Leading from Neutral: Moving Forward in an Unprecedented Time


Susan Guiney, Ed.D.

As we integrate into this new normal, we face a reality that begs creativity, empathy, sensitivity, and innovation.  While managing our own emotions and socially distant environments, we are simultaneously navigating uncharted territory with colleagues, family, friends and our communities. To say we face unprecedented challenges is an understatement. At this unique time, neutral thinking offers each of us, and especially those of us who lead and manage others, safe travels through these murky waters.

As human beings, we often are tangled in the negative aspects of an event or situation that unknowingly influences our actions going forward.  It’s not our fault.  Our brains are wired to ensure that we pay attention to negative circumstances that potentially can harm us. Back in the day, it was critical to remain acutely aware of dangerous, and many times deadly, situations. A tiger or other wild animal might be lurking and ready to pounce on us!  While tigers are not a concern of most of us today, ongoing attention to negative thoughts and emotions remains.  Originally designed as part of our nervous systems’ flight or fight mechanism to protect us, focusing on negative thoughts and emotions actually tarnishes our brain’s ability to think without bias, clouds our judgement, and hampers what can be our own success – all skills which are desperately needed now.

Neutral thinking puts emotions in check and views individual behaviors and events as singular occasions.  A neutral thinker absolutely acknowledges what occurred in the past and relegates the associated negative thoughts and actions to that time.  When we are thinking neutrally, we remain well grounded in the present, in control of our emotions, and by doing so, remain cool, calm, composed and ready to think clearly. With negative emotions such as fear and anger behind us, our nervous systems and brains can function more effectively and the actions that follow can be strategic, targeted and excellently executed.  Athletic mental conditioning coach, Trevor Moawad,  in his book It Takes What it Takes, compares neutral thinking to operating a car.  A car moves forward in drive or backward in reverse and neither the car nor the driver is happy shifting directly from one gear to another in one swift movement.  The car and the driver perform with greater precision shifting to neutral first and then choosing to move one way or another.  It’s a much smoother ride and eliminates expensive repair bills!

When welcoming socially distant and mask wearing colleagues back to the office or maintaining great working relationships from home, we can build our team’s cohesiveness, resiliency and trust with these neutral thinking strategies:

Pause, Stay in Control, and Be Flexible – It’s powerful and reassuring to know that we always remain in total control of our own behavior. Staying grounded in the present moment, we have the flexibility to determine how our today and tomorrow will look through our actions. The critical question to ask ourselves is “what do I do?” rather than “how do I feel?” about this situation.

Acknowledge the Past and Stay in the Present –  Over the past several months, our lives have experienced a range of emotional and physical changes.  Some have experienced loss and are grieving. Knowing this, acknowledge the hardships we faced and then, stay focused on today.  Plan for handling financial, child care and mental health concerns that will impact day to day activities.  Avoid negative conversations, complaining, criticizing, and stay focused on words and actions that done today will impact tomorrow positively.

Be Mindful  –  It’s essential to be mindful of the emotions, fears, and stresses that all of us continue to face in light of the ongoing pandemic and social justice concerns that our nation is confronting. A kind word, a smile (even from behind a mask), and a caring gesture always are appreciated.

Growing and leading as neutral thinkers, we can view these unprecedented times as unique opportunities to create a resilient and trusting spirit in our communities and build a stronger tomorrow.

About the Author: Susan Guiney, Ed.D., is a nationally recognized leadership expert and brain trainer for peak performers and organizations.  With over 30 years as a learning expert, speaker, and author, she served as a superintendent of schools and completed her research in knowledge ecosystems at Columbia University. Passionate about being a catalyst for positive change, she was named a Woman of Distinction by the NYS Senate, practices cognitive coaching, and is a certified Rapid Transformational Therapist.