Since releasing my book Leading Lightly last summer, I’ve done countless interviews and podcasts. I’ve talked before about how as an introvert, this is way out of my comfort zone because I don’t like being in the spotlight. With the unexpected success of the book, including a Wall Street Journal Best Seller recognition, I’m of course grateful and humbled, but it was also a very stressful six months of media engagements.

One reason for the stress was a few challenging interviews. Some hosts clearly read the book based on the questions they prepared and asked, while others may not have. But one interview stands out to me in a very positive way: my engaging talk with Dr. Vikas Shah of Thought Economics.

Vikas is also a published author. His 2021 book Thought Economics  features interviews with the people shaping our century. Including conversations with Nobel prize winners, business leaders, politicians, artists and Olympians, he has been in the privileged position of questioning the minds that matter on the big issues that concern us all. So, needless to say, it was an honor to be interviewed by Vikas.

With Vikas’ permission, I am reprinting a few excerpts from our interview last fall. You can read the entire interview on his Thought Economics website.

In her new book Leading Lightly, Jody shares her radical model for leadership, a powerful way to transform performance, make better decisions, gain greater self-awareness, and develop the capacity to manage work and life with enduring ease and clarity. Jody argues in her book that stress and difficulty don’t need to be a given, and that learning to lead lightly and mindfully can profoundly change the trajectory of our lives.

In this remarkable interview, I speak to Jody Michael on the concept of mental fitness, and how we can lead differently feel lighter, and achieve more in our professional and personal wellbeing.

Q:  [Vikas Shah] When you’re working with leaders, when you’re observing people in those roles, do you see certain characteristics of mentally fit leaders versus mentally unfit leaders? 

[Jody Michael]:  Yes, for sure. I would say the top three characteristics that a mentally fit leader has is (1) they have high emotional intelligence, which means being mindful, reflective, have tremendous situational awareness – you are a powerful observer of not just yourself, but other people. That means you can read the room because you able to manage your emotions. You can also respond to situations as you don’t react, and you are not defensive, you are not impulsive, and you are not clouded by reactivity and ruminating.

(2) You have an adaptable lens, which means you are flexible – you can shift perspectives as opposed to rigidly holding on to your point of view. You can see things from multiple perspectives, and you don’t get stuck in the stance of I’m right, you’re wrong, needing it to be your way, etc.

The last thing is, you embody radical accountability which basically means when most people think of accountability, they think of it’s doing what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it. That is not my definition. My standard for accountability means you are accountable, not only for your behaviours and your results, you’re also accountable for your moods, for your thoughts.

The emotion itself doesn’t mean you’re mentally fit.  It’s rather we need to look at how often are you in those mood states? How strongly do you feel them? How long do they last? And most importantly, how much are they impairing your performance? It is a matter of frequency and degree.

Unfortunately, by my definition, many leaders are mentally unfit, because they spend most of their day in negative emotional states and they’re usually not consciously aware of it, because they’re externally focused. They are not internally focused. Most leaders operate in chronic stress, they’re focused on what’s wrong, what can go wrong, they feel out of control, they spend quite a bit of time, really, most leaders spend a lot of time in crisis mode. They are often overwhelmed, frustrated, anxious. When those challenging situations arise, they’re apt to get defensive, they take things personally.

Therefore, all of those states compromise their wellbeing, and it also compromises their cognitive capacity to perform optimally. It is essential that very leader aspire to build mental fitness because it is such a critical leadership skill.

Building mental fitness is akin to being an elite athlete. It’s not enough for the athletes just to have great technical skills, they need to be equally mentally prepared also. Otherwise, when they’re going to the free throw line for that make it or break it shot with all the eyes on them, they’re going to miss!

Q:   [Vikas Shah] Could you talk us through that concept of leading lightly? Where did that concept come from for you? And what does it mean in practice to lead lightly?

 [Jody Michael]: If we think about those two words.  Leading, lightly. It’s an oxymoron.  When you’re thinking about leadership, you’re thinking about weight. It’s heavy, it’s stressful. My intention was deliberate to capture people’s attention first of all and confuse them. I also wanted to have them know, look this is possible.

What do I mean when I say this is possible? When you’re leading lightly, you’re Teflon.

No matter what conversations or situations come at you – you’re not reacting negatively, you’re not ruminating, you’re not triggered, you’re not taking things personally, which means you have full cognitive capacity, you’re going to perform optimally, or at least have the opportunity to perform optimally, and therefore be very effective in those stressful moments because you’re not triggering a fight or flight response which always impairs performance.  Lastly, when you’re leading lightly you’re just going to feel better. You’re going to feel lighter, you’re going to have more energy, you’ll feel more in control and most importantly, you’re going to feel less stress.  In the same situations, you don’t have to leave your job or get a new boss, there is no need to lower the amount and volume of work that’s coming your way, because your perception will be different.

Q:  [Vikas Shah] If I was, let’s say, a leadership dinosaur, and I was like, I need to change, where do I start that process?

[Jody Michael]: People experience the coaching differently. We do a full day immersive workshop, my leaders that I trained, within two to four weeks they would feel different. You will already get the impacts and effects.

If you care about performance – the first thing I would want you to do is work on the inside out, I want you to start to become acutely aware of your thoughts, because it’s your thoughts and your moods that are systemically driving 90% of your behavior and results. Why aren’t we playing in that 90% space? It doesn’t make any sense. There is a very good chance that you need to build this skill of self-awareness. Because 95% of people think they have insight, only 10 to 15% actually do.

Here are three practical steps that are both going to quickly lower your stress, and dramatically start to build your self-awareness and mindfulness. And so, the catchy way to remember this is ABC. Step A – you assess your mood, assess your thoughts in the moment you name what you’re experiencing, and what you said to yourself that created that mood state. Step B is breathe – deep diaphragmatic breathing – your belly goes out, like you are blowing up a balloon when you can’t get any more oxygen in, hold it for six seconds, exhale. Repeat that until you feel that physical shift in your body. This is the fastest way to get out of what is called a catabolic state.

You don’t want to cognitively think your way out of it, you want to breathe your way out of it. And then once your body has shifted, you’re ready for step three, C – now you’re going to choose to take full accountability for shifting your mood into a neutral or a positive mood. So, with this choice, you’ve just stopped blaming anyone or anything else externally, you completely own it. You also own the choice to change it.

We call these three steps study yourself with ABC. Those three skills, practice repeatedly day in and day out, you’ll start to do it automatically.

read the ENtire interview on Thought Economics

Want to learn more about my leadership model, Leading Lightly? The book is part leadership, part mental fitness, part health and wellness guide that empowers you to work at your best and operate at your fullest potential.

Purchase Leading lightly