Instinct!  Gut reaction!  Natural ability!  Quick response!  Thinking on your feet!  Confronting the obvious!  Doing what comes naturally!  Stepping into the void!  Regardless of specific terminology, successful leadership is often described as the ability to react quickly and to jump into action when the need arises.  It is not too distant from the role of the “Heroine” or “Hero” for whom we all cheer when reading a book or watching a movie – the person who does not pause to think of self or sacrifice, but rather leaps into action regardless of the threat or challenge they face.  This romanticized vision of a leader as a hero infiltrates our expectations of managers, politicians, and parental figures – we respect and seek those leaders who are gifted with the ability to take action without thought, to immediately discern right from wrong, and to have an answer for every question that we might ask.

But, this idolized vision of leadership is woefully wrong.  Successful leaders – not just in the moment, but across time – do not react without thought and do not rely upon their natural instincts.  In fact, great leaders do the opposite – they pause before acting and they struggle to overcome and resist their natural instincts and assumptions.

Which raises the question as to why our natural instincts often run contrary to great leadership.  Why is the common wisdom to follow your gut, not the wise choice at all?  Why are we often our own worst enemy?  Why does good leadership require us to “overcome ourselves”?  The answers to those questions must start with an understanding of what “natural behavior” looks like.

Beyond “Fight and Flight”

Natural behavior is reactionary behavior.   Evolution has conditioned us, as humans, to react to the threats, situations, and problems that surround us.  Above all else, to protect ourselves – including that which we value such as loved ones, jobs, and property – vigorously and at all costs.  This natural instinct to react is more powerful than all other forms of behavior – more powerful than rational problem solving, more powerful than serving the common or greater good, and more powerful than long term planning, etc.  In other words, our natural instinct to react is far more powerful than the proactive skills and thoughtful behaviors that leaders need most.

Much has been written about how people react to threats and problems.  The infamous “fight or flight” syndrome has been much studied and is well understood – that when we are threatened, we either gird ourselves for battle to confront the threat, or we run away from the threat to a place of safety and security.  But, this “Fight or Flight” dichotomy should be further expanded to better understand both how our instincts undermine good leadership, as well as how we can overcome these natural instincts to be successful.  A third reaction to threats and danger that is often discussed is the Freeze Response.  And, a fourth reaction, less often studied, is the Flail Response.   When placed on a spherical continuum, these four threat responses can be seen as unique and distinct, but also as connected.[1]

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It is important to remember that each of these four behaviors is a reaction to threats, dangers,  or difficulties that we encounter…

  • FLIGHT is an effort to avoid the problem by running away from the situation. FLIGHT is mostly a passive response, with individuals solely focused on removing themselves from the situation and threat altogether.
  • FIGHT is an effort to destroy or neutralize the problem itself. FIGHT is an aggressive response built on the belief – or wishful thinking — that the person is greater than the problem to be conquered, and that the person will prevail regardless of the odds or difficulties to encountered.
  • FREEZE can best be described as an inability to either FIGHT or FLEE, and thus doing neither. It is a paralysis of sort where the individual either withdraws into themselves and/or ignores the threat altogether.   FREEZE behavior is often characterized by an individual “changing the subject”, or “focusing on the trivial”, or “minimizing the reality” of the threat that has been encountered.   Similar to FLIGHT, the FREEZE Response is passive – an individual doing very little in response to the threat they face.  Similar to FIGHT, the FREEZE Response is an internal struggle as to how the person perceives their ability (or inability) to confront and deal with their problems.
  • Conversely, the FLAIL Response is an expression of both FIGHT and FLIGHT at the same time. It is doing anything and everything that comes to mind – a lashing out at the situation with multiple, often conflicting, reactions.  It can be humorously described as “running out the door while slapping people as you go”!   Similar to the FIGHT Response, to FLAIL is to be highly aggressive and action-oriented.  But, like FLIGHT Response, FLAILING is a somewhat panicked reaction to the situation without a commensurate understanding of whether the actions taken are likely to be successful.

In summary, all four of these reactive behaviors – fight, flight, freeze, and flail – are natural.  All of them serve a purpose in daily life.  All of them can keep us safe in certain circumstances.  But, in leadership, all of them are contrary to success and all of them require some form of counteraction.  To understand why these natural behaviors are ineffective in leadership, a deeper exploration of each is required…

Instinct Favors the Fringe

The four reactive, instinctive behaviors are detrimental to leadership because all four of these reactions are extremes.  All four avoid a balanced and thoughtful approach to addressing problems and threats.  All four push leaders to the fringes of effective decision making.  In many cases, these reactive responses become all-consuming focus points, with leaders exerting excessive time and energy defending, justifying, and replicating these behaviors rather than effectively solving problems and eliminating threats.  Consider each of these reactions in turn…

  • To FIGHT…is to attack! And those attacks are often focused on individuals whom the leader perceives has either created or is perpetuating the threat.

This is why politicians become obsessed with publicly ridiculing other politicians who may have opposed them in the past, even if it means an inability to get things done together in the future.

This is why businesses often introduce products that are nearly identical copies to their competitors’ products, because they become more focused on beating the competition rather than maximizing their own business’s success.

And, this is also why family members will begin to argue with one another when they encounter personal problems – resorting to blame rather than working together to solve those problems.

In short, the “fight” itself frequently becomes the focus of attention, rather than the problem to be solved.

  • FLIGHT…is to hide! And, by definition, to hide is to not confront your problems.  In many ways it is the abdication of leadership – refusing to step up to the challenges that one faces, and allowing either circumstances alone or the actions of others to dictate an outcome.

This behavior can be seen when government leaders deflect questions, avoid sensitive issues, or even when they prioritize ceremonial duties and protocol over more pressing concerns.

For business leaders, the FLIGHT Response might be to ignore or minimize complaints when they arise, or to hide behind legal liability concerns as a reason for non-action, or to take issues “under advisement” with no end in sight to that “advisement”. Likewise, business leaders who “flee” will often refuse to believe that a problem is internally or self-made, and will instead proclaim that poor business outcomes are a result of the economy or external factors over which there is no control.

And, for families, the flight response will frequently result in sugar coating a problem for the children, or defending bad behavior as a “phase”, or even putting charges on a credit card with no idea how the debt will eventually get paid.

Regardless of the tactic used or excuse given, “flight” from a problem is nothing more than delay which wastes valuable time and energy while the problem itself continues to grow and fester over time.

  • To FLAIL…is to act without guardrails! Flailing is perhaps the most insidious of the four responses because it appears outwardly to be leadership at work — a leader confronting their challenges, taking charge, and promoting action.  But, when flailing, a leader is really taking action for the sake of the actions alone.  Doing something, because doing nothing would be unacceptable!  Willing to be wrong rather than to admit uncertainty.  Undoubtedly, a flailing leader believes that their actions will make a difference.  But too often, flailing becomes the phenomenon of shooting first, and aiming later – and more often than not missing the target.  And when the target is missed, it means that the flailing leader will have to shoot again…and again…and again!

Government leaders are often flailing when they advocate and defend proposals without first articulating the ultimate goals or outcomes that they are trying to achieve.

Case Study Example:  For example, most economists agree that government deficit spending during times of economic slump is a critical circuit breaker to the normal economic cycle.  But, these same economists will also argue that during times of economic expansion, governments should pay off the debts that have been incurred.  Yet politicians will frequently increase deficit spending and/or cut taxes during times of prosperity – appearing to take action and to be proactive in leadership, but without much regard for substantive, long-term benefit or consequence.  In other words, actions (taxing, spending) rather than meeting objectives (outcomes, debt), become the metric of success.

Business leaders are often flailing when they push for “innovation” in their business and product lines. Make no mistake, there is certainly nothing wrong with innovation, and, in fact, more businesses probably need to be more innovative more of the time!  But, this demand for “something new” often comes with a deadline, a pre-determined budget, and an intolerance for failure – all parameters which thwart true innovation.  To make matters worse, this push to do something new will often undermine, or even destroy, profitable product lines in the process.  It is a push to do “something” or “anything”, rather than an effort to do the “right thing”.

Families often flail when trying to confront conflict or to satisfy loved ones. A parent who threatens one moment and then offers a bribe the next in an effort to get a child to do their homework.  Or, a spouse who promises to work less and spend more time at home, but then takes on an extra job to pay bills.  Or even the sister-in-law who helps paint over water stains on the ceiling and then a few weeks later rips the ceiling apart to fix the roof.  Actions to demonstrate effort and sincerity, yet actions that often contradict or fail to address the real problems that the family faces.

As said, to “flail” is to take action, but often without the benefit of clear focus or thoughtful determination.  When these random or misplaced actions fail or under-perform, leaders will often hunker down and flail again – exerting even more energy either to defend and sustain their previous work or to launch new efforts that they hope will address the shortcomings of the first actions that were taken.

  • To FREEZE…is to shut down! And to shut down is to eventually fail as a leader.  The freeze response is ironically most common when problems are highly complex and wicked – the time when great leadership is needed the most.  But, when a leader finds it impossible to fathom or understand a problem of huge magnitude, or when a leader is fearful that their response will be insufficient, the all-too-often response is to freeze, to hunker down, and to do nothing.

Civic leaders often freeze when their constituencies are at odds with one another – when any solution seems to be opposed by a large number of people. Civic leaders will also freeze when solutions seem to be as bad as the problems they are trying to solve.

Case Study Example:  Although it is politically unpopular to discuss, the issue of undocumented aliens in the USA is a classic example of leaders freezing in place.  On one side of the issue is the reality of individuals breaking the law and entering the country without authorization – a situation that most agree should stop.  On the other side of the issue is the reality that a huge percentage of workers who perform critical manual labor jobs  upon which much of the economy rests are undocumented aliens.  (One of the greatest ironies of the Covid-19 crisis that highlights this conflict is that many undocumented aliens were given government passes identifying them as essential to the economy of the country.)  These two opposing realities make immigration a “wicked problem”.  The result has been for politicians to FREEZE.  Even though the rhetoric is hot and even vitriol around this issue, the actions are paltry.  This problem is decades old and yet nothing really changes.  Even more recent discussions of building walls and deporting offenders is high in profile and low in demonstrable results.  

 Business leaders often freeze when society around them is changing rapidly. The number of businesses, such as Kodak, Blockbuster Video, or Palm that have been wildly successful, only to disappear when technology or society changes around them are legion in number.  The problem for business leaders is frequently the tug-of-war between a successful past and an uncertain future.  How does a business protect that which made it great, while adapting to that which makes it obsolete?  This conundrum often results in leaders freezing in place – trying to defend the status quo.  Even what appears to be action – such as business leaders advocating for new regulations that will hinder or stop new competitors – is really evidence of the Freeze Response as those leaders are trying to put their products, their business, or their entire industry in the icebox, hoping that nothing will change the status quo.

Case Study Example:  The Uber Case Study is probably over-used in modern business schools, but it provides a useful example of the Freeze Response at a massive level.  For example, when Uber was introduced to the United Kingdom, taxi drivers were furious and their livelihoods were deeply threatened.  But, the collective response of the UK Cab Drivers was to essentially FREEZE…or at least to freeze the industry of hired cars from change.  One of their actions, for example, was to call for country-wide strikes by all taxi drivers – forcing people to use Uber or other services as a protest designed to prove that those services were not necessary!  Other actions were aimed at making it illegal for Uber to operate.  And, yet at the same time, it was many years after Uber and other car services were introduced before the traditional taxis in the UK were universally willing to accept credit cards as payment.  In other words, the taxi industry as a whole was trying to protect the status quo from change that was clearly going to happen in one way or another.

Individuals will often become paralyzed in their personal lives as well. For example, the choice between leaving a job and taking a risk in a new profession;  choosing whether and if to start a family;  wondering whether to buy a new house or continue renting – all are personal leadership decisions that often result in paralysis for the individual.

Without question, uncertainty makes leadership more difficult — actions and plans can be made irrelevant when external forces or situations shift.  But, leadership paralysis stops forward progress – not only disabling an organization from addressing immediate problems, but also derailing long term strategies and visionary objectives.  And, perhaps even more detrimental is that leadership paralysis will quickly lead to organizational atrophy – where stakeholders and leaders become accustomed and comfortable with doing nothing at all.

Regardless of the response – to fight, to flee, to flail, or to freeze – individuals who fall victim to these natural behaviors are pushed to extremes.  Reactive leaders spend their effort, their time, and their resources defending and repeating their responses.  Fighting leaders end up fighting more.  Fleeing leaders continue to find new places to hide and avoid their problems.  Flailing leaders constantly take action to correct their previous actions that were ineffective.  And frozen leaders shut down their leadership efforts altogether.  The tragedy for leaders living at these extremes is that outwardly it often appears that these leaders are doing their jobs.  But, behind the facades, these leaders are struggling to survive, and more often failing in their responsibilities.


The Normalization of Instinct

One could argue that instinctive behavior – primal reactions to threat and danger – could be easily overcome by simply pausing and spending a few minutes reflecting on the specific challenge or problem to be addressed.  Research would, in fact, support this assumption to a certain degree.  Wharton Business School research, for example, found that individuals who spend a few minutes breathing, pausing, and calming themselves will make more rational and more thoughtful decisions than those who take action immediately.[2]

And, common sense would support this theory because the fight / flight syndrome rests upon a physiological understanding of the human body – a human senses danger or threat;  adrenalin rises in the system;  heart rates go up;  and people react.  But, the adrenaline response quickly subsides and the body goes back to a more calm state.  Thus, it would reason that a leader who simply pauses momentarily before taking action will also make calmer, less reactive, decisions.

But, observation reveals that calming the human mind and body is not sufficient to counteracting our tendencies to make reactive decisions and to lead with instinct-driven emotions.  In fact, our instinct-driven behavior is so commonplace, that we have normalized this behavior into our work environments and into our leadership practices.  Three reasons that instinct-driven behaviors become the norm…

  • First, our natural threat reactions anchor and influence all subsequent actions. For example, assume that a business leader reacts to a colleague’s proposal with a FIGHT response.   That leader might publicly proclaim that the colleague’s proposal is “dead on arrival” or will be enacted only “over my dead body”!  Once that battle line has been drawn, it is very difficult for the leader to backtrack and admit that they reacted without thought.  Therefore, even if the leader becomes more thoughtful and less reactionary, all future discussions are likely to be grounded in the leader’s expression of initial opposition.  Similarly, the colleague who initiated the original proposal is likely to respond with a “fight back” assertiveness, and the cycle of reactions will escalate and continue.
  • Second, the four instinctive responses are continuously enabled and encouraged by deeper, more persistent psychological constructs. Leadership is always an exploration of the unknown.  Leaders are forced to make decisions with limited data, invest in unproven theories, and convince stakeholders that taking a risk is the safest thing to do.  Most leaders have very little help as they try to navigate these unknown waters – no role model to follow, no coach to guide them, and no formal training in the art of decision making and rational thinking.  Most leaders, therefore, must rely on themselves to make their decisions and figure out what “right answer”  might be.  These leaders end up relying on personal experiences, trusting their assumptions, and evaluating their surroundings and problems based upon their personal, individual perspective.  This internalization of problem solving and leadership relies on the emotions, the biases, and the psychology of the leader, which in turn leads to behaviors that align with the four instinctive responses to threat.
  • Finally, business practices and policies reward and promote instinctive and reactive behaviors. Whether by coincidence or design, reactive decision making and impulsive leadership have become the blueprint for many aspects of management theories and systems.  For example, during interviews, many companies force applicants to respond to case study questions that are designed to see whether the leader can react quickly and instinctively to a challenge they’ve never seen – often looking for proactive answers (Fight and Flail), while deselecting applicants who might demonstrate a tendency to Freeze or Flee.  Employees are often rewarded with promotions and bonuses for achieving short term sales goals even if larger problems are deferred (Flight/Freeze) or if conflict and competitiveness (Fight) overshadows collaboration and good teamwork.  Politicians are frequently re-elected if they avoid controversial problems (Flight/Freeze) and/or if they refuse to compromise with others and rail against their opponents’ shortcomings (Fight/Flail).  And senior management will often choose safe and risk-free strategies (Flight/Freeze) in order to avoid failure that might reflect poorly on their leadership.  Our organizations and our social groups are really just reflections of our own  personal psychologies, and since instinctive responses to threat feel normal to us as individuals, reactive threat-driven leadership feels normal to us when displayed by our leaders.

More specifically, how the four reactive threat responses are embedded within our leadership and our organizations is detailed below…

  • FLIGHT – Within social groups, the Flight Response can be observed as habitual AVOIDANCE…an unwillingness to take action that involves risk. This can be observed as leaders…
    • refusing to confront difficult issues;
    • constantly delegating or escalating problems to others;
    • continuously deferring an issue to a later time that never seems to come;
    • dismissing a festering issue as a non-priority; or
    • addressing a visible symptom of a problem without addressing the underlying problems that require attention.

Regardless of how a leader or an organization avoids taking action, this aversion to risk is driven by perpetual DOUBT and UNCERTAINTY – leaders lacking the confidence in their own decision making, leaders fearing that they might make a mistake;  and/or leaders questioning their team’s ability  and willingness to implement and support difficult decisions.

  • FIGHT – The Fight Response can be observed as widespread INTOLERANCE amongst a leadership team…an unwillingness to listen and learn from others and/or a reluctance to involve others in leadership and decision making. This can be seen as leaders…
    • making important decisions with little or no input or discussions from colleagues or lieutenants;
    • aggressively competing with colleagues and peers for preferential treatment and for the promotion of their personal agendas;
    • taking credit for the decisions and contributions of others;
    • constantly blaming other departments, other leaders, and outside forces for any outcomes that are negative;
    • resisting the help or involvement of colleagues and peers; or…
    • undermining the activities and accomplishments of colleagues and staff by squelching their ideas and ignoring their suggestions.

These aggressive efforts to “go it alone” and to cast doubt on the accomplishments or value of others are driven by HUBRIS and OVERCONFIDENCE – leaders relying only on their own personal abilities;  leaders unwilling to admit their mistakes or shortcomings;  leaders who do not value the contributions of their peers or staff;  and/or leaders who fear that their peers or their staff might be seen as more capable than they themselves.

  • FREEZE – When leaders fall victim to the Freeze Response, they are essentially PARALYZED…unable to make difficult decisions, to set bold direction, or to confront intractable problems. Functional paralysis within an organization or social group is evidenced by leaders…
    • resisting opportunities and suggestions for change;
    • perpetually referring issues back for more study and analysis;
    • delaying decisions and announcements in anticipation of uncertain external developments or situations;
    • making numerous, yet insignificant, adjustments to current plans that result in delays or downscaling of projects; or…
    • outright admitting that a problem or challenge is impossible to address and thus the organization will simply “live with the consequences”.

This gravitational pull of the status quo – resisting change and protecting current state – is driven by FEAR and SOCIAL PRESSURE – leaders overwhelmed with problems they cannot understand;  leaders uncomfortable when circumstances around them change frequently; leaders fearful of conflict with others who might resist change;  leaders unwilling to be seen as disruptive or as champions of a new world order; and/or leaders unable to envision long term strategies that transcend short term challenges.

  • FLAIL – Leadership defined by the Flail Response is RECKLESSNESS…making decisions and taking action without thoughtful consideration and with minimal precautions. This recklessness can be easily disguised as bold leadership, but frequently involves leaders…
    • using new or emerging problems to justify actions for which they have long been advocating;
    • forcing teams to finalize decisions prematurely without fully vetting ideas or proposals;
    • frequently loosing interest in viable plans and good ideas before they are fully implemented or have a chance to deliver results;
    • abandoning plans or partnerships that are struggling without investing even minimal efforts to correct course; or…
    • making assumptions about situations that might be “from the gut”, but cannot be justified or explained.

Actions and decisions which are based on a leader’s assumptions, rather that skillful decision making, fact finding, and collaborative interaction are actions based on a leader’s BIASES and ASSUMPTIONS – leaders allowing personal experiences to have greater influence over decisions than balanced analysis and thoughtful consideration;  leaders unwilling to entertain the possibility of being wrong;  and/or leaders isolating themselves from outside input and contradictory perspectives.


Moving to the Center

The antidote to the extremes of Reactive Leadership is to thoughtfully learn skills and adopt practices which specifically counteract the normalized behaviors that leaders and their organizations frequently embrace – Avoiding Risk, Resisting Collaboration, Protecting the Status Quo, and Acting on Assumptions.  For each of these normalized behaviors, there is a discrete skill set to be learned and deployed.  If practiced faithfully and in combination, these four counteracting skill sets can create a new norm of decision making and leadership – a norm that is balanced, purposeful, and thoughtful.   Although each of these skill sets can be the subject of an independent leadership study, a brief overview of each is below…

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  • To Counteract Acting on Bias and Assumption (FLAIL): CRITICAL THINKING

Effective Critical Thinking is the ability to identify problems, and to analyze the causes of those problems, without embedding bias into the thought process.

This starts with identifying real, rather than perceived, problems that a leader must address.  This requires a leader to proactively purge from their problem framing, their own assumptions of what the problem might be, as well as their assumptions of what the best answer or solution might be.

For example, a leader might articulate an assumption that their company should “pay our employees more money to stop them from switching jobs”.  This is a problem framed by assumption and bias – that money is the solution to the problem of people switching jobs.  The real problem would be high turnover rates — which may or may not be driven by other job opportunities, and which may or may not be reduced through a pay increase.

The leader who is shackled to their assumptions will exert massive effort to deploy their ideas driven by bias, and in more cases than not, those efforts will be unsuccessful.   As simple as it may sound, a leader who accurately identifies the true problem to be addressed is then free to search for creative solutions and unique approaches that – when unencumbered by assumption and bias – can be truly be successful.[3]

  • To Counteract Protecting the Status Quo (FREEZE): VISIONARY STORYTELLING

Visionary Storytelling is a combination of skill sets that makes the status quo unacceptable for both an organization writ large, as well as for the leaders and the staff members within.

To overcome this paralysis of the status quo, effective leaders must work to identify a transformed future – a definition, description, or image of what the leader wants their organization to become.  This is not dissimilar from a college student envisioning their future career as a doctor or teacher, or an architect drafting a blueprint of a landmark building, or a playwright imagining a plot line for their next masterpiece.  This endpoint must be bold, creative, and invigorating, while also being believable, workable, and functional.  Once created, however, this blueprint of the future makes the status quo undesirable and paralysis that protects the status quo intolerable.

The second skill set beyond envisioning is to then craft a compelling story that will describe this visionary future state for all stakeholders.  People love a story, and more importantly stories are the universal communication of understanding.  Stories set context, paint a vision, create enthusiasm, and enable every stakeholder to determine what they can do to help make the story come true.

Leaders who can tell a visionary story for the future provide compass direction for themselves, their team, and their entire organization.  No matter how difficult, or even frightening, circumstances might become, the visionary story will rally an organization to always move forward and to never be paralyzed with a false sense of security around the status quo.

  • To Counteract Avoiding Risk (FLIGHT): CREATIVE INNOVATION

Creative Innovation, when done honestly and routinely, is the very definition of taking risks.  Innovation is doing something that has never been done before.  Therefore, innovation cannot be guaranteed to be successful and truly innovative leaders will probably fail as often or more than they succeed.  It is not a coincidence that legendary and successful leaders will often credit their ability to learn from their failures as a key element of their success.

That said, innovative thinking is not a natural skill.  Humans are creatures of habit and routine.  People look for validation that what they are already doing is sufficient and acceptable;  people do not seek to be challenged and forced to change.  Furthermore, research shows that even those leaders who think they are innovative are often more focused on small improvements to what they already do, rather than bold innovations that might disrupt the norm.  Therefore, in order to make innovation and risk-taking commonplace, leaders must combine both structure and learning in order to create a true culture of innovative thinking.

First, there needs to be STRUCTURE in order for innovation to become the new norm. This requires setting aside of time, devoting resources, and providing support to staff members so that they can think creatively.  It is setting the expectation that there will be routine opportunities for staff to leave their daily work behind, to gather together, and to think boldly about the future.  The key, however, is to avoid a false expectation that every innovative think session will generate good ideas or that every good idea will work.  The structure must tolerate the surfacing of bad ideas and the failure of good ideas during implementation in order for innovative thinking to become routine.

In addition to structure, is the need for LEARNING. Leaders and staff must be taught how to think innovatively;  how to imagine ideas that no one else has imagined before;  and how to consider ideas that others might view as too risky to be explored.  Although there are many effective techniques that can generate innovative ideas, it is imperative that participants be taught to exercise these techniques effectively in order for innovation to become commonplace.

Leaders who can make innovative thinking a matter of routine and risk taking a fact of life will find that colleagues and peers quickly grow to crave the excitement and thrill of trying something new.  Risk will no longer be something to avoid, but rather something to pursue and to embrace.

  • To Counteract Resisting Collaboration (FIGHT): COLLECTIVE TEAMWORK

There are many different definitions and theories about teamwork.   Teamwork is often seen as the absence of conflict, the sharing of duties, the building of a communication network, or as a proxy for organizational structure.  Additionally, many leaders see teamwork as mostly a social construct, allowing people to interact and build friendships which makes employees more likely to work together and support one another as needed.  All these perspectives have value.  But, when it comes to overcoming leadership hubris – acting alone and shunning collaboration – Collective Teamwork is a leadership skill to be mastered and to be deployed regularly.

Collective Teamwork is the ability of a leader to recognize that a diversity of perspectives, a proliferation of alternatives, and the surfacing of constructive criticism  are powerful tools that enable a leader to make better decisions, to anticipate more problems before they arise, and to generate more enthusiasm for strategies and plans amongst stakeholders.  In short, Collective Teamwork is the ability of a leader to rely on the contributions and thinking of many different people rather than their own limited perspectives.

Like the other skills that counteract reactionary leadership, Collective Teamwork is a skill to be learned.  It involves the ability to surface a variety of perspectives from different people, merge those perspectives into a multi-dimensional view of possible solutions, and then refine those ideas into actionable plans that effectively deploy team members against tasks at which they are likely to succeed.

The leader who can rely on many people, rather than just on themselves, will ultimately be smarter, faster, and more effective in their leadership work.



Most leaders learn their leadership skills on the job.  They might have a mentor to guide them, or formal education to inform them, or helpful feedback to correct them in their work.  But, most leaders are forced to do that which “comes naturally” when they are thrust into their first leadership challenges.  Unfortunately, our natural tendencies are contrary to good leadership.  Humans are wired to protect themselves when threatened or challenged or overwhelmed.  The natural response to what can be perceived as danger or threat is to Fight, to Flee, to Freeze, or to Flail.  To react swiftly and instinctively in order to protect oneself.  To rush to the extremes in order to seek safety and security.

Leaders must learn to rise above those natural instincts — to be more thoughtful and more purposeful in their decision making and their actions.  If a leader can learn to be more balanced – to think critically, to envision a bold future, to innovate routinely, and to rely on the wisdom of many – they can avoid the extremes.  And to avoid the extremes is to find leadership success at the epicenter – leadership that is focused, effective, and immune to the erratic swings of reactive decision making.

[1] It should be noted that there is valuable research which suggests other reactive responses to threats, dangers, and problems.  For example, in an article first published in 2000 in Psychological Review, Dr. Shelley E. Taylor and her research team at the University of California, Los Angeles described a “Tend” and “Befriend” dyad of response to threat – tending as the protection of offspring, and befriending as seeking out social support for mutual defense.  Furthermore, social scientists advance the theory that women are more likely to demonstrate these two tendencies, rather than men.  There is great insight in this research, but one can also argue that these behaviors are secondary and/or tangential to the initial four responses — i.e. larger ripples in the pond that emanate from a central point.  For example, tending is potentially the expansion of a caregiver’s definition of “self” – struggling (Fight) to protect oneself along with children or employees, hiding (Flight) from danger along with one’s proteges, taking any action (Flail) to protect oneself and one’s charges from threats, and so on.  Additionally, befriending is finding solace in numbers, but then contributing or persuading the larger social group to react in unison – fighting together, fleeing together, and so on.  All that said, and with no intention of discounting this new research, it is still useful to focus on the initial four responses when trying to understand how our natural behaviors undermine our leadership effectiveness.

[2] Sigal Barsade, Professor, Wharton School of Management, “Debiasing the Mind through Meditation: Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias.” 

[3] For more information on Critical Thinking, refer to Uncommon Wisdom’s 2019 article entitled, What IS the Problem Anyway?