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How Nervous System Science Helps Coaches Understand Disruptive Leadership

Posted by Dee Wagner | October 9, 2018 | Comments (1)

Disruptive leadership can identify truth, if the logistics are right. In the classic story “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a child names the Emperor’s nakedness at a parade. The parade happens to be the right time for the truth to be heard, and the child happens to be the right person to say it. The citizens are brought back from magical thinking.

This story teaches us that disruptive leadership requires more than the naming of truth. It requires timing, gentle simplicity and nuanced team building.

Trauma experts identify the nervous system state that allows magical thinking and robotic functioning as dissociation. When coaches recognize this state in themselves and/or their clients, they may feel the urge to disrupt, but efforts to shock someone who is in shock can lead to more shock.

Fight or Flight

It is jarring to learn that the path we are on is the wrong path. If we begin to notice that our navigation app has guided us to what looks like the wrong destination, we feel the rush that signals the release of a particular neurochemical cocktail creating what is called the fight-or-flight response. Truly disruptive leaders are cautious with this jolt.

The jolt of fight-or-flight is only one way that our bodies create activation. Fight-or-flight exists for life-threatening situations, where the exhaustion is worth the inflammation. It creates intense short-term action but with long-term consequences.

Our animal bodies are designed to wake us up from shutdown with a rush of fight or flight. Think about a possum that is playing dead in a family’s backyard because the dog just got let out. If the dog gets distracted, the possum can use that burst of super possum speed to make it over the fence before the dog can get it. If the possum makes it over the fence, escaping the dog, the possum will discharge any extra fight-or-flight energy that remains in its body by shaking.

Just like all animals, we shoot off a fight-or-flight response when we wake up from shutdown and need to shake off extra fight-or-flight chemistry. If we are in a car accident, we shake afterwards. We gather our wits, grab our phones, call for help and perhaps get out and pace while we are on our phones.

In earlier times, people shook off extra fight-or-flight energy after facing life-threatening situations by drumming, dancing, acting out the drama and drawing on cave walls. True disruptive leadership helps people shake off their shock once the truth wakes them up.

Communal Process

Truly disruptive leaders appreciate the value of the rituals that help humans shake off the fight-or-flight response. The time required for humans to shake off fight-or-flight chemistry and return to normal day-to-day functioning has become sorely underestimated in many modern business cultures.

Think about the townspeople in the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Delusion was invited by the tailors. They told the townspeople that only people who were fit for their jobs could see the cloth. When folks could not see the cloth, their bodies shot into fight-or-flight, fearing for their livelihood.

Desperate to see the cloth, the townspeople froze. Their bodies shut down like the possum. They went into the robotic functioning that humans have named as “playing possum,” saying, “Oh, yes. What fabulous fabric.”

When the child named truth, everyone awoke to the Emperor’s nakedness. We do not hear about what happened after folks woke up, but we can imagine. There were probably weeks, months, years of talking about the experience, songs written about every aspect of the event—what it felt like to be at the parade, to hear the child, to see the tailors. Songs probably accompanied folk dances at social gatherings. Visual art—proudly displayed in communal areas—probably kept alive the lessons everyone had learned.

Truly Disruptive Leadership:

  • Wakes people up as simply as possible
  • Follows the wake-up call with guidance for the shaking off of the chemistry that accompanies rude awakenings.
  • Helps business cultures expand well-meaning but misguided ideas. Teams that have been devastated by layoffs need much more than one ropes-course weekend to rebuild cohesiveness
  • Invites rest and refueling after the shock of a wake-up call
  • Nurtures creative endeavors that process newly seen truth
  • Encourages settling back into day-to-day nervous system functioning enlightened by new awareness

“Happily Ever After” does not mean no ups and downs. We feel content when we have good times and are happy in a special way when we struggle together during difficult times. If we are headed down a dangerous path, we appreciate being corrected—after we process the shock of the news. In the days, weeks, years of processing the correction, we blossom. We are enriched because our journey invites song, dance, art, love—things it is worth waking up for.

dee wagner headshot

Dee Wagner

Dee Wagner, LPC, BC-DMT, has worked as a counselor and dance-movement therapist in Atlanta for 25 years. She presented on nervous system functioning at ICF Converge 2017 and was a regular contributor to the ICF Blog. Other articles appear in American Journal of Dance Therapy; Body, Movement and Dance in Psychotherapy; Voices: the Art and Science of Psychotherapy (American Academy of Psychotherapists); Elephant Journal and Asana International Yoga Journal. She is co-creator of the workbook Naked Online: A DoZen Ways to Grow from Internet Dating.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

Comments (1)

  1. Will Adams says:

    Very informative article! To conceptualize “magical thinking and robotic functioning“ as dissociation is interesting and presents a useful framework regarding mindfulness. The article also brings to mind the intuitive use of humor in therapy sessions. I can see elements of disruptive leadership in these observational asides between clients and therapist/coach.

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