Sensory pollution and it’s impact on leadership

I’ve been thinking lately about pollution. This time, not pollution in the environmental sense, which is how man-made items contaminate the environment. Instead, I’ve been wrestling lately with another kind of pollution.

Leaders face so many distractions, which can pollute or contaminate the mind. Let’s call this “Sensory pollution,” a phenomenon that has been extensively studied in animals, but has a very important impact on leaders as well.

Some culprits of sensory pollution are social media, the 24-hour news cycle, and other value-subtracting stimuli. Sites like Twitter and Facebook are filled with garbage dopamine and cortisol hits. From a sensory perspective, social media contaminates my sense of sight and my sense of touch, reflexively scrolling through my news feed passing by the minutes looking for the next hit.

In fact, my phone is filled with distracting sensory pollution, engaging the sense of touch to select and scroll, the sight of an application opening up and having unread messages, and the sound of someone trying to reach me through the “ding” from the speaker. Just waking up in the morning can be a sensory pollution minefield.

Then there can be the pollution from draining relationships at work. The never ended meetings that do not reach next steps or a logical conclusion can also pollute the mind and cause a leader to focus on trivial tasks, putting out fires, and pure survival.

Finally, there’s pollution through the sense of taste. For example, when I am stressed, I know that I reach for items that contaminate my body including fast food, fried food, and sweets.

My point in sharing the concept of sensory pollution is that all of these things contaminate the mind and make a leader less impactful and effective.

At their core, leaders are responsible for three things:

1) IMPACT – Having an impact on the core measures and outputs for the business

2) LEGACY – Treating other people, including team members, colleagues, and senior leadership, well and with respect.

3) SANITY – Preserving their own sanity by managing the commitment and emotional investments that come with being a leader.

Does sensory pollution actually advance any of these three areas of focus? If, for example, knowing what is going on in the world is a part of your job, how might you minimize the noise of news cycle punditry to reduce sensory pollution?

The answer lies in lessons from the Stoics, among others. Part of preserving a leader’s sanity is to quiet the mind and be able to focus even in the face of distraction. It is one of the most difficult parts of leadership but also one of the most essential.

Ryan Holiday, a modern student of and prolific writer about Stoic philosophy has been a core resource in my leadership practice to learn how to reduce sensory pollution.

In a recent tweet, Holiday shared:

In addition, you can reduce sensory pollution by not checking your phone within one-hour of waking up in the morning, practicing some form of meditation, and developing non-work relationships in your life that do not mind listening to you reflect or vent on hard issues (pro-tip, someone with a long commute is generally excited to spend time with you on the phone).

Sensory pollution is one of the biggest risks for leaders and must be managed to preserve a leader’s impact, legacy and sanity. Work environments, and its values and behaviors, should make an effort to significantly reduce sensory pollution in order to drive its most important outcomes.

KEY TAKEAWAYS: Sensory pollution for leaders are the things that contaminate your mind, make you reactive, and drain your energy. It is not as simple as going cold-turkey on negative stimuli. Leaders must have a routine or mitigation strategies to filter out the contaminants and focus on the three main aspects of being a leader – your impact, your legacy, and your sanity.

Ten rules for being human

The year I graduated from college, I was looking for a good way to stay in shape. I enrolled in martial arts classes at the Black Belt Martial Arts Center. The gym was an almost magical place where the instructors were always positive, but were simultaneously always pushing me out of my comfort zone and encouraging me to test my physical limits. It was not only the best exercise I’ve ever gotten, but it was so good for my mental health as well. I miss martial arts and plan to pick it back up.

Before one of our classes, Master RJ Lee shared, “The Ten Rules for Being Human” by Cherie Carter Scott, which are posted below.

I have these rules and the Holstee Manifesto on my desk at work, reminding me every day of some of these basic life truths, which I have found to be important guidance, especially as an adult.

But one of these rules in particular have been coming up for me repeatedly lately as I observe the world and, more specifically, as I lead a change management effort. Rule #7 has manifested itself several times this year in meetings, phone calls, and the occasional hostile or nasty email. At its basic level, I interpret #7 much like the concept of projection in psychology.

In Psychology Today, projection is described this way: “Unconscious discomfort can lead people to attribute unacceptable feelings or impulses to someone else to avoid confronting them. Projection allows the difficult trait to be addressed without the individual fully recognizing it in themselves.”

Originally described by Sigmund Freud in 1895, Carl Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz built upon Freud’s description of projection as a defense mechanism. Jung and von Franz believed that projection represents a fear of the unknown, which is inherent in change, especially in a work environment that was previously static or predictable.

I’ve been giving extra thought to this concept lately, especially at work. I have been trying to figure out an answer to the question, what does a leader do when people lash out in what is a clear projection?

The best answer I have come up with is first, not to take it personally. In the style of servant leadership, if the leadership can recognize a clear projection, it is obviously much more about the needs of the person speaking to you. In other words, “It’s not about you.”

Next, there is internal work a leader must do to make sure that the projection does not get solidified in their mind as fear. I took a course last year from Stanford University that offered a helpful trick. I learned than when I experience a difficult moment in leadership, like someone lashing out at me, and I internalize it negatively and dwell on it. When I would go to sleep, my brain hard-wires that memory and it can trigger a fight-or-flight response when I confront the same thing again. Instead, if I take a moment and engage in reflection (I use a journal) to reframe the incident before I sleep, my brain will not hard-wire the negativity. I try not to let one instance of discomfort have a profound impact on my behavior in similar situations moving forward.

After that internal work is when I decide on the next step. I think about the impact the particular behavior could have on the broader team culture and usually consider that first. From there, I check in with my definition of leadership. That usually helps me decide the best next step.

When confronted with a clear projection, leaders start with the internal work of self-management and self-reflection. Leaders must then consider the broader impact of their response on both the team and their larger goals.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Leaders work hard on the internal processing of incidents and use tools for reflection like the Ten Rules for Being Human and the Holstee Manifesto to put those difficult moments into perspective.

How to Manage Pressure as a Leader: Philosophy, Principles, and Habits

It’s a high pressure job being a leader. There is an enormous amount of visibility and expectations placed on the shoulders of leaders in organizations, which can be difficult for one to manage at times. However, there are specific habits that leaders need to establish and maintain to deal with high-pressure situations.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

As leaders advance in their organizations, both their impact and visibility grow. With that additional scrutiny comes additional responsibility to perform and produce results. Leaders frequently face situations with both high levels of uncertainty and high levels of complexity. In these situations, many leaders – especially those who are managing people for the first time – tend to struggle.

There are three things that I rely on to help me through these times of increased scrutiny:

  1. Leadership Philosophy
  2. Leadership Principles
  3. Consistent Healthy Habits

The first is to have and follow a clear leadership philosophy, which I have written about in a previous post. Leaders need a philosophy that will help guide decisions, make actionable plans possible, and it must be simple enough to use as a filter when making difficult choices. For example, let’s say that a leader’s philosophy states that everyone must be able to articulate the vision for the department/organization. If you find that most people on the team cannot articulate the answer to the question, “Where are we going?” then it is probably time for a re-set before working to complete the task at hand.

Secondly, if your leadership philosophy is the foundation, then leadership principles are the walls that build on that foundation. Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates and a New York Times bestseller, has not only written a book on this subject, but has a great social media presence articulating his leadership principles (Follow him on LinkedIn). Different than Dalio though, I try to keep my leadership principles to no more than 5, whereas he has articulated many more than that. Principles like, “People first,” “No individual need should be elevated above the health of the team,” and “Maintain a silliness-free zone” can serve as a check on whether or not a leader is on track by their own standards.

Finally, leaders need habits. Habits that, when practiced everyday, will help them stay grounded in high-pressure situations. For me, these habits include maintaining a reading schedule, reading each morning and evening, transcendental meditation, and a good night’s sleep with a structured morning routine. Habits, like these, help produce consistency when high-pressure situations can otherwise make it feel like everything is fall apart around a leader.

It’s important for leaders to understand the pressure they are under and how to manage it. Creating and using your own philosophy and principles, coupled with building healthy habits every day, will help you to thrive and lead your team through any challenges you may face.

Key Takeaway: Developing a leadership philosophy, leadership principles, and positive habits can help leaders navigate the seemingly never-ending pressures that are part of a high-visibility job.

Why Leaders with a Transactional Style Don’t Achieve Transformational Results

Transformational leadership is a leadership approach that seeks to inspire and empower others, rather than simply trying to control them. This approach can produce dramatic results for an organization by generating high levels of commitment, creativity, and productivity from its followers. Transformational leadership has two dimensions: (1) their level of warmth or concern for the people they lead and (2) their level of intellectual stimulation or use of new ideas in relation to the people they lead.

On the other hand, a transactional leadership approach focuses more on maintaining order and getting work done through a system of rewards and punishments. It does not create a sense of loyalty among employees because they are not offered much beyond compensation.

Richard Branson, the Founder and CEO of the Virgin Group, is a transformational leader because he is interested in fostering leadership skills and creativity among his employees. He seeks to inspire others, rather than simply control them. For example, when Richard’s Virgin Atlantic Airlines was struggling financially during the global recession of 2009, instead of firing workers or hiring consultants like other CEOs might have done under similar circumstances, he flew to London and he spent the next few weeks checking in on every aspect of his company, asking employees for their ideas on how to save the business.

Transactional leadership focuses more on maintaining order and getting work done through rewards. There are many examples of transactional leadership in business. One example is a CEO who assigns employees tasks and then closely monitors their performance on those tasks, specifically to determine if they will be able to keep their jobs or not. This CEO uses rewards and punishments in order to achieve results, and often, their actions benefit themselves more than the employees.

As you can see in the example above, transactional leaders are inherently more short term focused and are oriented towards immediate results. This can lead some transactional leaders to prioritize a short term benefit at the detriment of longer-term goals. Simon Sinek shares the example of publicly traded companies who go through rounds of layoffs to make quarterly numbers. While the companies may “make their numbers,” they do so at the cost of psychological safety and long term profitability.

True organizational transformation, like pursuing excellence in customer service, operations, or innovation, involves focus, discipline, leadership, and time. There is no “Get rich quick scheme” in transformational leadership.

Organizations that pursue transformational goals need transformational leaders. These are leaders that set a bold vision and build high-performing teams, follow principles that promote psychological safety, and empower people to achieve their vision.

There is a still a role in organizations for transactional leaders, which is a topic for it’s own post, but they are fundamentally ill-equipped to achieve bold and lasting organizational transformation. Creating bold transformation actually requires the leader to release control by empowering others and trusting that people are doing the right things even when you cannot measure it.

Transformational leadership offers a vision that gets people energized and committed to achieving organizational goals.

Transformational leaders embody the principles of psychological safety by creating an inclusive environment where all employees feel valued, regardless of their position in the company hierarchy. Having transformational leaders in leadership roles will help organizations achieve their full potential. These are the individuals who will leave a powerful legacy by creating meaningful and impactful change.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Transformational leadership is a powerful way for leaders to motivate and inspire their followers. In contrast, transactional leadership can be used as a tool by those in power who want to maintain control over followers through incentives or punishments—but these tactics do not provide long-term results. To achieve real transformation, leaders need to be transformational leaders. A transactional leader will not be able to truly achieve transformational goals.

Legends never die

Remember kid, there’s heroes and there’s legends. Heroes get remembered but legends never die, follow your heart kid, and you’ll never go wrong.

Babe Ruth’s Ghost from The Sandlot

Over the 4th of July, I turned on one of my favorite movies, The Sandlot, which is a story about friendship, community, and baseball. I have probably seen this movie hundreds of times, mostly wearing out the VHS tape at my parent’s house when I was a child.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie happens when Babe Ruth’s ghost visits one of the main characters in the movie, Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez in a dream. The ghost leaves Benny with these words, “Remember kid, there’s heroes and there’s legends. Heroes get remembered but legends never die, follow your heart kid, and you’ll never go wrong”.

Heroes, of course, are people. We look up to them, we learn from them, and we follow their example. But like all people, they are mortal and will eventually pass away.

Legends, or stories, however, are different. It brings our memories to life and they create powerful feelings of interconnectedness.

This difference between heroes and legends has become even more clear to me recently. A few months ago, I bought an ancestry DNA kit and have used it to build out my family tree. It is a wonderful exercise and one I recommend for everyone who wants to learn more about their heritage. Through ancestry, I was able to map back three generations. But what are simply names in census data can “come to life” once again through stories.

For example, my great grandfather, Herman Sachs, was a talented painter. Before he passed away, my grandfather, Arnie Sachs, told me a story that Great-Grandpa Herman asked him one morning what color he wanted his room to be painted. My grandfather answered smartly, “knotty pine,” and when he arrived home his room looked like the inside of a tree!

When I think of that story, in a way it brings my Great-Grandpa Herman back to life, in a way. He has become more than a name now for me. The story gave me some color-commentary, an indication of his personality and talent. The “legend” gives me a lens into who he was and it is a story I will pass down to my own son, Aaron. Stories like this one makes me realize that for so many of my other relatives, I have only names, a small piece of who they were without the legend. While it is hard for me to remember most of their names, Great-Grandpa Herman’s is one I will always remember.

As leaders, the stories we tell (and are told about us) are powerful influences on how we accomplish our goals. Stories that we tell can help us contextualize the direction we set, and can be used to cement that direction to our teams’ collective memory. Stories that are told about us can either inspire confidence, faith, and trust, or they can work against us. That is why leading by example is so important, as those are the stories the team tells each other about us when we are not present.

The more leaders can integrate storytelling into their presentations and other methods of communication, the better their teams will be able to follow and spread the important messages. A good story has an exponential effect when it is told multiple times to better reinforce and embed it into the culture.

If you are a leader, the legends you tell will endure as part of the fabric of your organization. Further the legends that are told about you will be your legacy.

Knowing the power of the story and its enduring capabilities, what will you do next?

KEY TAKEAWAY: Storytelling is an important tool in a leader’s toolbox. It can help them spread the message and create a positive team culture. It can also work against them if they are not leading by example.