Grayson James of Full Contact Institute On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader…

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Grayson James of Full Contact Institute On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times

Come to a healthier relationship with the turbulence. Turbulence isn’t new or unusual, and it’s not going away any time soon, no matter what you do or don’t do. Wishing things were different or complaining about it only adds to our stress, making us more unhappy.

As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Grayson James.

Grayson James has been helping executives, boards and senior management teams improve their collaborative business performance for over 30 years. In addition to coaching senior executives and teams, he facilitates organizational change initiatives and provides collaborative leadership education internationally through his consulting firm, Grayson James Consultants, LLC + Full Contact Institute. He designed and leads the highly acclaimed Full Contact Collaboration workshops worldwide, and is the author of Full Contact Performance: The Internal Art of Organizational Collaboration.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

In my mid-twenties, I began pursuing two seemingly unrelated paths, with no idea that they would soon become inseparably intertwined. The first path began when I assumed leadership of a private secondary school system with campuses located around the San Francisco Bay Area. The second, shortly thereafter, was my introduction to the martial art of Aikido.

I was a relatively inexperienced leader at the time, so running the schools was a challenge on practically every level. The two things I had going for me were: a) I was supremely motivated to learn everything I could — as quickly as I could — about leading an educational organization; and, b) I seemed to appear to others much more confident and composed under pressure than I actually felt inside. Both of these factors helped me to “fake it till I made it,” which actually took a couple of long years filled with long days and 7-day work weeks.

Shortly after joining the school, I discovered Aikido and I found it so compelling that I soon began training every day, driving the 10 minutes from my office to the Aikido dojo (training hall) for evening trainings and starting off my weekend workdays with more training. I found that Aikido was much more than simply a martial art — it offered a unique and inspiring framework through which I could relate to my work, my relationships and my life. There are many books written about it, but briefly, Aikido is a very recent martial art with roots in traditional Japanese martial traditions. Its founder, Morihei Ueshiba, was already considered one of the strongest martial artists in Japan when, in his forties, he had a life-changing epiphany: That the true purpose of martial arts is to bring people together in peace and harmony — rather than to destroy or control others. These days this may sound trite, but when actually practicing the art, many people find that the principles underlying Aikido are directly applicable to dealing with challenges in any area of life.

While at the schools, I’d found myself frequently scratching my head: Why did some of the many leadership meetings I led (with my five or six campus directors plus administrative staff) go really well and feel productive, while others just fell flat, like a waste of our valuable time? Although I had no answers at the time, I was curious enough to learn more that I decided, after six years leading the schools, to leave and learn more about how to collaborate better with other people.

I earned my Shodan (1st degree black belt) in Aikido around the same time that I left the schools to pursue a career in mediation.

Becoming a professional mediator had never been a goal of mine, but it appeared to be an ideal way to learn more about how to solve problems and work through conflict with others. And my Aikido training was perfectly in line with this pursuit, as Aikido is fundamentally concerned with learning how to deal with another person’s whole-hearted strike in such a way that protects both of us — the defender and the person striking.

While training to become a mediator, I also began receiving requests from former school colleagues to help them deal with difficult interactions and team building — which laid the foundation for my future career as a consultant. Since then, I’ve continued to study how we human beings can collaborate effectively, weaving together my martial arts training with many other allied disciplines I’ve had the good fortune to be exposed to.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The school system I ran in my 20s operated half a dozen school campuses and administrative offices. One of our campuses was owned by the school and the others rented. The board and I had decided it was a good time to sell the campus we owned, so I contacted Michael, a well-known commercial realtor in Berkeley, where the campus was located. We had a long initial conversation over the phone before meeting in person the next week to discuss details of listing the property.

At a certain point in the conversation, Michael — a man in his late fifties or so — lowered his voice and asked if he could give me a little feedback. I said sure, expecting some tips on how to prepare the campus for sale, or perhaps even praise for my business acumen for such a young man (I had gotten a lot of that, and it apparently had gone to my head). Instead, he let me know, in a very kind way, that based solely on our previous phone call, he could tell that I was very inexperienced in matters of real estate and negotiation. I tried to maintain my cool as the blood rushed to my face, then asked him how he could tell. “Because you talked too much on our phone call. You shared way too much information, and it let me know that you were a rookie, and uncomfortable.” Ouch! And thank you, Michael!

That embarrassing moment showed me several things:

  • First, that the way we see ourselves is often very different from how others see us. Opportunities to learn how others truly perceive us are a gift — even if they aren’t always comfortable.
  • Secondly, that when we’re nervous or feel pressure, we tend to default to our habitual tendencies (in my case, it was to talk more than necessary in order to avoid the discomfort of appearing inexperienced).
  • Third, that having daily practices which help you feel more grounded, relaxed and centered can be immensely valuable, regardless of your leadership role or position.

Since that lesson many years ago, I’ve had countless opportunities to observe how people respond under pressure, and to give them simple centering practices that have transformed their performance even under very challenging circumstances. It’s not that we become immune to pressure — we can all encounter challenges at any stage of life that throw us off center. But with simple daily practices, we can learn to regain our center much more quickly and gracefully.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There are so many people who have helped me out over the years that it’s difficult to single out just one. However, I’ll mention Rafael Echeverria, PhD, who, in the mid 1990s, introduced me to the discipline of “ontological coaching” and the power of linguistic action. In addition to being an extraordinary thinker and prolific author, Rafael is the consummate coach, bringing an extraordinary level of respect, rigor and clarity to each coaching interaction I’ve experienced and observed.

At the end of the year-long coach training program I took with Rafael and his then business partner, Rafael invited me to join him as a partner in the new coach training and consulting business he was starting. Being deeply flattered and somewhat in awe of him, I asked Rafael what it was that prompted him to invite me to join him. He hesitated for a moment before answering that I reminded him of the character in Dostoyevsky’s book, The Idiot. Yes — the main character — Prince Myshkin, aka The Idiot. Hearing this, I was a bit tongue tied at first. It had been years since I’d read the book, and my recollection was hazy. Should I feel insulted? Disturbed? Flattered? Mustering the courage to ask why I reminded him of Myshkin, Rafael said something about the character being a very sensitive, decent man whom many considered to be a simpleton, while others saw as a pure, albeit naïve, soul. Backpedaling a little, Rafael suggested that I just read the book again to decide for myself how I might interpret his comments. I still laugh when I recall this episode. I consider myself so fortunate to have been able to work with, learn from and be inspired by Rafael for so many years (regardless of what the Idiot might actually have meant to him).

Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

I didn’t originally set out to become a coach or consultant; it just started happening and I discovered that I enjoyed it and had a knack for it. Similarly, I didn’t originally articulate a vision, purpose or value statement for my business — I just started doing what I found interesting and engaging. And since my time at the schools, that has meant helping people to connect with what really matters to them — which is where their effortless power resides — and giving them new ways to collaborate effectively with others.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

Throughout the 30ish years I’ve been coaching and consulting, I’ve taken a couple of hiatuses to start and lead nonprofits. One of these was called Petaluma Bounty, a nonprofit I started at the request of a regional foundation that was committed to addressing food insecurity in the area.

As I researched the state of our regional food system, it became clear that food insecurity is not an isolated issue. It’s intimately connected to the way we grow, process, transport, distribute and merchandise food, although these connections are not widely understood.

Because the way people understand how their food system works is critical for changing policy and practices (of getting more healthy food to those who need it), our business plan for Petaluma Bounty entailed a multi-pronged approach with five programs: Creating an educational urban farm in the center of town; building community gardens near lower income neighborhoods; launching a food gleaning program (Bounty Hunters) to collect and distribute the huge quantity of healthy food that is grown locally or unsold from markets and restaurants; a mobile food truck that sells fresh organic produce from our own and other locals farms at steep discounts for low-income families; and, Backyard Bounty, which connected local homeowners with vetted landscapers who designed and built edible gardens to replace lawns and foster healthier eating habits (and more surplus food for Bounty Hunters).

The reason for outlining these programs is that the business plan (and subsequent operations) broke one of the sacrosanct rules of business — which is about focus — and not spreading your resources in too many directions. I knew that this was a risk as we developed the plan and then began implementing, but I also decided that if we were serious about truly bridging the divide between food insecurity/hunger relief and the sustainable food movement (generally supported by more affluent folks), then we needed to take the risk and develop programs that could engage the entire community.

Over the course of the 6 years I spent planning, starting and leading the nonprofit (while continuing to coach and consult with existing clients) we were constantly challenged to adequately fund and staff each of these programs. Many of our board conversations were devoted to me fielding board members’ exhortations that we cut several of our programs to simplify our focus and resources.

What kept me and the staff going was the singular understanding and vision we shared about the interrelationships between all of our programs and how this mix allowed us to connect with so many different sets of stakeholders in the community. Putting this understanding into action, we would regularly rotate our staff across the various programs, so everybody had an “on the ground” experience of the importance of each program and how they each intersected.

Throughout this period, the pace of change and the sheer volume of operational challenges we faced never let up. Drawing from my Aikido experience, I found myself constantly encouraging the staff to “enter into” each challenge directly and to welcome and relax into the uncertainty that was our constant backdrop. There were certainly moments of breakdown and overwhelm that we would each experience at times, but continually reminding ourselves that the uncertainty and challenges were normal and to be welcomed provided a helpful context that allowed us to bounce back pretty quickly. During those six first years of operations, Petaluma Bounty captured the community’s imagination and one or more of our programs was almost constantly in the local media.

Shortly before I left the nonprofit, we were awarded a regional sustainable leadership award and were recognized by the California state senate and assembly for our leadership and contributions to the community. Petaluma Bounty is still going today, 18 years after it was founded. Although I’m no longer actively involved in the organization, it’s clear that the holistic mindset is still intact, as is the resilience subsequent leaders have shown as they’ve navigated the many challenges confronting the organization.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

I’ve often considered giving up when facing difficult challenges. I think considering your options (including the option to stop doing what you’re doing) is actually a good thing. Sometimes, “giving up” is the absolute right thing — even the most courageous thing, to do. Although culturally we tend to equate giving up with failure (and failure with weakness). I think that’s a shortsighted perspective.

I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?

There are so many books that have deeply influenced me over the years. One of those is called The Silent Pulse by George Leonard. I took this book with me to a weekend vacation and ended up staying up most of the night reading it. As I put down the book, which beautifully demonstrates the interconnectedness of life and human relationships, I resolved to meet with the author (who apparently lived near my office at the time) to learn more. Leonard declined by initial request to take him to lunch, but invited me to come and watch an Aikido class he was teaching later that week. That class launched me on the Aikido path and also connected me with George Leonard, who became a close mentor and friend for me as I led the schools and then began consulting and coaching, which has always been strongly influenced by the recognition of our deep interconnectedness and how to harness this interconnectedness as leaders within an ever-changing landscape.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

To continually remind people what they are working towards and why that matters for them, for the organization and for the world.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

I’m not a fan of trying to boost morale. That’s not the leader’s job — that’s the job of each adult person in the organization to do for themselves. The best way for a leader to support their people to deal with uncertainty is to acknowledge the uncertainty and risks openly, and authentically remind folks about the compelling future possibilities the team is working towards. Invite the team to join in this conversation, openly examining the risks and upsides of the challenges they face is invaluable, because even if they’re uncertain, people want to engage and can motivate themselves if given the opportunity to do so. And for those who don’t feel that they can tolerate the uncertainty, it’s not a bad thing for them to move on and find other settings that may be better suited to them.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

Immediately, honestly and directly. Provide sufficient time for them to process the new information, reflect on what it might mean for them, and staying engaged with them so they can ask questions, voice concerns, and even freak out, if necessary. I don’t think it’s helpful to try to overly “sell” them on the changes. They’re adults and adults can generally take difficult news if it’s not sugar coated or forced down their throats. Many leaders treat their people like children who are incapable of handling difficult emotions, which is patronizing and weakens true intrinsic commitment.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

First, remember that plans are simply stories we invent about the future. We invent these stories based upon our best thinking at the time. Keeping in mind that plans will almost always need to change and evolve as the future unfolds allows leaders to hold their plans lightly and not be overly attached to them. If leaders are too attached to their plans, they have a hard time letting go of those plans, which makes it difficult to learn and adapt to change.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

By far, the most important principle for leaders is to devote the necessary time and attention to continually learn with your team. Turbulent times are times of rapid and unpredictable change. You need to be fully present and attentive to what’s going on around the company and within it, and maintain a practice of regularly having learning conversations with the team to share observations, opinions, ideas and concerns. This leads to more nimble decision-making, and stronger execution.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

  • Trying to be more efficient by cutting back on critical conversations and meetings.
  • Letting impatience and anxiety lead the agenda, rather than taking the time to stay grounded, centered and self-reflective — which is required for our best thinking.
  • Falling back on what you’ve done in the past, instead of recognizing that the present is probably not the same as the past, and it requires entering into new and uncomfortable territory.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Come to a healthier relationship with the turbulence. Turbulence isn’t new or unusual, and it’s not going away any time soon, no matter what you do or don’t do. Wishing things were different or complaining about it only adds to our stress, making us more unhappy.

There’s no cure for turbulent times. But you can change your relationship to the turbulence. And this can transform your leadership performance and your well-being.

You start by recognizing that, no matter how turbulent and chaotic things may seem, you’re never going to have all the answers. You’ll never see the full picture. Nobody can.

There will always be far more than you can possibly know, understand or predict. Can you acknowledge the chaotic and unpredictable nature of the turbulence, so that you can actually relax into it, rather than constantly fight it or try to avoid it? Can you settle into the uncertainty as a natural and predictable feature of the turbulence? This could take some practice, but the more you can accept it, the clearer your thinking will be and lighter you’ll feel.

2. Be humble. This is related to the first point. Being humble is the opposite of being arrogant. Arrogance would have you tell yourself (and perhaps others) that as a leader, you should have all the answers, know what to do and how to be, and generally be able to surf all these turbulent waves standing up.

But this assumption not only adds to the stress (because it’s plain impossible), it also leads to poor performance. When leaders assume that they can or should have all the answers, they’re much less likely to be open and curious about what’s actually happening around them. This makes them poor learners and hinders their ability to notice and adapt to circumstances as they are. Instead, they tend to repeat what they’ve done before, because it’s what they know. And when the leader behaves like this, it has a dampening effect on the curiosity and learning of their colleagues. Aside from putting the team and organization at risk, this also makes leaders a pain in the ass to be around. Sometimes it’s best to ride some waves lying down.

3. Treat your nervous system as if it were at least as important as your work. Because it is. In fact, your autonomic nervous system determines how effective or ineffective you are in your work, as well as how you feel about yourself. When the part of your nervous system responsible for energizing and preparing you for action is stuck in the “on” position (which happens when you don’t give yourself time to decompress and unwind from the daily stresses we all experience), it affects everything from your sleep patterns, focus, energy level, emotional resilience, and mental clarity, among many other things.

Just taking a few minutes throughout the day to check in with yourself or do simple breathing exercises can help your nervous system to reset itself. And if you’re up for it, taking on a daily meditation practice — even for just 10 or 15 minutes a day — can be transformational for your nervous system and your performance.

4. Keep people (including yourself) in the loop. When things are moving quickly and unpredictably, it’s easy for people to stop communicating. You’re all super busy and taking the time to keep your colleagues current with what’s going on in your world seems like just one more thing you don’t have time for. But that’s what everyone else is thinking too. Which leads to everyone running around trying to juggle all the balls, while feeling less and less informed and more and more isolated in their own worlds. This feeling of being in the dark and isolated only adds to the stress.

Although it will feel counterintuitive at first, taking the time to keep others plugged in and informed turns out to be an anti-stressor — it actually reduces the anxiety and discomfort you’re all feeling, while improving your organization’s performance. It allows you and your colleagues to continually learn together, make quicker and more informed decisions, and to course-correct when needed, all while staying aligned with one another.

Even if you are diligent in keeping your colleagues in the loop, they might not have read this article, and may not think to keep you in the loop as well. So, you take the initiative by making requests to those people who should be keeping you in the loop, but might not realize how important it is.

5. Have a daily mind-body practice. Whether it’s yoga, running, tai chi, working out at the gym, martial arts or whatever — having a daily practice that gets you into your body and out of your head, is an essential leadership practice. And do it regularly. In fact, on those days when the turbulence is particularly strong and when you feel you have the least time for it — that’s when doing your practice is most valuable. It’s a very concrete way to re-assert that healthier relationship with the turbulence, while also supporting a more balanced and healthy nervous system.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Walking on water wasn’t built in a day.” (Jack Kerouac)

This quirky quote reminds me that doing anything well takes time. In our age of instant gratification and immediate stardom, remembering that mastery is a long-term and ongoing journey helps me to relax, smile, and take the next step on the path.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Follow on Linkedin,, and the book, Full Contact Performance: The Internal Art of Organizational Collaboration.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Grayson James of Full Contact Institute On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.