Ride the Black Swan

Ride the Black Swan

Originally published on www.resiliencei.com and reproduced with permission.

Take care of yourself, your family and your teams

Nassim Taleb wrote about Black Swan events in 2010. A Black Swan is an improbable event with massive consequences. We are in one right now. Every one of us is facing unknown unknowns. Our savings are impacted. We are concerned about family, friends and business as borders start to close. Many can no longer go to work. Am I well enough to survive an infection?

Leaders walk a blurry, dangerous edge between under and over reacting. The consequences of closing a border, a store or a business are huge. We are facing decisions under an overload of information and unclear guidance. There is little certainty.

Activate Centripetal Forces

There are disruptive centrifugal forces at play. Centrifugal forces pull things away from the centre. It feels uncertain, scary and threatening. Centripetal forces hold things together. They keep calm, control and connection. Now is a time to focus on the key centripetal forces that you can apply to guide yourself, your family and your team.

10 Centripetal Forces

These recommendations are aimed to maintain your physical health and immunity first, and second to support your mental and emotional wellbeing.

  1. Discipline your attention: sip cautiously and sparingly on information
  2. Maintain or reinforce your daily disciplines of self-care and growth
  3. Exercise every day and make sure you get out in fresh air and sunshine
  4. Lock down your sleep discipline: consider stretching it to 8 hours
  5. Eat fresh foods & eat sparingly: lose unwanted weight if you can
  6. Stay calm and relaxed: a daily relaxation practice has multiple benefits
  7. Be present and savour the moment: catch worry, focus on breath and body
  8. Stay connected to your family: consider co-locating while you can
  9. Be positive and seek out optimistic positions: don’t catastrophise
  10. Keep cash on hand and set yourself up for remote work

No one can predict how this will turn out. Focus on what you can control and change. Fretting over provocative media hype is futile. Stay informed but focus on respected authorities like the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) and Johns Hopkins University & Medicine.

Focus on Physical Health

Reduce inflammation, fatigue and poor health. Experts warn that that age, obesity, diabetes, smoking and chronic conditions increase risk of infection and consequences. Now is the ideal time to put in place a good daily discipline that nurtures fitness, sleep, relaxation and wellbeing. A fresh-food diet and relaxation will keep your gut bacteria healthy.

Master Anxiety (and worry)

Anxiety is a key risk. Uncertainty and risk trigger the emotion of fear. Fear will stir and stimulate futile loops of worry. It is essential to discipline your thinking. When you notice the discomfort of anxiety or loops of worry, breath out long and slow. Bring your attention forcefully to your breath, your body, and the feeling of being alive right now. As your attention learns to stay present on the unfolding moment, anxiety will dissipate.

Build Hope, Optimism and Joy

Hopelessness and depression must be countered. We may lose money, jobs and opportunities. Isolation can fragment the connections we need for emotional wellbeing. Humanity is brilliant at rapid bounce. We will find a way. Be active and practical. Do useful things like keeping your home tidy and lovely, cleaning your car, or reading a good novel. Be alert to rumination on losses and what could have been. Create a positive story with your situation. Spend time with loved ones and help each other build optimism and hope.

Know that things will eventually get better. Humanity will learn. We will come out wiser and stronger. When things are shaken up like this, it is a great time to reflect on what really matters to you. Perhaps let go of some things that no longer matter quite as much. It may be an opportunity to make a much needed change.

Bounce, grow, connect and seek flow.

The Safety – Play Paradox

The Safety – Play Paradox

By Originally published on www.resiliencei.com and reproduced with permission.

Leaders must balance innovation with safety and disruption with predictability. Growth is not possible without risk. Zero harm will secure zero innovation. Too much risk and we bet the farm.

  1. When we feel unsafe we default to flight, fight and freeze reactions
  2. When we cause others to feel unsafe, we collapse their contribution
  3. When we feel safe and “play” together, we flourish and teams succeed

Safety is complex and can be unhelpful. The issue is confounded because safety perceptions and reactions are not conscious. They take over our conscious systems before we know it. The consequent behaviour is sub-optimal. No safety = no growth and innovation.

Stephen Porges recently published The Pocket Guide to Polyvagal Theory(2017).  We reviewed his work several times. He makes a complex neurophysiological concept coherent and practical. There are two powerful leadership ideas.


1.  Unconscious neuroception drives behaviour

We swing from relaxed parasympathetic tone to reactive, distressed sympathetic tone.

The sympathetic (“stress” system) gives us our FIGHT (anger and violence) and FLIGHT (fear and avoidance) reactions. These reactions are based on adrenaline (epinephrine), increased heart rate and blood pressure. They mobilise us for action – attack or defend. The reactions are automatic and not conscious. While helpful in early evolution, today we generally regret them (modern presidents excluded).

Parasympathetic activity is mediated by the Vagus Nerve (10th cranial nerve). It has two layers – ventral (new, myelinated and above diaphragm) and dorsal (old, unmyelinated and below diaphragm). The ventral (new) vagus slows the heart, increases heart rate variability and allows calm, curious and connected behaviour. This activates health, growth and empathy. This is the foundation state of good relationships, collaboration and team flow.

The dorsal (old) vagus collapses the vascular and digestive system. We collapse or pass out and may void bowel and bladder. This is not voluntary but it may save life in a violent or abusive situation when you are the prey. This is the FREEZE reaction.

Wild animals have well defined zones that programme behaviour. Furthest out is FLIGHT. When we approach this zone, the animal will run away. Next is FIGHT. If we enter this zone we can expect to be attacked. Closest in is FREEZE when the animal will play dead.

The lion’s FLIGHT zone is 35 to 50 m and the FIGHT zone is 15 to 20 m. This is for a human on foot. In a vehicle, the lion will allow you to come within a few meters. If you then move or stand up, it will attack you. You are in the FIGHT zone.  Knowledge that can save life in an open game-viewing vehicle.

When safety fails

Porges argues that FREEZE is common for those subjected to abuse or with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Afterwards they feel guilty that they did not fight back. In actual fact, the body (dorsal vagus) was protecting them from further violence – just as a mouse in a cat’s jaws will play dead. Understanding this facilitates recovery.

He shows how simple steps can build an understanding, sense of safety and recovery:

  • Long exhalations to increase heart rate variability
  • Prosodic voice (lullaby) or music (Johnny Mathis love songs), and
  • Counselling with prosodic voice and expressive faces

Porges claims to have improved the lives of over 200 children with Autism by using this as part of treatment.

Safety finds itself in direct conflict with health, growth, innovation and collaboration. Obsessive worry about missing a process, inappropriate connection or adverse consequences can push us toward FLIGHT (avoid), FIGHT (vote right) and FREEZE (give up). What is meant to protect can shut down our better selves.

Business success today needs risk, innovation, intense collaboration and disruption (not safe at all). These behaviours are much more like edgy play. They require both sympathetic activation and strong ventral vagus activity.

How does a leader balance innovation with safety and disruption with predictability?

Growth is not possible without risk. Zero harm counters innovation.


2.  Play as a platform for transformation

What might happen if we activate the ventral (new) vagus and the sympathetic system together? We will be highly activated and mobilised (sympathetic) while feeling calm, curious and connected (vagus). This is play. Watching young animals charge after each other, pouncing, posing, yelping and wrestling gives us great joy.

Play accelerates learning. It prepares the young animal for the challenges of hunting, defending and mating in a dangerous world. Without play survival is compromised. Play is facilitated by regular eye contact, prosodic communication and an expressive upper face – crinkles in the outer corners of the eye and centrally raised eyebrows. Play builds high trust community, family, and team.

Play is the state of an exceptionally high performing team. It is respectful, open, honest, provocative, demanding, pressing the limits, empathic, forgiving, and joyous. This is also found in the intimacy achieved in a loving partnership. Embracing risk with this attitude of play is the foundation of trust and the better world we know is possible.

Porges points out that the more we play the more effective adults we become. This is obviously true for physical skills. Far more importantly, this is how we develop our emotional intelligence and social skills. Play is a critical component of healthy childhood and adulthood. Working parents, anxiety about intimacy, and devices have dramatically dropped the time we spend in play. Play may be a cost effective solution to the suffering caused by mental health.

Sadly, our youth grow up with play on a device. This is not play and it does not activate the dorsal vagus. There is none of the direct reciprocity of eye contact, vocal resonance and facial expressivity. Nor is there movement and physical skill building. In most mental health disorders, play is absent or limited.

Leaders creating a better world must balance caution with high risk play. Breathe out, hold eye contact, smile, sing and play.

Tilting the Axis of Good and Evil

Tilting the Axis of Good and Evil

Empathy, Candour, Altruism, Deceit and Trickery

Five words define the crucible of civilization and the battle between conflict and progress. This is true in our relationships, communities, businesses and nations.

Whether it is Brexit, the current US election, climate threat, rich getting richer, or data security, we decide based on our judgement of these five factors. British leadership tried with empathy and candour to secure the trust of the nation to vote “Bremain”. Voters suspected deceit and trickery. To everyone’s surprise, Britain is now exiting a process purposed to integrate Europe with empathy, candour and altruism.

The US election is ripping the world’s great democracy into vitriolic deceit, trickery, and self-interest. The consequence is a collapse of trust in government. The window to be good custodians of our planet is closing due to self-interest and a failure of trust.

Voters no longer trust governments, corporates and the rich. Whilst Mark Zuckerberg can wing his way to show empathy for earthquake victims in Italy and the super-wealthy can give away billions, the vast majority of us are hunkered down in survival mode – powerless and suspicious. We feel deceived and tricked.

On the other side, research including Google[1] and MIT[2], shows that empathy is the key competence (skill) to liberate performance in teams. The psychological safety (trust) experienced in a team, liberates constructive interaction and work. This trust is not some secret ingredient. It is actively constructed from specific behaviours. First, high performing teams communicate face-to-face (candour). Second, they communicate in concise bursts of straight feedback (candour). Third, they include all participants equally in the dialogue (altruism).

Empathy is the fulcrum of this crucible. Empathy allows us to read others and decide between deceit and candour (see: http://www.paulekman.com/blog/want-president-cant-wont-lie). Empathy with candour triggers altruism and the amazing collaboration witnessed in advanced social groupings. Empathy with deceit leads to a failure of trust, self-interest and further deceit, which we witness in modern politics, wars, gangs and prisons.

This tipping point between collaborative power and deceitful destruction is embedded in evolution and well validated in studies of corvids (crows and jays), dolphins, whales, elephants, and most primates[3]. The evolutionary source of the solution is clearly visible in chimps and bonobos where the role of leadership demands empathy and altruism to secure the survival of the group.

We might be wise to remember that deceit and trickery are equally well developed in the species above. Homo sapiens is only different in the degree to which we exploit and realise the extremes good and evil.

When we choose empathy, candour and altruism we are capable of exponential goodness. When we default to deceit and trickery we light the fuse of massive destruction.

Be a force for good

  1. Be crystal clear on your language
  • Empathy is the ability, deeply embedded in our species and wide open to learning, to accurately read and understand others. It is a passive competence requiring attention, non verbal cues, analysis and intuition
  • Candour is the intention to express yourself as honestly as possible. Candour requires self-awareness, courage and skill. It takes time to know yourself well and even longer to express yourself honestly with sensitivity and clarity. Candour is active and effortful.
  • Altruism is the intention to help others with skill. It is active. Altruism requires the combination of deep empathy (really understanding what action will help others rather than relieve your guilt or anxiety) and skilful means. At first, altruism presents as a cost and therefore risky. However, the practice of altruism leads to multi-party benefit – particularly your own[4].
  • Deceit can be an act of omission (hiding something) or commission (fabricating an untrue statement). It is the opposite of candour.
  • Trickery is exploiting trust. We attempt to appear as x whilst actually doing y. Here lies the failure of trust in many political systems and relationships.
  1. Define clearly your values and purpose

Being clear on what matters to you, builds a platform to tip the axis to good. Short term self interest or self-gratification leads to deceit and trickery. Our own research shows the critical role of developing a clear set of values and meaningful purpose. We must actively choose between self and others, now and later, candour or deceit and altruism versus trickery.

  1. Press for total candour

Accept that expressing candour skilfully takes time and practice. Be intentional about telling the whole truth. Ask yourself if you have left anything out. Give people an opportunity to ask questions. Help others be candid with you.

  1. Practice your empathy skills

Empathy requires practice. We have addressed this in many papers.

  1. Random acts of kindness

Be good by doing good should guide each day. Even for those on the wrong side of the axis, spending time helping others has an extraordinary benefit to self, others and the system in which you live. Be generous and skilful.

  1. Be gentle and forgiving

Tipping the axis takes time, demands experiment and failure. Reconciliation is built deep into our evolutionary roots. Be patient and kind to yourself and others. It will accelerate the journey to be a true force for good.

[1] Smarter, Faster, Better, Charles Duhigg, 2016

[2] Humans are Underrated, Geoff Colvin, 2015

[3] Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are, Frans de Waal, 2016

[4] Altruism, Matthieu Ricard, 2015