Leadership Tangles Blog

Know Your Brain, Grow Your Leadership

Posted by Marcia Ruben, PhD, PCC on Mon, Apr 04, 2016


I have been learning about and teaching basic neuroscience principles for the past three and a half years. I have also used a brain-based coaching approach in my executive coaching practice. I have come to appreciate how much a basic working knowledge of our brains can help leaders function more effectively.

We all have finely tuned brains, exquisitely developed to quickly detect threats and also seek rewards, In fact, as our brains scan our environment every 1/5 of one second, it is reassuring to know that we have five times as many circuits to pick up threats than rewards. It is especially comforting to know this when we are potentially faced with physical danger.When I am out and about and alone in a new and strange area, I am glad that my brain will alert me in a nanosecond if I need to call 911, run, or scream. I also know that cortisol will course through my body, signalling distress. And when someone gives me wonderfully positive feedback, my brain experiences this as a reward and I receive a dopamine rush. 

This same finely tuned brain is also helpful at work. We are social creatures and need other people. We want to feel safe. When we feel rewarded we are more creative, learn more, and contribute more. On the other hand, because we are so attuned, our brains can pick up the slightest negative facial expression that signals a threat. A number of research studies show that when people are shown a series of facial expressions, ranging from happy to angry, they much more quickly and accurately pick up those with even subtle angry expressions.

So, think about your organization as network of executives, middle managers, and employees with finely tuned brains. 




Each individual within this network is constantly and non-consciously scanning for threats and rewards.How do you know if your company is an environment more prone to rewards (hits of dopamine) than threats (blasts of cortisol)? If people are routinely coming up with new and innovative ideas,  praised for good work, and meetings are fun, productive, and everyone gets a chance to talk and be heard, there is a good chance that your network of finely tuned brains is working well. 

On the other hand, if individuals engage in finger-pointing, blame, backstabbing, and worse, it is likely that some are creating threats at a biological level and others are shutting down. 

One of the most important insights from the intersection of neuroscience and leadership is that a leader's job is to create a psychologically safe enough environment so that employees feel empowered to express ideas and fully participate. On the other hand, there has to be enough productive stress so that deadlines are met, people stretch, and the company as a whole experiences success. 

To what extent is your network of finely tuned brains aligned and working well in your company? How productive is your brain.Thanks to breakthroughs in the field of neuroscience It is now possible to optimize your leadership team. Learn more about the first and only scientifically validated brain assessment--MyBrainSolutions


VUCA Revisited Again –Volatility Rouses Fear

Posted by Marcia Ruben, PhD, PCC on Fri, Oct 09, 2015


I first wrote this post in early 2011, just after I  began teaching in the MBA program at Golden Gate University as an adjunct professor. Since then, I have become a full time graduate level professor and still maintain my practice as an executive leadership consultant and coach. This continues to force me to stay current with leadership research and weave that research into a pragmatic solution for clients and business school students.



I have been writing about the concept of VUCA since I began this blog in 2008. I learned about the concept in 2005 while I was doing research for my doctoral disseration. I was interested in understanding how leaders were able to make sense of and untangle very complex, emotionally charged business challenges. I was very fortunate to meet someone who taught at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces in Washington, D.C. and he shared some of the leadership curriculum. It was there that I first read about VUCA in materials compiled by James O'Toole. At the time,  I was struck by how well VUCA—volatility, uncertainly, complexity, and ambiguity—describes the current business environment.  I have argued that we are living in a time of unprecedented VUCA. I have even done research to identify leadership characteristics necessary to thrive in VUCA.

 Here is a distinction that I believe will be helpful.  Leaders have always had to cope with UCA—uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. It has always been challenging to lead a department, division, business unit, or organization. Leaders have always operated with UCA—uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.
 What makes VUCA such a useful term today is that we are still experiencing unprecedented volatility in our marketplace and in the world. While it feels like we have regained some sense of stability since 2008 and 2009, there is a fragility to our recovery.

 What makes living in a VUCA environment different than a UCA environment is one word—fear. When conditions are volatile, we tend to turn in, become conservative, and avoid risks. Negative emotions like fear restrict creativity, openness, and collaboration.

My research in to the field of neuroscience in recent years underscores the biological underpinnings of our reactions. We are wired to stay safe. Our brains are constantly scanning our environments and we pick up on threats much, much faster than rewards. In fact, it does not take much to throw us off. An awareness of our positivity to negativity ratio is important.  Do you tend to magnify negative threats or do you ignore them completely? How sensitive are you to stress and how well do you manage yourself? Do you have a disciplined practice to stay calm? Matthew Lieberman from UCLA has written that early research suggests that mindfulness and meditation practices lengthen our fuse. It slows down our normal reaction enough so that we can engage our executive function and react more calmly.

Leaders who thrive in VUCA are resilient and are able to remain calm, collected, and inspire confidence in others. They can untangle their emotional reactions from current reality and summon up courage. Leadership success depends not on what the leader is doing, but who the leader is being during volatile conditions.

Are you a leader who thrives in VUCA?

Topics: VUCA

Know Your Brain, Accelerate Leadership Performance!

Posted by Marcia Ruben, PhD, PCC on Mon, Aug 17, 2015



Last fall, I was privileged to be included in the first group of global executive leadership coaches certified in My Brain Solutions (MBS). The Academy of Brain Based Leadership sponsored the certification training. MBS is the only scientifically validated assessment that truly measures brain performance and has been used effectively by clinicians for several years. It was developed by an independent consortium of over 200 neuroscientists, led by Dr. Evian Gordon.  It was redesigned in 2014 to improve the effectiveness of business leaders.

1-2-4 Brain Model

The assessment is based on the 1-2-4 brain model. Briefly, according to Dr. Gordon, our brains are primarily wired for safety. We have five times more circuits that pick up threats than rewards. We pick up nonconscious threat cues in 1/5 of one second and our brains are constantly scanning for threats and rewards. Our emotions are nonconscious and picked up in 1/5 of one second. Our feelings occur consciously when we notice and/or are aware of our heart rate, sweat in our palms, and an increase in the rate of our breathing.

The assessment itself is based on actual laboratory tests that measure brain function. As I took the assessment, I felt a bit like I was in a laboratory. You cannot fake your way through the assessment. It truly measures brain performance. And, because the results are based on your performance on these validated tests, the results are credible.

The four dimensions of MBS

The assessment measures four dimensions –thinking, emotions, feeling, and self-regulation-- and has 17 subscales. The Thinking dimension includes measures of attention, memory, processing speed, motor coordination, inhibition, flexibility, and executive function. In other words, you receive actual data on critical brain functions required for good executive performance.

The Emotion dimension tells you how well you identify the emotions of others and whether you are more inclined to negative or positive biases. As it turns out, 15% of people have a very strong negativity bias and magnify threats more than necessary. 15% of people have a very strong positivity bias and may overlook real threats. The rest are in between. 

The Feeling dimension gives you insight into your current stress and anxiety levels. Participants are given survey questions from a psychological instrument. The assessment measures current levels.

Finally, the assessment measures your ability to self-regulate. You receive a measure of your ability to manage your positivity and negativity, your level of resilience and your ability to build connections and keep relationships.

What happens after you receive your results?

Once you receive your results, your executive coach works with you to find ways to develop coherence among all of the dimensions. For instance, one of my clients received low scores in his working memory and his stress level. As we talked, I learned that he got easily distracted by the flood of emails that demanded his immediate attention, preparation for meetings and constant interruptions. This in turn impacted his stress level. We were able to pinpoint what was causing his performance to be less than optimal.

Training exercises

The good news about the MBS assessment, which is different than many others that I have used, is that there are specific training exercises that you can do to improve your brain’s performance. According to Dr. Evian Gordon, we can train our non-conscious brain. Gordon claims you can make significant changes in three to four weeks by practicing at least one of the exercises, Spending ten minutes twice a week will net you positive changes. The best news is that you can download many of the exercises on your Smartphone.

Visualize future state to rewire your brain

Gordon claims that by visualizing in detail your desired future state you can make real progress. For instance, I worked with a client to simulate what it would feel like to be calm when faced with stress. By actually experiencing that new behavior, you receive a dopamine hit. Further, Dr. Gordon claims that it is enough to change one brain habit with small dopamine wins. Changing one behavior impacts all others. 

In my work with the client mentioned above, I had him first remove as many distractions as possible, e.g., turn off automatic email notifications, and visualize being calm. I had him practice the My Calm Beat  three times a week and a couple of other exercises. After four weeks, he reported that he was less stressed and better able to concentrate. His coworkers reported that he was more present and made better decisions. 

The results?

I have used this tool with handful of leaders so far. The results?  Clients report that the assessment is spot on. As a coach with advanced degrees in human and organizational systems, a background in stress management and certifications in brain based coaching, I am pleased to say that MBS provides a way to address tough issues by focusing on the biology of the individual and starting with changes there that are likely to work. For more information, be sure to check out MyBrainSolutions. For even more information, click here

Leaders--does your physical space optimize performance?

Posted by Marcia Ruben, PhD, PCC on Wed, Jul 15, 2015

Fascinating study

In late June, 2015, I had the opportunity to visit the charming town of Kolding in Denmark. There, nestled atop a scenic city, we visited a ecently restored old castle. As we got to the top of the castle, we were delighted to see an exhibit of student work. We found out that the Kolding Design School offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees in design. The exhibits were from their most recent graduates. 

This particular exhibit caught my eye. I have often been struck by just how profoundly physical space either inhibits or encourages communication, collaboration, and even productivity. As you can see from the exhibit, this creative researcher recommends something called "swirl" office space. 


Kolding Denmark Discoveries


The challenge is clearly spelled out and illustrated. I have worked with several clients in the midst of expanding and moving to new office space. Those who have been used to working in private offices chafe at the thought of working in a totally open cubicle. Those who have worked in spread out cubicles don't like to feel that their new space is less private and more noisy. Managers assigning space have a difficult time balancing employee requests with the realities of their new office space. 

I myself have worked in a totally open office space in which no one had their own private space. This worked fine unless someone had a particularly loud voice and was unaware of how sound carried. I have also worked in a company in which the offices were shaped in a large "L." The constraints of the physical space resulted in little or no interaction between those on either leg of the L. Unless we made an extra effort, we didn't interact much at all. 

Here in the San Francisco Bay area, I have worked with a number of corporate clients who have organized their physcial space in a number of ingenious ways. I haven't yet seen the swirl. 

What if you designed your office space in this manner? Can you see how if would both provide privacy and also enough openness to encourage collaboration? What are your thoughts? How has the physical layout of your office space enhanced or hindered collaboration? How has it impacted your organizational culture? 



Leaders: How effective are your teams?

Posted by Marcia Ruben, PhD, PCC on Tue, Jul 07, 2015



I recently had the good fortune of meeting a very successful businessman who works globally. During the course of our conversation, I mentioned that I work with executive teams and teach graduate courses in team dynamics and leadership. He asked me if I knew the definition of a team.

“Yes,” I replied, and I would like to hear yours. He answered that the U.S. definition of a team is based on the acronym, TEAM. “Together everyone achieves more.”

In his global work, he went on, he and colleagues used to talk about another definition. This definition is a play on the U.S. acronym and uses a German phrase “Toll, ein anderer macht’s.  He translated this as, “Great, someone else does it.” We both laughed as he explained that he and his colleagues have experienced the problem of freeloaders. He quickly went on to say that this definition in no way described work teams in Germany. It was just meant as a play on words.

Challenge of Freeloaders

I certainly know all about the challenge of freeloaders, both from my work with graduate students and years of working with business teams. One of the greatest challenges in our MBA learning teams is students who don’t embrace “together everyone achieves more.” Instead, a small number assume that someone else will do their work and that they will benefit from a good grade. Fortunately, our course has built in mechanisms to ensure that team members understand and leverage each other strengths, develop explicit rules of engagement, and learn productive ways to manage conflict and provide each other with feedback so that everyone is more likely to fully contribute.

All in all, the process works very well and our team of instructors is constantly implementing new ways to ensure responsible and accountable team behavior. Every once in a while, though, we have students who do let others do their work. These freeloading behaviors come in a number of varieties. Some wait until the last minute to start working. This makes teammates nervous so they jump in and do the other person's share. Others turn in such poor quality work to their teammates that it has to be redone. Still others promise to do the work and then consistently don't deliver. We leave it to the teams to work out these very real and tough challenges and most of them do a remarkably good job with the tools that we provide.

Install Processes

I have also worked with a number of corporate team. More often than not, by the time they bring in an outside consultant, team trust is broken. My job is to facilitate a process of restoring trust. I the provide a way for them to clarify roles and develop explicit rules of engagement. This is often enough to get the team rolling. Other times, helping the team leader and team member learn effective ways to manage conflict boosts team performance.

In the corporate world, effective managers provide feedback to  team members who consistently don't perform. When that doesn't work, they remove the team members. Not removing them lowers morale and team members wonder why they are left to pick up the slack for freeloaders.

Origin of the TEAM phrase in German

After the conversation with my freind, I was curious about the origin of the phrase, “toll, ein anderer macht’s.”  It turns out to alos be the name of a book by a German organization and management professor. The book, published in 2012, is not yet available in English. I eagerly await its translation. Meanwhile, what examples do you all have of productive team member behavior and unproductive, freeloading behavior? What are your antidoes?

Topics: teams, team effectiveness, team

Executive Leaders: Tips to achieve goals, greater satisfaction

Posted by Marcia Ruben, PhD, PCC on Fri, Jan 24, 2014

describe the image

We are still within the first month of 2014 and The Chinese New Year arrives on January 31th.  The Water Snake symbolized the last Chinese year and was a year of reflection. In contrast, January 31st ushers in the year of the Wooden Horse. This year is all about action. Before the era of modern transportation (think cars, jets, rocket ships), horses symbolized speedy success in China. They were the fastest means to get from one place to another. Horses also symbolize a desire for freedom, passion, and leadership. If we follow the symbolism implied by the year of the horse, we will all need to mindfully set clear goals for this year. 2014 promises to be a busy year.

 What is the best way to set goals?


 There is some fascinating and seminal research that provides guidance on how to set goals.  Gollwitzer and Oettinger are researchers at NYU. Their research suggests that when we set goals related to our own interests and personal values, learning new skills, and connecting more closely with friends and within our communities, this leads to positive well-being and higher life satisfaction.  On the other hand, when we choose goals such as making money, becoming famous, and acquiring high status, we experience a reduced level of well-being. Why?


Goals such as making more money and becoming famous are not only vague; they don’t give us enough clarity to succeed. They also don’t address the social needs that we have in life such as connection and community.


So, first, we want to think about what really interests us, what skills we need and want to acquire, and our own social needs, and set our goals accordingly. For example, I have two very important goals that I want to achieve this year. I am very interested in neuroscience and its impact on leadership behavior. One goal for this year is to master three to five new coaching skills related to neuroscience research. A second goal is to make time each month to spend time with one of many good friends who I miss, and with whom I have not spent enough time. Setting goals like these two support my interests, values, career, and connection with my community and friends. They are a good start.  I already feel intrinsically motivated to achieve these. Now the next step is setting Implementation Intentions, so I have a road map to pursue my goals and strategies to deal with obstacles when they arise. What goals are you intrinsically motivated to set this year?


Implementation Intentions


The notion of implementation intentions is one nugget that I have already learned and applied from neuroscience. It turns out that how we set goals is as important as the goal itself. Gollwitzer and colleagues stress that we need to set goals with what they call “implementation” intentions: when, where, and how implementation will start, and what course subsequent goals will take. This may be done by framing what they call “If-then” intentions. “If situation Y is encountered, then I will initiate behavior Z in order to reach goal X!”


When attempting to change habits and behavioral patterns, I develop the “If-then” process as an Implementation Intention.  I have been experimenting with my own goals and also using this notion in my executive coaching practice.  For instance, I can be reactive and anxious when under pressure to complete a tight deadline. I would like to remain calm at all times. That is a noble goal and I have had a difficult time attaining it in all crunch situations.


On the other hand, if I clarify the situation that causes me stress, and set an intention about how I will behave in that situation, I am much more likely to achieve the goal. It turns out that the executive function of our brain is set to a default mode. When under stress, I feel anxiety in the pit of my stomach. So, I have found it effective to set a goal like this. When I realize that I am close to a deadline, and feel the wave of anxiety in my stomach,  and I have not gotten as far as I would like to be, I will pause, take a few breaths, and ask myself, “what is the best way to get this done?” I have found this highly effective and my anxiety has diminished. What implementation examples can you set for yourself.


More Examples of Implementation Intentions


For my goal of seeing one friend a month, the first thing I will do on the first of each month is to contact one of my friends and set a date to meet. If it doesn’t work out for that friend, I will contact another. I will set aside one lunch and /or evening a month for these meet ups. The key here is that I have clear tasks assigned to specific situations so I exactly know if, how and when I will acquire the task which will be in support of my goal.


 For my goal of mastering three to five coaching skills related to neuroscience, I will set aside 15 minutes three times a week, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, to read either a chapter in one of the neuroscience and coaching books I have on my shelf and/or articles I have in my electronic files. I will add notes to a coaching practices journal that I keep for myself. What implementation intentions can you set for yourself?

Add Mental Contrasting When Creating New Goals


Here is another piece of wisdom to further ensure successful goal attainment, what Gollwitzer and colleagues call ‘Mental Contrasting’ versus ‘Indulgence’ or ‘dwelling.’

Mental Contrasting occurs when we decide if we really can commit to the task.  We do this by reflecting on  the benefits of attaining the goal (closer connection with friends, even greater success in coaching)  versus the present day constraints that keep us from realizing them (busy schedule, time to take on one more thing).  We need to ask ourselves how realistic it is to regularly accomplish the tasks that we have set out for ourselves in our implementation goals.  Gollwitzer and colleagues recommend that we pause for a moment, and reflect. Doing this exposes our own truths. In my two examples, I would realize my own limitations in committing to set aside one lunch and/or dinner a month to meet a friend, and how I sometimes have early morning meetings and/or calls on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Indulgence would be blindly convincing myself even though realistically I know what usually happens during a typical month (a lot!), and how realistic it is for me to commit to the goals. I could then make some adjustments to ensure my success.

Combine Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions

 A powerful way to ensure behavioral change is combining Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions. First set goals that you are really committed to and that are realistic for you to achieve. Then, design your goals with enough specificity (if-then) so that you will overcome natural resistance and habitual responses.


According to Gollwitzer and Oettinger, we are more likely to reach these goals and achieve greater life satisfaction because we set  goals that align with my interest, and values. Additionally, by taking the extra step to set clear Implementation Intentions that support our process, we are likely to succeed.


What do you want to accomplish this year?


When you integrate mental contrasting strategies with implementation intentions, they support a powerful behavior change intervention. This year, you also have the support of Wooden Horse for action. If you are looking for ways for create new habits that will ensure your success, this is the year.


Pick a gratifying destination, stay on track, and stay safe. My wish for you is your most rewarding year ever!



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Leadership Skills:One on one coaching tips from a professional dancer

Posted by Marcia Ruben, PhD, PCC on Thu, Jan 16, 2014

one on one coachingA colleague of mine, I’ll call him Aaron, is a professional dancer who has worked in a international professional dance company for five years. He and I got to talking about his work and the leadership tangles that have presented themselves. As we spoke, I realized that therewere some lessons to be learned for all leaders. Here is the first excerpt of an interview I conducted over a period of several weeks.


Marcia: Describe what it is like to work in a dance company.

Aaron: Being part of a dance company is similar to being on a team. We work together, get feedback together, practice together, and perform together. Being surrounded by my fellow dancers creates a sense of community and boosts my personal motivation to work hard. I know that my colleagues are beside me, and that I have friends going through the day sharing experiences with me.  This atmosphere creates a great working environment to thrive in.

Marcia: Are there any drawbacks to working together as a whole team?

Aaron: The only drawback is that with only one director in the room working with nine dancers the amount of personal attention or “one-on-one” coaching time is limited. Sometimes we have both directors in the room if our rehearsal director and company director are working with us simultaneously. Even with two directors, this does not greatly increase the amount of personal attention we individually receive.

Marcia:  As a dancer, how much personal feedback do you expect to receive?  

Aaron: As a professional dancer, I am aware of my personal responsibilities when I walk into a rehearsal environment. I know what my strengths and weaknesses are in regards to the repertoire we are working on. I am also aware of the work necessary to improve on the things needing of improvement. Most of the time however, a little extra guidance in the “right” direction can be a huge help.

Marcia: So are you feeling like you don’t get enough feedback?

Aaron: This is not a “cry for attention from a child feeling neglected.” Last week, though, something happened that made me realize how helpful it is to have just a little more attention. Last week, while running through our repertoire piece in the morning, our company director decided to release all of the dancers in the company for the remainder of the workday. I was the only dancer asked to stay behind in order to work with our rehearsal director on a new piece. For the next three hours she and I worked with each other, creating movement material and exploring the range and possibilities of my physical potential.

The experience for me was both exhilarating and challenging at the same time. I found the extra focused attention I was receiving to be motivating. I wanted to push myself especially hard because I was the only one in the room to be seen. I felt that it was important to put the absolute best of myself out in the room. This added intensity of effort also proved to be rapidly exhausting. Because there was no stopping, and since the attention was always on me, I felt my energy burning down much quicker than it normally did in a collective, “full” rehearsal. 

Marcia: What motivated you about this experience?

Aaron: What motivated me the most about this experience was the fact that I felt I was being approached and worked with as an individual, with specific abilities and unique talents. My rehearsal director would ask me to try something that she thought would work well on my body (aesthetically), and then would give me the opportunity to familiarize myself with the movement. She took the time to assess whether the movement looked right for my physique. If something didn’t look right or wasn’t working the way she had hoped, she talked to me and helped me rework that specific movement until we came to a solution that was both aesthetically what she was looking for and physically within my range of movement possibility.

Through this open dialogue of back-and-forth crafting, assessing, reassessing, changing, and progressing, we ultimately ended up with (in my opinion) a very nice chunk of choreography. It was aesthetically the direction she wanted and because it had been worked so well onto my body based on my personal skills and abilities the movement didn’t come across as “forced” or “inorganic.”

Marcia: What was the result of this personal, one-on-one attention?

Aaron: My respect for my rehearsal director was greatly increased after this experience. I genuinely appreciated the time that she gave to me individually. It felt like for a brief moment we had completely creatively synced up. I felt as though I understood a bit more about her working process, and she understood a bit more about how I dance.

Marcia: What advice do you have for leaders who want to get the best performance from their staff?

Aaron: I know that there are not enough hours in the day to do this kind of work with every employee. However, I do feel that it was both important for me as an individual, and for my sense of individuality in the company to have this experience. Spending some one-on-one time with my rehearsal director allowed for a much fuller and all-encompassing dialogue to occur – which I feel both parties mutually benefitted from.

Marcia: So investing some time to focus on key strengths, and providing feedback to hone those strengths is both motivating and results in higher performance?

Aaron: Yes, definitely

Advice to Leaders

Leaders, are you providing your team with focused, personal attention? As an executive leadership coach, I have found that providing your direct reports with individualized attention reaps dividend in team performance. Not everyone needs the same amount of attention. Your job is to figure out who needs what attention and how often.


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Topics: leadership, communication, decision making, listening, assessment, performance feedback, team effectiveness, language, collaboration, empathy

What Executive Leaders Can Learn from Fly Fishing Tangles

Posted by Marcia Ruben, PhD, PCC on Tue, Jan 22, 2013

IMG 1307 resized 600Last summer, we took a road trip from San Francisco, through Zion, Bryce, and on to Telluride, Colorado. While in Telluride, we took a fly fishing lesson from Marty at Telluride Fly Fishers. Marty was a great guide and very patient with this city girl! I had piled on several layers of clothes in anticipation of wide temperature swings in the Rockies.

Marty outfitted us with waders and wader boots. I slathered on gobs of sunscreen, donned heavy duty sunglasses, and a hat for extra protection. I looked like Nanook of the North and collectively we looked like Hans and Frans!IMG 1306 resized 600

Looking the part, I thought I was ready act the part! Besides, I was there in a dual role. As your Tangle Doctor, I recognized the opportunity to observe analogies between fly fishing and leadership tangles! 

Conscious Leaders Create Less Tangles

Marty eased us in to fly fishing by having us first cast from a parking lot next to a stream. Fortunately, I didn't hook any trucks or cars! We soon got the hang of the motion and he took us to the gorgeous river pictured above. I waded in and cast and then reeled the line in again and again. There were a few trees to be wary of and as long as I was conscious of my surroundings, I avoided snagging a tree. In the business world, it takes conscious effort to not get oneself entangled in miscommunication and misunderstandings.

Simple Tangles Happen

Even with expert guidance from our guide, and even after a perfect cast, the lure itself got caught in my line and in a tree. When there were only a few knots, it was pretty easy to find the loose end and separate the lure from the line, untangling the line. I just needed to step back, relax, gently pull on a line here and there, and let the source of the knot emerge.

In real life, it is much the same. When tangles-- unproductive working relationships, snarled lines of communication, and fuzzy lines of authority--show up, leaders, teams and organizations experience eightened emotions, conflict, blame, and "us versus them" thinking and behavior. For these types of tangles, leaders need to step back and figure out where to start, remain patient, try different approaches, and experiment with ways to rebuild trust and collaboration with diverse groups of people.

Sometimes You Have to Cut the Line and Start Over

Back on the river in Telluride, one of my lures got caught in the line and was hopelessly tangled. We tried to untangle the line and could not. There was only one solution. Marty got out his scissors and cut it off. He started over with a new lure and fly. 

In the business world, if the tangles get so bad, and I call these "Strangling Tangles," it is sometimes better to bring in a new team and start over. About five years ago, I did a case study of a company that had been nearly bankrupt, brought in new leadership, and turned the company around. This was only possible because the team that created the knotted mess could not see its way out. A new and bold visionary leader came in, brought in action-oriented leadership, made some tough decisions, and turned things around. 

In fly fishing, I was a beginner and didn't fully get the hang of casting on a river bed, surrounded by big trees. Marty, our guide, was an expert, and he had honed his peripheral vision so that he not only could easily spot fish. He rarely snagged his own line.

But with the right guide, even as a beginner, I was able to avoid all but one strangling tangle. Marty, our guide, was an expert, like the turn-around leader, and he had honed his peripheral vision so he could help me avoid snagging my own line, and show me what to do quickly when it became snagged beyond an easy repair.

If you have snarled lines of communication and unproductive teams, if conflict and misunderstanding gets in the way of productivity; remember to remain conscious and address tangles before they strangle your organization, and also remember, help from a guide may be quite useful. 

By the way, Marty's coaching was expert enough that not only did I learn more about tangles. I was able to catch and release two fish! Less tangles meant more productivity. The same is true in the business world! 


Topics: executive coaching, tangles, strangling tangles, Executive leadership, executive coach

What Effective Executive Leaders Can Learn from Geese--Lesson 1

Posted by Marcia Ruben, PhD, PCC on Sat, Jan 19, 2013

describe the imageYour intrepid Tangle Doctor has been tied up, so to speak, implementing new ways to untangle corporate leadership knots and teaching MBA students how to work well together and be effective leaders. So many tangles, so little time! 

Recently, I came across a metaphor first put forth by Dr. Robert McNeish of Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. McNeish was a science teacher who was fascinated by geese, and why they flew together in a V formation. According to McNeish, when geese fly in formation they can take advantage of the "uplift" from the geese in front. Each time the goose flaps its wings, it helps the goose just behind. The effort of one enhances the effort of all. 

What's the human analogy? In one of my earliest jobs, I worked for a Fortune 500 company that sold health-related consumer products. I was part of a team of ten who worked directly with the national sales force. We put on monthly sales conferences all over the country, for 200-400 people at a time. Each conference was a big production and there was no room for error. Four members of our team handled the behind the scenes logistics, while the rest of us traveled the country, facilitating the meetings and being the "face" of the company. We worked closely together to keep the meetings current, and to continually improve the process. 

Our leader was fantastic at creating a sense of family and team spirit. We were each appreciated for the talents we brought and the success of one of us enhanced the success of all. The jobs were both exhilarating and draining, and our leader encouraged teamwork and camaraderie. Like the geese, we flew in formation, educating and motivating our sales force! 

Enjoy the video below. The visuals are stunning and the music is haunting.

Leaders, a team moving in the same direction is likely to have less tangles, that is, less internal strife and conflict. What are you doing to encourage a common direction and sense of community? 






Topics: Executive leadership, team effectiveness, executive leadership coach, executive team effectiveness

Leaders--Time to Dress Up So You Won't be Dressed Down?

Posted by Marcia Ruben, PhD, PCC on Tue, May 22, 2012

Silk Suits resized 600Recent research suggests that what we wear impacts how we feel and how we perform. As an executive leadership coach who often works with leaders to enchance their executive presence, this is really helpful information. I often coach women leaders to observe how other senior women, who they perceive as competent and powerful, are dressing. Often the differences, i.e., in accessories, shoes, etc. are subtle, yet worth noting. I sometimes advise clients to change and/or upgrade their wardrobe. I have also advised male clients to make sure that their shoes were polished (I learned this from my grandfather who always said you could tell a lot about a man by the appearance of his shoes.) My clothing advice was based on my own experience in the corporate world and observation. Now, with the power of this research, and recent articles, I feel even more confident in strongly arguing that clothes do make the man and woman!

Further, in difficult, tangled, emotionally charged situations, our perceptions of ourselves and others do influence how we behave. In research I conducted, those who felt powerful and competent, yet viewed others as not, took actions that made the situation more tense and more tangled. Those who felt powerless and viewed others as more powerful and less competent also took actions that added more tension and limited productivity.

I don't believe that the problems of the world will be solved by upgrading our wardrobes. I do believe that understanding the symbolic meaning of what we are wearing, and making conscious choices to wear something that makes us feel our best is a very good place to start. And I have worked with leaders who needed to stifle their urge to dress down those junior to them in the organization. In discussions with them, they dressed down some but not all. Perhaps those who wore their power clothing were not targeted. It is certainly food for thought! 

Topics: power, competence, executive leadership coach

Marcia Ruben, RCG

Marcia Ruben Ph.D, PCC, CMC

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