Instinctual Leadership

Mario Sikora
Oct 18, 2019

Each of us has a particular area of instinctual focus that can significantly affect our leadership style. These instinctual biases incline us to pay more attention to some things and to neglect others, often to our detriment. In a very real sense, because it shapes our focus of attention, our bias shapes what we value. This post identifies those instinctual biases and explores how they influence our leadership style–and what we can do to be more effective.

To understand these biases, it helps to imagine watching a documentary about peacocks–yes, peacocks.

The first segment of the documentary focuses on the Preserving domain–how the peacock builds its nest, feeds and grooms itself, how they provide for their young, etc.

The second segment focuses on the Navigating domain–how the peacock orients to the social group, finds its place in the pecking order, adapts to the mores of the flock (actually, the muster).

In the final segment, the documentary focuses on the Transmitting domain–how the peacock displays its feathers and lets out a loud caw to attract the attention of others.

Humans are more complicated than peacocks, of course, but for the most part our areas of instinctual focus are pretty much the same. However, each of us tends to focus on one domain more than others. Understanding how these differences shape our leadership style can alert us to strengths we may not have appreciated and awaken us to blind spots we may have been ignoring.

In us, the instinctual domains look like this:

  • Preserving: Focus on “nesting and nurturing” and on ensuring that fundamental survival needs are met for things like food, water, clothing, shelter, and overall safety from harm.
  • Navigating: Focus on “orienting to the group” and on building alliances, creating trust and reciprocity, and understanding where oneself and others fit into the group.
  • Transmitting: Focus on “attracting and bonding” and on passing genes, beliefs, values, interests, and worldview to others in order to make them carriers of that information.

What we value in life tends to influence our leadership style, and there are distinct patterns of attention that we see in leaders:

  • Preservers are naturally drawn to “the nuts and bolts”: administrative issues; structures, processes and procedures; playing the Devil’s Advocate; finances/budgeting; organization of tools and materials; etc. Their strengths often lie in administration and processing data, predicting problems, and creating processes. They are often sober, dependable, and generally effective in budget and finance issues.
  • Navigators are naturally drawn to “the culture”: group dynamics, interpersonal communication, social cohesion and mores, etc. Their strengths often lie in understanding personal dynamics and organizational culture, building teams, building consensus and shaping group identity, and big-picture, strategic thinking.
  • Transmitters are naturally drawn to “the sizzle”: presentation/promotion of themselves and the company’s products, networking with and charming others, competition, etc. Their strengths often include charisma; building relationships with customers, channel partners, and strategic allies; selling inside and outside the organization; inspiring the workforce.

“Expression” of the Instinctual Domains

Instincts from all three domains are active in each of us to varying degrees, but one domain influences us more than others in the same way that one of the nine strategies shapes our interactions with the world more than the other eight. With the instincts, there is a predictable expression of the instinctual behavior that occurs in us. One domain is primary, meaning that it is our home base—the area in which we feel most comfortable and which influences our behavior the most. We call the secondary domain “adolescent territory” because we are drawn to this domain but often feel inadequate or uncomfortable in it. We tend to have a conflicted, love/hate relationship with this domain and it is home to many of our shadow issues. The tertiary domain is under-active; we have little emotional “juice” for behaviors related to this area and we tend to ignore it to a large extent.

The pattern of expression tends to go as follows:

  • Preserving, Navigating, Transmitting
  • Navigating, Transmitting, Preserving
  • Transmitting, Preserving, Navigating

These patterns of expression mean that there are highly probably weaknesses for each of the three instinctual types–we tend not to be very good at those things we ignore.

  • Preservers often overlook the things Transmitters are good at. They may be too introverted, focused on task at the expense of motivating others, lacking charisma, cautious and risk-avoidant, and detached rather than inspirational.
  • Navigators often overlook the things Preservers are good at. They can neglect administrative details, processes, and procedures; making difficult personnel decisions (e.g. addressing underperformance); and enforcing performance discipline.
  • Transmitters often overlook the things Navigators are good at. They may focus on charisma at expense molding organizational culture, neglect career development of subordinates, and their self-referencing may make it appear that they seem to put own interests before the company and employees.

Once we become aware of these patterns, what can we do about it? Here are a few recommendations:

  • Be sure to capitalize on your strengths, but don’t over do them. Often, we are not aware of how good we are in the areas of our instinctual focus. Pay attention to these areas and find new ways to apply your strengths. At the same time, be sure that you do not habitually fall into the behaviors in your dominant domain as a way to avoid doing more-important but less-appealing activities. Navigators, for example, can fall into gossip or socializing to avoid administrative work.
  • Seek development in your second domain. Because we already pay some attention to this area, it is the low-hanging fruit of professional development. Preserving leaders should stretch to develop the skills found in the navigating domain, Navigating leaders should focus on growth in the transmitting domain, and Transmitters should focus on growth in the Preserving domain.
  • Develop the third domain if necessary, or learn to automate or outsource it. The third domain is the most difficult to develop because it quickly fades from our attention. I usually recommend that we only focus on making significant changes in these areas after a thorough cost/benefit analysis–is the change really necessary and does the effort involved outweigh the effort involved? When creating change here, it helps to automate things as much as possible–set up systems that nudge us toward desired behaviors rather than relying on will-power. Finally, learn to outsource these activities if possible: Preservers can learn to collaborate and leverage people who are good at Transmitting to promote the product or team. Navigators can leverage people with strong Preserving skills to implement processes and structures. Transmitters can rely on key advisors who read the group temperature well and have good Navigating skills.

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