Through a practice called Mind Boxing we simulate the pressure and uncertainty that leaders encounter. This simulation does two things. It demonstrates how each of us reverts, under stress, towards incoherent behaviors, incongruent with a fast-changing world. Next, it trains us to expand into complexity by rewiring our nervous systems.
Brain research proves that when facing intense levels of stress and complexity, human beings have difficulty learning new things. Today, more is demanded of leaders than ever before—and many are struggling to learn quickly enough to keep pace.
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No one would run modern software applications on a 15 year-old computer. Yet today's leaders, by and large, attempt to process the increased pressure and complexity of a radically new business context with nervous systems wired for a slower world.
By up-leveling their nervous system capacity, leaders can begin to evolve as quickly as the world around them.
How do we learn to deal with overwhelming levels of complexity? By addressing the root source of change at the level of our neurophysiology. There is a deceptively simple practice for this, developed out of the Chinese fighting arts traditions and before that the Tibetan wisdom traditions, called zhan zhuang, or standing practice. As a beginner in standing practice you stand with arms outstretched as if holding a barrel, knees bent 6-8 inches or so, and feet a bit past shoulder width for 15 or 20 minutes.
Standing practice is designed to train us in many things, but for our purposes here we use standing practice to build the neural connections that are essential to learning and change. Why does the neurophysiology matter? Because the longer you live with a certain behavior or worldview, the more it literally becomes embodied in the pathways of your nervous system. Science proves it. Until you build new neural pathways, you’re stuck with (and in) your old behaviors and worldviews. It doesn’t matter how smart you are or how much you care or try.
Standing works because it puts the body under intense physical pressure. In a controlled environment, it stimulates the mind and the nervous system. It teaches us the nature of mind and body and how they work together. As we stand, our voluntary muscles begin to fail. We start to shake and sweat. Our mind tells us we can go no further. But as we carry on in standing practice we begin to recruit new muscle groups—the smaller, suppler ones called involuntary muscles. By recruiting involuntary muscle we build new pathways between the body and the mind. We wake up the places of the mind that have been asleep, and fire up our nervous systems.
You can’t do this through more commonplace activities. No matter how vigorous your exercise program, you can only increase the strength and endurance of your voluntary muscles. Run ten miles instead of five and you ask the muscles you’ve already developed for running to work harder. Lift more weight, throw more punches, stretch more rigorously--the only muscles you’ll use are the voluntary ones. Nor do the more marginal “brain science” practices meet the challenge. Learn a new language, learn to play the flute, eat with your left instead of your right hand—none of these put the body under the kind of weight and pressure required to fire up the nervous system, engage mind and body and thereby cause new growth.
Continued for months—and then years—standing practice, by recruiting the involuntary muscles, produces a “supreme energy” that draws no comparison to the energy most people feel running through their bodies. Imagine what happens to your body and mind when you accidentally touch a hot stove, or when you narrowly avoid a traffic accident. Your entire being fires up. Standing creates a similar reaction in our body - maintains it and then increases it sustainably.
What does all of this have to do with leadership? Leaders live and operate under intensely stressful and difficult circumstances—the kind that make learning, creativity and change difficult. Our brains simply don't learn well under the amount of stress leaders face today. Yet learning is vital to change.
By developing a standing practice, leaders enable their bodies to handle greater and greater amounts of complexity. This is the key – leaders in this day and age have to learn how to master levels of complexity impossible to imagine even five years ago and we are not slowing down. Such a situation creates pressure that we cannot think our way through, “data” our way through, or strategize our way through.
Standing Practice gives the leader a real time activity for assessment and further development of their nervous system. Once established, it provides the foundation for greater focus, increased creativity, and the opportunity for a broader scope of activity.
In such a situation, there are no set answers, and no silver bullets. In an era such as ours what counts is healthy leadership that is trained to expand into chaos and that has mastered a practice that supports a special form of engagement with the unknown.
This is not a mental activity alone. It involves the entire neurophysiology. When leaders commit to a standing practice, they learn the science of Mind-Boxing. They learn how to uproot core assumptions, challenge their belief systems, cultivate powerful energy in their bodies, and see clearly into the present situation. They literally redesign their internal worlds such that they are now able to expand into this crazy world in a way that involves their entire being. Mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually they are engaged in a daily practice of assessment, discovery and growth.
What could be more important than that?
Second - successive cadres of leadership are formed in the organization to engage in the same practice that top leadership has already started. These leaders begin to evolve.
Third - a strategic focus is built around the newfound discoveries that are unearthed through the standing practice. The organization begins to rewire around new principles, methods, tools and practices. The nervous system of the organization evolves to meet escalating levels of complexity inside and outside its walls.
Thank you for this wonderful article. I am a Yoga practitioner and the outcome you described by the Standing Practice is similar. It's really amazing how the new connections in the brain are daily created and by the same we develop our immune system against stress. We deal more calmly with a complex and stressful issues. I don't about the practice you talked about but I ma curious to know more.
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This is fascinating. I talked to Lang about this a month or so ago. Can you share the results of doing this with your gang kids and the work you've done with some biz folks? The outcomes are amazing -
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