Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Non-verbal Cues & Qualities Of True Leadership

Nine years ago I made a decision that changed the course of my life, and continues to challenge me to be open, compassionate, gentle and strong. The decision? I adopted a 130-lb Rottweiler/Mastiff rescue named Maximus.

The shelter assessment gave Max a full 'green light' in regards to being socialized with people and other dogs. Skeptical, I took the shelter staff's suggestion and consulted a controversial but very experienced local dog behaviourist and aggression expert--one whom, in fact, had actually helped design the very assessment forms I was relying upon to make my impending decision to adopt my new buddy. Turns out, this fellow made a profound observation: in the shelter environment, the dog is going to display compliant and reserved behaviour to adapt to the stress of the environment, despite close-quarters. However, outside in the human world, dependent on the skill/environment of his potential human caregivers, it is about a 50/50 roll of the dice how his (fear-aggressive) behaviour will play out.

Fortuitously, the opportunity arose to foster Max for three weeks where my friend's theory proved true: this dog, as he later told me, had some 'secrets' that would reveal themselves. In the end, Max, I suppose, chose me. It has been a life-changing, stressful and challenging journey, but we have both come a long way. My behaviourist friend, leaning on empirical research of wolves and pack behaviour in the wild, completely turned around my ignorance of prevailing and outdated 'dominance theory' when it comes to pack leadership. The methods I was instinctively using to 'correct' Max's fear behaviour were, in fact, worsening the problem. Why? Because in completely inverting my model of psychology to recognize that it is about serving the dog's need to cope in a human world--rather than my need to apply anthropomorphized human social expectations to Max to comply with my notions of 'obedience'--I could appreciate and help him make better decisions.

Simply put, this epiphany required me to understand the more accurate model of pack behaviour that is built upon building trust between me and the 'subordinate' member. In other words, leadership, hitherto thought to be enforced and maintained by (ruthless) authoritarian and fear-based dominance, is in fact engendered and agreed to when safe and trusted actions win the acceptance and cooperation of the pack members for survival. This is profound. Leadership is wise, smart, strong and trustworthy...So it became less about the misguided notion of correcting Max in stressful situations (which just confuses him), and entirely about not leading him into those situations in the first place! Once I recognized with some proficiency how to determine his 'safe' window of learning--that is, the safe distance from his stressors: dogs, people, buses, etc--I could reinforce his disregard or calm response, and thus work on closing the stress distance/gap. This is essentially a kind of exposure therapy. But, as with any psychological/behavioural therapy, it is predicated upon a trusted relationship, modeling, and encouragement. Doing more 'positive' is much more proven model of learning than doing 'less' (let along punishing!) of the negative.

This leads us back to the not so huge leap to the world of human behavioural responses and social adaptation. In a TED interview, social psychologist Amy Cuddy talks about the difference between the body language and actions that build leadership through trust and warmth, as opposed to the reliance on reinforcing one's projection of competency and power. Cuddy doesn't suggest the latter are outmoded; quite the contrary. She just suggests that building one's projected sense of inner power and competence is better cultivated as such--internally, or at least privately, or removed from the theatre of trying to win over participants, students, etc. She quotes some amazing research data showing that taking an empowered posture can increase testosterone levels by 30%, while lowering cortisol levels (stress hormone) by 30%! At the same time, it is warm, trust-enhancing and, dare I say it, gentle strength from a leader to their audience/crowd/fellowship that imbues a deeper sense of inner control and dependability.

Read her insights here.

This kind of calm, inner depth of core strength, projected as warm and winning leadership, is what personally drew me to the art of Aikido. It is what I endeavour to manifest in my own effective trusted leadership as an Aikido teacher--to model warmth and trust, while conveying the limitless power and competency we have all to discover and reveal for ourselves. In the end, perhaps Max has been my greatest Aikido teacher after all....

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