Netflix recently released Knock Down the House, the Sundance award winner which follows the primary campaigns of four women congressional candidates, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Thanks to women like these, the House now includes a record number of women, at 131 of 435 seats; meanwhile, according to the New York Times, more female candidates than ever are running for president.
In my own 13-year tenure as a female executive leader and in working with scores of women leaders across sectors, I’ve noted three strategies that can prepare us to make top-notch decisions when the stakes are high:
1. Clear the Vessel. It’s not just our homes that are cluttered, our beings are cluttered – with information, unresolved emotions, and demands. When we’re cluttered, our strengths and our best intentions get distorted. In the same way a clogged sink no longer allows the flow of water, we can become completely blocked, generating a sense of exhaustion and frustration. There’s a neurobiological component on why clearing the vessel may be even more critical for women. According to Dr. Daniel Amen, who has performed brain scans on more than 25,000 men and women, women show more blood flow in the limbic or emotional areas of the brain and have increased activity in the insular cortex which allows them to connect easily with others but can also generate an over-focus on other people’s opinions. Clearing the vessel keeps us grounded in the face of even biological set points.
It starts with prioritizing our own well-being with activities like meditation, exercise or journaling that help move the clutter out of our systems so that we can manage our stress response, read situations more clearly and respond accordingly.
2. Relentlessly Prioritize Alignment. A good chiropractor can make all the difference, but that’s not the kind of alignment I’m talking about. Roy Disney said, “It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.” Aligning values and actions requires raising our awareness and then making intentional choices. One practice we use at the Stagen Leadership Academy is called Walk the Talk. It involves (1) Identifying your values, (2) Determining where there is a gap between your values and your actions and (3) Recommitting to what you will do to close this gap. One common misalignment that leaders report between talk and walk is ‘my family is most important, but my calendar doesn’t reflect that.’ Or, ‘I value my health, but I am only sleeping 3 hours every night.’ It’s not always easy to discern where your values and your life are misaligned and what steps will lead to improvement. Often, we need to change something about our behavior, but sometimes it’s our values that must be reexamined. One leader I coached had a value for execution at any cost. When she took a look at her Walk the Talk, she realized that her overblown value for execution was disrupting her relationships and promoting mistrust with her colleagues.
To get the long-term results she wanted, she needed to elevate her value for healthy relationships so that it could temper how she accomplished her value for execution, minimizing collateral damage.
As expected, this shift improved her relationships, but what might seem counterintuitive, is that it also improved her capacity for execution because she was now operating from an integrated position of alignment.
3. Lighten Up. Our decision making gets clouded when we take ourselves too seriously. The Buddha once said, “Act always as it the future of the universe depends on what you do, while laughing at yourself for thinking that whatever you do makes a difference.” A woman I coached who was doing life-saving work in a non-profit had driven herself nearly into the hospital bed. She was so committed to her cause that she had confused taking the work seriously with taking everything seriously. Inviting levity back into her life gave her a fresh perspective which, ultimately, enhanced the work she was doing with clients at the job she cared so much about.
Three authors that have explored this “inside-out” leadership work in detail and written about lessons learned are Christine Carter in The Sweet Spot, Sonya Renee Taylor in The Body is Not an Apology, and Tara Mohr in Playing Big.
Women leaders are showing up big time in the House and throughout our country and we are better for it. They are making great decisions and bad decisions and aren’t always extended the same grace as their male peers when they misstep. But male or female, working these three strategies on a consistent basis improves our odds significantly for making solid decisions.
Michelle Kinder is a licensed professional counselor and a nationally recognized leader in social-emotional health and mindful leadership. In partnership with Stagen Leadership Academy, she is the founder of the Social Change Leadership Program for women. Based in Dallas, she is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.