Growing Leadership Expertise

Growing Leadership Expertise

Originally published on and reproduced with permission.

The All Blacks have famously mastered resilience through a model of Red versus Blue behaviours. In Red we are overloaded, confused and at risk. Think quarter finals against France in 2007. The All Blacks realised that they had to master the Blue state: calm, clear and skilful. The shift was drilled in practice, in matches and in after match reviews. It works – mostly. In many sports, it is a duel to see who can stay in deepest Blue.

Leadership Expertise Framework

RED: overloaded, confused at risk and reactive. We default to destructive behaviour. In RED, we are operating from our reptilian brain with too much drive from the amygdala. Behaviour is reactive, rigid and fails to grasp the opportunity.

YELLOW: under pressure but focused and working hard to establish new behaviours. The amygdala is still active but we are actively focused on the effortful execution of a new behaviour. This is very expensive for the brain, awkward at first, and exhausting.

GREEN: under pressure but calm, relaxed and skilful in displaying expert patterns. The amygdala is quiet. The skill is so well practiced that you are now expert. The brain is quiet and the flow of activity is effortless. In fact, you are in flow – fast, fluid and expert.


The Science of Expertise

A huge opportunity exists for us to explore and pioneer the science of leadership expertise – What Anders Ericsson calls deliberate practice. We have barely begun to exploit what chess masters, musicians, athletes and mathematicians achieve with deliberate practice:

  • Practice with specific objectives, quick feedback and intense focus
  • Practice out of your comfort zone and work your motivations
  • Know that practice will trump talent every time
  • Work with a skilled coach

Take for example, a customer failure debriefing with the person responsible. Insight and mastery is a journey through three stages.

RED: angry, frustrated, and shouting we bawl the victim out in front of the team

YELLOW: angry but focused we debrief in private and follow process with tense discipline

GREEN: calm, focused and caring for the person, we examine the cause together and seek resolution

As leaders, we make or break leadership impact depending on how well we master the testing situations.  When RED, we cause chaos. YELLOW is very difficult. GREEN delivers effectiveness – we have embedded expert skill into the process of leadership.

This is a journey of learning that demands incisive reflection, careful planning, deliberate practice, coaching, and patient mastery of the situation in focus. Deep learning occurs in the science and practice of resilience.


Define the situation

Rather than striving to be the best leader ever with all the skills, focus on the situation that can deliver the greatest gain. This may be a difficult colleague, board meetings, customer negotiation or media briefings.


Accurately describe your current level of performance

Let’s say you know the board doubts your ability on an issue. You are anxious and flustered in board meetings. At times you are RED, leading to stuttering, frustration and poor articulation of your plan. Sometimes you are YELLOW and it is really challenging to stay calm, focused and tuned into the board.


Visualise clearly the specific behaviour and outcome you seek

In the board situation, craft a clear vision for being calm, focused and tuned into the board. Feel what it is like to win their respect, attention and confidence. Hear your words clearly articulated around your plan with humour, flexibility and concern for their needs. GREEN.


Define and focus on the competencies you need to master

In this case, we are dealing with high level competence and complexity. A combination of tactical calm, empathy, presence and influence. Start with the highest impact change. Let’s say that is demonstrating deep calm and personal presence. This is your first practice point. Say that it is fluctuating between YELLOW and RED. The specific goal to practice is staying calm and holding your presence in an intimidating, high consequence situation.


Seek out strengths you can build on

Lean on a situation where calm and presence come naturally. You are at GREEN. Explore how you can take that skill and memory into the board situation.


Get a coach to rehearse, practice and drill the new behaviours

Find a coach or team willing to work with you in rehearsing tactical calm and presence under pressure.  Use role play and specific questions to be tested by the “board” while you work on holding calm presence during your response. Be prepared to drill the practice many times. Athletes do this all the time. Leaders far too infrequently. With practice, you will experience more GREEN and less RED.


Get feedback, define improvements and practice again

Engage the situation and find a “friendly” on the board to give you feedback. Take your learning back to the coach. Refine the focus, drill the detail and try again.

Step by step, master leadership expertise by moving from RED, to YELLOW and to GREEN – one situation at a time. Remember the long-term strategy. Pick your battles, conserve energy and don’t be afraid to confront the hard stuff.

From Strategic to Tactical Calm

From Strategic to Tactical Calm

Originally published on and reproduced with permission.

The Single Most Important Skill of our Time


Take a look at the softness and peace in Federer’s face as he dismantles Nadal in the Australian Open with a blistering forehand. This is tactical calm.

We are distracted by meditation, mindfulness and various brain-training apps. These are helpful to build Strategic Calm. If you meditate purposefully and daily for a decade you will be a better version of yourself. The reality is that few of us do this. However, we can all be much better at tactical calm. It is simple, easily practiced and very gratifying.

What if you could master tactical calm in any situation that gives you grief? Would it be worth some purposeful practice?

The evidence, the methods and the tools are plain as day. Most of us “know” it really well. We are terrible at “practice”. Smart and talented people are leaving life, joy, money, deals, and relationships on the table. While they “know” about calm, they have never perfected the “practice” of tactical calm in key situations.

Failure looks like…

A senior colleague demonstrated this gap with disastrous consequences. Here was a seasoned professional who had absorbed, negotiated and dealt with years of tough situations. In his day to day work – even in conflict – he was skilful at staying calm and rational.

To his and our horror he froze at the start of a critical presentation to a large number of powerful and influential people. It was shocking. He bounded on stage, looked out at the audience – and froze. Surprise flashed into fear with teeth bared. His body went stiff. Nothing came from the movements of his mouth. Stage fright was a terrible experience for him. It was awful for the audience with career damaging consequences.

This is a critical situation where tactical should have been practised and mastered.

The very same situation strikes in traffic, bad news, teenage misbehaviour and conflict. Tactical calm is the doorway to impulse control (see Master your Anger).

The clear purpose of Tactical Calm

Tactical calm solves the failure of awareness, agility and decisiveness in the multiple minor challenges that confront us every day:

  • the space to give a warm and confident greeting
  • the freedom to give someone
  • the gift of your full attention
  • the preparation to hit the perfect shot
  • the nudge from frustration to creative solutions
  • the insight to pause and review an e-mail from different perspectives
  • the transition from anxious worry to calm deliberate action

The context is an accelerating pace of life, reduced relaxation (relaxation scores in our database dropped 30% in the last six years), uncertainty, and disruptive consequences. We are wired, tired and fired to be stupid.

The question is: “how fast can I get to my optimal biology for this situation?”

Most of us take a deep breath. This link explains why it is terrible practice. Never do or recommend it.

Tactical Calm secures adaptive biological changes

  1. Reduce heart rate and blood pressure
  2. Reduce inflammation and muscle tension
  3. Slow and extend the exhalation to relax the diaphragm (increase CO2)
  4. Trigger heart rate variability (see explanation)
  5. Activate the upper Vagus Nerve and Vagal Tone (Vagal Break)
  6. Reduce adrenaline and cortisol
  7. Increase testosterone and oxytocin
  8. Deactivate the amygdala along with fear, anger and sadness
  9. Reactivate the prefrontal cortex, insula and anterior cingulate cortex
  10. We know with clarity that we can do this in pretty much any situation with purposeful practice

What to do

Here is my tactical calm practice:

  1. Ask the question: “What is my state?” Often!
  2. Lengthen my spine and relax my face
  3. Exhale slow and easy through the nose for 6 seconds
  4. Pause until my mind drops into the body
  5. Inhale gently through the nose for 4 seconds
  6. Remember what matters and feel the love
  7. Repeat breathing cycle of 6 seconds out and 4 seconds in
  8. Engage fully with the situation at hand

Recently, I found myself feeling anxious in a large formal presentation during my introduction. At that moment, my Apple Watch Breathe App kicked in. During the introduction, I focused on breath and tracking pulse. I had time for three slow breath cycles. My pulse dropped from 78 to 56 beats per minute. I got up to do my thing.

Thanks Apple Watch.

Where is your Federer forehand opportunity and how will you apply your tactical calm practice?

The Professional’s Pain

The Professional’s Pain

Originally published on and reproduced with permission.

How to create a good and productive life

Professionals face the sharp edge of acceleration – productivity, technology and connection with meaningful work.  At the same time, they seek Eudaimonia (a good life). The pace has become overwhelming. How does one solve this paradox?

After 28 years working for Professional firms, here are some perspectives and solutions.


1. You are the elite operators of business

The 21st century professional is an elite business expert. Stacked with skills, driven by relentless targets and thrust into truly risky engagements, professional life has become tough. You can no longer rely on genes and intellect. You must master your biology (body, emotion and mind) and continually refine your skill to expert levels and beyond.

This takes training, coaching, courage and relentless discipline. You must professionalise your life, your family and your practice. There is no way back. Think. Act. Improve.


2. To accelerate you have to impose discipline and rhythm

As all elite performers discover, there is a required routine of life mastery. The key factors of high level fitness, daily contemplation, excellent sleep and smart nutrition must be built into your day. By the way, you have to stop the dumb stuff. For practical suggestions:

3. Learn from the elite operators of our time

Admiral Bill McRaven, Navy Seal and commander for 30 years has an inspirational speech at the University of Texas Commencement address. It’s worth a brief watch. Make your Bed is his book. Get curious about how people like Roger Federer keep going.

If you want to build this into your operating practice, your team and your leadership read Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. The leadership lessons are very powerful and the applications to professional engagements transformative.


4. Reflect on singularity. The answer is innovation

As cities and organisations accelerate and grow in a super-linear (exponential) way, we are reaching finite time singularity. In a nutshell, that means things are going so fast, the only way to avoid collapse is innovation. The cycles of innovation are compressing. This is the pain you feel. It is a sense that the improvements you make are absorbed in a flash. To explore this idea and the consequences for sustainability read Scale by Geoffrey West.

On one hand, professional firms have become their own worst enemies. On the other, it is the place to be for meaningful work, excellence and a fulfilling career. You are the elite. The science and practice are well worked out. Show bounce, courage, connection and creativity.

The professional’s pain is the crucible of success.

Resilience cannot be learned….

Resilience cannot be learned….

Originally published on and reproduced with permission.


The danger of ignorance and apathy

There is a view that resilience cannot be learned. This is a dangerous and apathetic perspective. It needs a clear answer and evidence-based action.

Read this recent article from the New Zealand Herald.

Or perhaps a blunt perspective.

In both opinions, it is claimed that resilience cannot be learned. Further, rather than encouraging people to rise to the challenges of life, they suggest we should lower or remove the challenge. Given the explosion of interest in Resilience, it is really important to respond to this perspective effectively. We believe it could save a life. Or a business. Perhaps even improve human life on a large scale.

Clarity on what resilience means

Resilience is often limited to bounce and grit. The University of Pennsylvania definition has expanded to connection and creativity since 2003. Even if we stick with the negative definition of bounce, it is clear that with connection and creativity we bounce faster. The very same emotions, thoughts and actions that help us bounce will take us towards health, wellbeing and success. NIH Definition. APA Definition

Whether we seek to recover from serious adversity or to achieve greatness, we find the same set of attributes: the ability to demonstrate bounce, courage, connection and creativity. In approximate order of impact, here is short list:

  1. Strong relationships of respect, love and trust
  2. Impulse control and positivity
  3. Physical fitness, good sleep and nutrition
  4. Capacity to stay calm under pressure
  5. Ability to focus attention and be situation aware
  6. Ability to plan and execute effective solutions

Abundant evidence exists to demonstrate quite clearly that every one of the attributes can now be measured, learned and lead to improved outcomes. These changes are seen in physiological, emotional and cognitive hard end points such as heart rate variability or vagal tone, speed of emotional mastery, and cortical thickness and function. See references below.

Clarity on what learning is

Learning is simply a skill improvement that delivers a better outcome. There is no doubt that we can learn to restrain impulse. We can become better at resisting addictive substances, we can learn to stay calm in a conflict, we can learn to avoid devices before bed, and we can learn how to execute simple fitness routines.

We must respect the role of genetics, culture and early environment. See Behave by Robert Sapolsky for an excellent current analysis. Our modern view clearly demonstrates that practice trumps genes every time. See Peak by Anders Ericsson. Our basic human nature is to explore, learn, practice and perfect – Homo Exercens in the words of Anders Ericsson.

The very earliest work in Resilience (Kauai, 1955) showed that even in the most deprived environments, 1/3 of at-risk children rise to succeed (See Werner and Smith: (2001) Journeys from Childhood to Midlife. What these at-risk children do is to practice the attributes above. They have learned the practice of resilience. Some learn from a parent or caregiver, others from personal experience and others from peers.

In elite sport, we see coaches working very deliberately with athletes to acquire, master and apply these skills in the many different challenges that sport presents. Is it possible that our parents and teachers could learn some of these coaching skills and transfer them to young people.

Why Resilience Matters?

When we give up on the quest to learn resilience, we accept vulnerability, determinism and defeat. The rising incidence of mental illness amongst childrenprecludes the option to sit back and wait for benefits. Yes, income inequality is strongly correlated with these challenges but they also occur in the most fortunate children. The suffering is huge – suicide, depression, anxiety, attention disorder…

We have a duty of care to continue to explore and understand the practices that help people overcome adversity and to strive for good lives. Does anything matter more? Look how coaching has improved to deliver the outstanding results we see in sport today. Athletes don’t settle for lower challenges. Nor should any of us.

Rather than surrendering to complexity, we can start with small things.

  • If we can learn maths, we can learn emotion regulation and empathy.
  • If we can learn to write, we can learn to exercise daily and secure a good night’s sleep.
  • If we can learn to read, we can learn to breathe better and calm our physiology.

How the pessimists quoted above can say there is no point in teaching resilience skills at school is hard to comprehend. The future will be reading, writing, arithmetic and resilience. We may not have found the best way to support resilience learning in schools yet but it would be a mistake not to try.

Important reading to harden your resolve against defeatism. Resilience can be learned.

  • Altruism, Matthieu Ricard, 2015
  • Emotional styles of your Brain, Richard Davidson & Sharon Begley, 2012
  • Peak, Anders Ericsson, 2016
  • The Resilience Factor, Andrew Shatte & Karen Reivich, 2003
  • Behave, Robert Sapolsky, 2017
The Benefits of Learning Resilience

The Benefits of Learning Resilience

Originally published on and reproduced with permission.


A foundation of resilience provides us with the confidence to approach life creatively.

The resilient individual understands the benefits of relaxation and recovery, has constructed a masterful lifestyle that aligns with biological rhythms and knows how to focus attention.

The most resilient among us will experience Flow regularly – and understand how to cultivate the conditions for optimal performance.

Resilience is a learned ability and the skills can be acquired at any time in life. The key is deliberate practice combined with self-awareness. When we are aware of how we think, feel and act, we can adapt and flourish.


4 Benefits of Resilience Training

We define resilience as the learned ability to demonstrate Bounce, Courage, Connection and Creativity.

Let’s explore the four elements of resilience with this extract from Inside-Out: The Practice of Resilience.

1. Bounce

Life delivers serious adversities from time to time. These may be of our own making or a result of external forces. For 50 years we have recognised that some of us respond constructively to adversity, finding ways to bounce back and emerge stronger and more effective. Others react negatively, losing confidence and acting in ways that undermine their wellbeing, vitality and effectiveness.

Those who bounce back effectively focus on what they can achieve rather than blaming. They maintain and engage supportive networks, and display a bias to take action. When in trouble, they focus inward, connect and act. These characteristics can be learned and practised. In fact, adversity may be exactly what we need to realise these strengths and master the ability to bounce back.

Some recommend the administration of small, repeated challenges to train people and society to exercise their capacity for bounce and adaptation. This has been missing in modern parenting and education. We are ‘killing people with kindness’.

Adversity triggers adaptive responses. As comfort-seeking creatures, we are quick to remove the experience of adversity from our lives. Excess safety reduces exploration, medication counters natural healing, tolerance encourages destructive behaviour, and social welfare undermines individual resourcefulness. We are afraid to let people learn.

Depression is increasing despite gains in wellbeing, and it now competes with heart disease as the major disease of our time. Depression rates in children have increased tenfold over the past 40 years, and the age of a first episode has dropped from 29.5 to 14.5 years. With an enormous weaponry of modern medicine and psychiatry, we frequently turn to medication and therapy rather than teaching the skills of bounce.

Bounce is the base camp for a good life in a dynamic world.


2. Courage

The second element captures our orientation to change, including the daily challenges of life. Based on the work Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman, we learn helplessness or optimism from our interactions with circumstance. We always hold the option to engage constructively or to collapse, flee or fight. The difference is courage.

We have removed many of the daily challenges of survival. To thrive we must now go out and seek challenge with courage. We can do this through exercise, fasting, exploring, connecting and creating. Sometimes we resent novelty and resist change. We retreat into thoughts (ruminate) on how things were and should be, or worry about the future.

Resistance to change focuses our attention on external causes. This provokes anger, sadness (past) or fear (future). Change becomes a risk to be feared and fought. At other times we take an energised, optimistic and constructive stance to change and challenge. We focus on the goal and leverage resources to engage creatively. This leads to mastery and success, and stimulates an upward spiral of competence and confidence. Our attention is focused on our own actions.

While chasing change for its own sake has risks, someone who takes an engaged and optimistic stance to the turbulence of modern life will be more likely to succeed. Courage embraces the future with a curious mind, an open heart, and the will to take action. It is displayed by positive physical action towards meaningful goals.


3. Connection

Connection begins with a respectful engagement with our bodies, our emotions, our thoughts and our purpose. It extends to family, friends, community, workplace and beyond, to nature and our planet. Broken connections cause pain. Connection requires respect inside and out. It is a measure of maturity — an impulse to goodness. It measures how we have lived and defines how we will be remembered. It is an onerous responsibility and mistakes will be made.

Connection is a core ingredient that works synergistically with Creativity. Provided we work with self-awareness, respect, tolerance and compassion, the work of relieving suffering and ennobling others is deeply rewarding at all levels — body, heart, mind and spirit. Our wellbeing, emotional state, cognition and contentment improve when we help others.

Targeted helping (altruism), embedded in our evolution, reaches its finest expression when compassion is discovered and practised by an enlightened human being.


4. Creativity

The fourth element of resilience pushes beyond difficulty and tenacity. Bounce and courage provoke learning and growth. Creativity is expansive and ambitious. While our capacity to develop is immense, it is not for everyone.

Reaching our full potential requires deep self-awareness, skill mastery and perseverance. Often experiments will fail. Fearing failure, many settle for mediocrity. Evidence shows that those who discover and stretch their talents experience increased life satisfaction, joy, health and longevity.

Aligning our talents and skills with a meaningful challenge enriches life. As we live longer in an economically insecure world, it will be necessary to find the skills to work well beyond traditional retirement. Our planet’s resilience depends on the creative stewardship of humanity. The world changes, our abilities mature, and what really matters evolves.

It is important not to overstay a phase of life, a job or a role. As the challenge changes and our skills adapt, we can choose to rejuvenate and find another layer of possibility. The creative impulse to advance into novelty is the story of humanity.

Can we Prove the Benefits of Resilience Training?

Actually – yes. Our Global Resilience Diagnostic Report analysed the resilience ratio difference in over 26,000 individuals who received resilience training. The results were clear.

Resilience training has a particularly strong effect on:

  • Reducing depression
  • Improving physical wellbeing
  • Improving cognitive functioning
  • Reducing the effects of stress

Read what our partner Datamine had to say.

Explore the report in detail.

Resilient Children. Time to act!

Resilient Children. Time to act!

Originally published on and reproduced with permission.


Nurturing bounce, calm, vitality, engagement and focus.

We look at our child and wonder: “How will she/he make it?” We fret about what they eat, the exhaustion, their weight, the anxiety, mood swings, withdrawal or online absorption. It is our job to prepare our youth for life. Thus, we will worry. But under that 20 years of worry sits the question: “What can we do to help them bounce and flourish?”

Are things actually bad? If so, what is the cause. Is there anything we can do? Will it make a difference? These are questions every responsible parent, teacher, academic, politician, social entrepreneur and young person seeks to answer.


Are things bad for our children?

YES, and mostly getting worse…. on average. But not for all. Some thrive.

Measured and reported rates – accepting more careful study and diagnostic sensitivity – of the following “conditions” have increased (and some links to explore):

  1. Overweight and obesity: doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents since 1980
  2. Reduced physical activity: down to 10 – 25% – A global report card
  3. Poor nutrition and eating habits: an epidemic of empty, processed calories
  4. Self-harming: up to 20% of adolescents
  5. Autism Spectrum Disorder: many fold increase now 1 in 68 children
  6. Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders: 4 fold increase in boys and 6 fold in girls
  7. Anxiety disorders and psychological distress from 10% up for young people
  8. Depression on the rise for over three decades (Time, Nov 2016)
  9. Self-harming (Gluckman report, July 2017)
  10. Suicide: Global 10.7 per 100,000; NZ 18.7 and Maori 48. (WHO Suicide, 2015)

What is the cause?

It is complex. Food marketing. Technology. Inequality. Parenting. Impulsivity. Expectations. Please review Peter Gluckman’s report above for an academic perspective. Life has always been risky. The gene pool has a role but is exaggerated. Inequality is a powerful indicator of poor youth outcomes. Parenting and caregiving is pivotal. School is an untapped resource.

At the end of the day, it comes down to behaviour. Robert Sapolsky’s new book, Behave, the biology of humans at our best and worst, 2017, is a tour de force. As evolution progresses, the role of parents is to demonstrate and support behaviours that increase the likelihood of survival and reproduction. In humans, at this time on earth, this is the crucible determining suffering or vitality and flourishing.


Is there anything we can do?

Humans, as an advanced, conscious and social species has a robust web of social support systems to encourage more adaptive behaviours. Maternal wellbeing, infant care, authoritative parenting (firm, consistent and caring), smart school support, sport, community networks, policing, justice, welfare and much more form the web that either supports constructive or destructive behaviours.

As in the case of suicide and the many afflictions of youth today, we have generally followed a medical approach of diagnosis and treatment. Important, yes but not the solution. Let us demonstrate and support skills to bounce, master pressure, regulate emotion, focus the mind and engage constructively with the challenges of life.

We want to help by supporting schools as coaching environments for the deliberate practice of these skills. Our goal is to help bring modern biological research into schools in very practical ways including:

  1. A simple multifactor Diagnostic assessment for students from 12 to 24
  2. Teachers trained to deliver Diagnostic feedback and coach resilience skills
  3. Online resources to help teachers, parents and students master these ideas
  4. Specific training skills during class and in sport to reinforce:
  • Secure, confident and optimal sleep patterns
  • Integrate exercise, relaxation and empathy into the classroom
  • Anxiety management, relaxation and breathing skills
  • Smart eating guidelines
  • Personal presence and posture
  • Impulse control and emotion regulation
  • Attention and focusing skills
  • Empathy and influence skills

Will it make a difference?

Absolutely. Yet, it does require system wide collaboration. Multiple initiative has shown hopeful results. Specifically Social Emotional Learning and the Canadian 24 hour activity initiative.

Happy Family holding jigsaw pieces

What is the Resilience Institute doing?

Over the past decade we have been able to connect with about 40 schools and most principals in New Zealand.  We have run workshops for conferences, trained teachers, introduced parents and even run short sessions for students.  School is a powerful community hub. Not only can one influence teachers, the school environment, students and parents but these students go on to join our workforce.

We have called this RISE (Resilience in Schools and Education) and with our recent partnership with the New Zealand Principals Federation, we are exploring ways to partner with schools to create Resilient Schools.

Our work to date strongly supports the integration of simple, evidence-based and practical skills that work together to increase the probability of constructive behaviours.

Imagine if that young person had a good night’s sleep, ate a decent breakfast, had a short burst of exercise and spent some time relaxing and focusing before class. What if a teacher had a method to gently focus on and support constructive learning and social behaviours during class? And when students can share and demonstrate these practices back at home?

If you are interested in understanding more or supporting these initiatives please visit our RISE page. We have started with principals and teachers and intend to launch our student solution at the end of September 2017.

We look forward to your support.