A friend of mine described the experience of slipping into a "K-hole" after partying on too much ketamine, a medical anaesthetic that can be snorted as a drug. He felt as if he were in a dissociative state, floating above his body and looking down.
Mosby's Medical Dictionary describes dissociation as "an unconscious defense mechanism by which an idea, thought, emotion, or other mental process is separated from the consciousness and thereby loses emotional significance."
Some of the best company builders I've witnessed have the ability to—naturally and legally—slip into a dissociative state when analyzing their business. I call these founders "dissociative architects" because they have a knack for pulling themselves out of their business and looking down on it objectively, as if it were a great big science fair project.
When things go wrong, the dissociative architect doesn't get emotional; he simply tinkers with his business model.
The other style of company building is what I call a "sleeves-rolled-up leader." These are leaders who react to situations with emotion. When something goes wrong, they triage the problem and seek to smooth things over with the force of their personality.
Imagine a situation where a customer calls to complain about a product they have bought. The dissociative architect has the ability to sit back and analyze the situation without getting emotional. She will use data as her guide as she seeks to understand why that customer is dissatisfied. She will consider other similar customers and measure their relative satisfaction to see if this situation is an outlier or represents a trend.
The sleeves-rolled-up leader will call the customer and find out how they can make it right. He often thinks he can—and he often does—improve things by the sheer force of his personality.
Which Leadership Style Is Best?
All of us have the capacity to lead in both styles but we likely have a dominant style. I think the trick is to be able to toggle between both styles effectively. If you're too much of a dissociative architect, your employees will have trouble getting inspired; some situations require emotion. The battlefield commander who sits back and analyzes the trajectory of the grenade that is about to explode on his troops is less appropriate than the sleeves-rolled-up leader who yells, "Run!"
Likewise, the sleeves-rolled-up leader who thinks everything can be solved with perseverance and sheer emotion may be inspiring to follow for a time but will lose the confidence of his team if he keeps making the same mistakes.
One of the most effective tools sleeves-rolled-up leaders can use to be more dissociative is the post mortem. Like the medical procedure, a business post mortem does not seek to fix the problem but to understand what went wrong—so a permanent repair can be developed.
Here are five steps to an effective post mortem:
- Cast the net wide. Invite anyone who was involved in the project that went wrong.
- Seek understanding, not scapegoats. Explain upfront that the purpose is to understand what went wrong, not assign blame.
- Pick a moderator. As the founder, you probably have an opinion regarding what went wrong, which is why you should assign someone else to moderate the discussion. They can act as a neutral third party.
- Focus on the fix. Once you have figured out all the things that went wrong, document a fix for each discrete failure point in the system.
- Communicate the new procedure. Once the post mortem group has developed a set of new procedures, share the process with your entire team.
Raw emotional leadership may feel natural to most of us, but effective leaders occasionally use techniques like a post mortem to slip into a dissociative state.