader. Don’t depend upon email, and make the effort to speak in person or on the phone. People get happier and feel appreciated when you put in time and energy to communicate with or help them.
When you are an executive leader, it can be difficult to give your time and energy to every employee because you simply don’t have enough to give to everyone. You need to make sure you can trust others around you in your circle and that they too can trust others, continuing the trust chain.
The CEO should make sure that the people under them feel safe in their circle. Moreover, the people in the inner circle should make sure that their circles further on are circles of safety. It continues till it reaches the customer. The employees will feel safe within their organization and talk to them like they are human. If they are scared, they will be more worried about their job security than making the customer comfortable. An extremely efficient organization has employees who do everything in their power to make customers feel safe and belonged just like they do.
Witnessing acts of human generosity also gives oxytocin. In fact, the more oxytocin u have in your body, the more generous you become. Moreover, the more generous acts you do, the more you want to. A bonus of lots of oxytocin is that it inhibits addiction and boosts your immune system. This results in a healthier and longer life. Oxytocin increases the ability to solve problems and increases activity. All in all, it is really good for us.
Cortisol, on the other hand, is a feeling of stress and anxiety. It keeps you alive and triggers the fight or flight mechanism. It makes us paranoid about danger, and like a virus quickly passes on to others around us. Cortisol shuts down non-essential systems in your body like growth and the immune system. Because of its damaging side effects, it is not supposed to be in your body all the time. It is extremely unhealthy, inhibits oxytocin and makes you biologically less empathetic and less generous.
In short, jobs which stress us are killing us.
Moreover, the people responsible are the Executive Leaders.
Children who see their parents come home stressed out makes them associate work with something unhappy. Executive Leadership is not a rank or a position. It is a decision. If you have chosen to look after people beside you, then you are an executive leader. It is your willingness to sacrifice for someone else so that they may feel safe is what makes you an executive leader.