Proprioception

March 06, 2015

Most people think of our interaction with the world through the traditional five senses: vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch. But there are quite a few others to control or sense things like balance and temperature.

The most interesting to me is proprioception. Proprioception is the (usually very subtle) sense of the orientation of your own body in it’s environment and the effort and strengths required to accomplish certain movements. A strong sense of proprioception becomes a great advantage in most sports and, I believe, it’s the mostly unknown quality that imparts grace to the motion of dancers, gymnasts and the like.

Proprioception has two additional very interesting qualities. The first is that it can often physically be extended to additional physical objects. And the second is that it serves as an incredibly useful metaphor for certain key qualities of leadership.

Racecars

For over ten years, I’ve enjoyed competing in SCCA Solo racing. It’s a relatively simple form of amateur motorsport that focuses on car control above everything else.

One of the most fascinating parts of racing cars is that every good driver can relate, predict, and understand the orientation and forces acting on the car as if it’s an extension of their own body. They develop mental models of how the suspension works in a dynamic environment and can apply those models in real-time on their environment - the track.

Me in the DSP car at 2013 Nats

This might sound obvious, but I think it’s staggeringly important. Our brains are able to extend, for lack of a better term, our “field of physical self-awareness” to an additional object, equating it with our own bodies. We can translate our tacit understanding of own muscles and movements into an understanding of the shocks, springs, and physical properties of a car. That’s really wild.

Unsurprisingly, the folks that are used to having to orient their bodies, that have a sports background, whether skiing or gymanstics, get in a car and rapidly develop the control skills to be fast. Their only difficulty is in building the mental model for how a car works versus how their body works.

Leadership

Even more interesting than the physical extension of proprioception to another object is the even more subtle extension into an entire group of people. But this is often what a good leader does.. they “feel” the orientation and changing dynamics of their team. They always seem to know what’s going on, who’s involved, and what impacts it will have in the future.

Being able to do this requires an even higher level of mental gymnastics, because there’s no physical system to anchor your model. Instead, the data input to your model has all the mess and caprice of dealing with lots of humans at once. But if you can do it well, you can guide an organization right through fickle behavior, usually just by providing go/no-go decision points.

People that can do this well often seem staggeringly effective and a little larger than life. They instill trust in their teams through shear effectiveness; often they almost seem to perform augury.

While this is powerful, and, in my opinion, the best kind of leader because of that trust factor, there are a couple of potential downsides.

First, the very trust that resonates so strongly to a team can resonate too strongly. The divination the leader seems to perform can sometimes turn into blind trust by the team and prevent the feedback loop of information that makes the leader so effective.

Second, it’s often far easier for someone in that role to poke 10 or 20 people and get 10 or 20 things done than to do 1 thing deeply and well. This gives them the self-fulfilling impression that they are hyperefficient and can get loads done, when in fact it’s really 10 (or 20 or 100 or 500) people getting things done for them. It’s much easier for the leader to shy away from hunkering down and doing some real work themselves.

The best leaders I know, and I know some really incredible ones, have this gift of proprioception. They always seem to know what’s going, they know what’s going well and what’s going poorly, they know which issues are critical and which can wait, and they know how to motivate and trust their teams to get things done. They instill trust while making sure the team questions decisions and gives more feedback. And finally, they’re not afraid to get their hands dirty and do some serious work themselves.


Greg Olsen
Hi I'm Greg. Occasionally, I do things.ArchiveTumble