Are You Shadow Boxing or Leading?

shadow boxing Note: Dwight is currently out on leave so we are running some “best of” blog posts from his writing for the Vistage Executive Street blog that you may not have seen before. Enjoy!

One of the Operating Principles we developed at my firm 2130 Partners that is fundamental to the functioning of any group we facilitate, every course we deliver, and the materials we create is,“Confront and deal with the real issues.”  Closely related is another Operating Principle, “Explore truths – mine, theirs, and ours.”

This past week I participated in a Board meeting of another company and we deliberated a very difficult and critical decision for the company’s future. We had to determine our response to a proposal that represented a serious relationship breakdown with what had been a strategic partner. In addition, we had to arrive at an immediate action plan among several unpleasant choices. Decisions and courses of action had to somehow be accomplished in light of what gave us the best chances to deliver on our strategic intentions.

Instead of getting right down to productive work on real issues, (as in the first Principle above, “confront and deal with the real issues”), we began “boxing with shadows.” A very vigorous conversation launched immediately that was totally dominated by various members’ opinions and judgments about the strategic partner’s intentions and their emotional reactions to all the meaning they were each placing on the communications that had been taking place. Such clear and thoughtful articulations as “bash him in the face,” “kick his ***,” and “he’s a liar and a crook and has been all along,” were bandied about as if they were thoughtful insights that were relevant to quality decision making. So the Principle of “explore truths – mine, their, and ours” was definitely not in effect.

Now, it’s important to understand that the Board members are otherwise very bright, articulate, experienced and highly committed business leaders. So how can such ineffective, emotionally aggressive conversations have taken place? As is often talked about these days, the “old brain” or “survival brain” can’t tell the difference between a physical threat and a threat in language. When the other party’s language occurs as a threat, whether he or she meant it to be so, the limbic system of the brain immediately takes over and it only has four available strategies to choose from: fight flight, freeze, or appease. It’s easy to see which one took over for a significant part of our board meeting because there was a feeling of “threat” within the group due to the communications from the outside party.

One of the ways to get out of such a survival-based and dysfunctional mess is to ask a question that the “old brain” can’t answer like “how will your approach help us succeed on our strategy?” At that moment the cerebral cortex or “thinking brain” has to take over and intelligent conversation can resume. Fortunately, in our case, we were able to get the Board members focused on creating alternative go-forward scenarios and that got the thinking and productive conversations back on track. We arrived at a very good, (and very difficult), solution set and the management team left the meeting empowered.

As a leader have you experienced these types of shadow boxing conversations vs. solution conversations? Our Operating Principles are road-test and developed over more than 20 years of working with Executives. Try them out and see if they might help your leadership conversations get and stay on track.