Manny looked physically hurt. His eyes were sunken, his posture was stooped, and his normally taut skin was grayish. He had been under great stress over the past three weeks. He was making one of the biggest decisions of his career as a leader. He was showing the toll of a difficult decision. Manny was physically hurting!
The pain we feel in the midst of intense stress is real; its measurable. Leaders are like warehouse workers unloading a constant conveyor belt of decisions. Some boxes are small and light, some are back-breaking with their heavy load, and most are in between. The decisions may be coming from near or far, from interpersonal to financial, from friends or foes. The inescapable reality of leadership is decision making.
To decide means to cut off – to end a debate or evaluation and call something into action. Neuroscientists have mapped the brain and found that decision making is processed in the pre-frontal cortex (PFC). This is the same region of the brain responsible for goal setting, planning, visualization, problem solving, and impulse control. The PFC is an energy demanding portion of the brain. You know the hunger and fatigue from intensive thinking and decision making.
Manny was exhausting himself from a relentless effort to do the right thing. Everyone to whom he turned was either his employee, investor, family, or colleagues. They all gave him the same answer, “you’ll do the right thing, we trust you that way.” While that sentiment was heartwarming, it gave Manny no reprieve, only increased stress to live up to expectations.
Manny and I spoke about how to relieve the physical distress from his decision making. Here are the highlights of the conversation:
Focus awareness on physical experience. Manny was to pay attention to his body, not merely his thoughts.
Label the emotional states. Manny began giving names to his stressful thoughts and feelings (“fear of failure”, “frustration at being misled”, “anger”)
Talk it out. Manny used me and two other trusted advisors who had nothing to gain or lose from his decisions. We provided him objective listening and questions, not mere opinions and encouragement
Walk it out. Manny returned to a steady routine of exercise. He convinced himself that his decision was so monumental that it required constant attention and thinking. Really, we only have a few good hours per day to solve complex problems
Remember, good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions.