Mindbeat is privileged to offer a global network of expert coaches. In the third of a new series of interviews to introduce you to our much-loved coaching personalities, Mike Fletcher discusses neuroscience, books and cycling accidents with Dr Colleen Lightbody, who lives in Johannesburg.
Had I been playing the board game Cluedo (or Clue as it’s known in North America), you’d be forgiven for thinking that I’d requested to meet Dr. Lightbody in the library (with or without the candlestick) for our Zoom interview.
When the South African coach and trainer who specialises in neuroscience and brain-based learning appeared on my screen from Johannesburg, she was surrounded by shelf upon shelf of books.
“It’s a bit of a messy library isn’t it but often they’re the best, don’t you think? It shows the books aren’t just for display and each has been well-read,” she says with a smile.
Dr Colleen Lightbody has conducted over 15,000 hours of online training and coaching against the backdrop of her beloved books. Her interest in neuroscience originally stemmed from Dr David Rock, founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of titles including Your Brain at Work (a copy of which I spied on her bookshelf).
Rock’s work on cognitive science to improve leadership inspired Dr Lightbody to gain a Master’s, a Postgraduate Diploma, plus a PhD in different areas of brain-based learning.
“I’m not a neuroscientist but I am an ardent psychology student with a deep interest in how the brain functions,” she says with pride. “As a result, I’ve developed a coaching ability to incorporate the neuroscience behind any area of professional development in a very accessible and non-academic way.
“So whether it’s self-motivation, conflict resolution, wellness, or whatever the subject may be, I find that providing a context of neuroscientific research gives greater credibility to the importance of developing these so-called ‘soft skills’.”
Dr Lightbody’s TEDx talk on Mastery through Mindfulness is a must-watch and has been viewed almost 50,000 times. It also provides a deeper insight into the Mindbeat coach.
We learn for example that in 2016, during a cycle race, Colleen crashed into the wreckage of another cyclist, sending her over the handlebars and face-first onto the road.
Doctors had to rebuild her wrist and parts of her face using titanium plates. But during her time in the hospital, she fell in love with a man who had remained by her bedside throughout.
“I had to quite literally be stopped in my tracks to open myself up to the opportunity of falling in love and finding joy,” she says of the experience. “It’s why I tell people today of the importance of always being intentionally present in their lives through mindfulness.”
Dr Lightbody’s particular brand of coaching helps people, often in senior leadership positions, who know they’re struggling – whether it’s with anxiety, imposter syndrome, insomnia, self-doubt or something else.
“When you reach the top of your game and you’re constantly having to prove yourself time and again, it’s often not sustainable,” she says. “So I help these individuals be more open, honest and vulnerable enough to admit there’s an underlying process about not feeling okay. When they begin to open up, trust the relationship, and then start to trust the process, it can be mind-blowing because they can finally understand the conditioning and unconscious processing.
“It’s only then that we look at how to rewire their brains through neuroplasticity. It’s not easy but it’s profoundly possible to rewire someone’s negative beliefs and behaviours so that they can move forward in leadership with the ability to trust themselves, before trusting the people around them.
“To change that hard-wired, rigid, inflexible way of thinking, it takes a few key things,” she continues. “Firstly, it takes discomfort. Often people are in burnout or they’ve had a crisis or trauma, or they’ve been overlooked for a promotion. Whatever it is, it has to start with enough discomfort to make them re-evaluate their lives and seek real change.
“Then it takes focus. There are lots of techniques to drive focus and to help people pay attention to new behaviours. Finally, it’s all about repetition, maintaining motivation and making sure there’s a reward for these new behaviours.”
I wonder out loud if more people in business struggle today due to a prolonged hangover from the pandemic when there was so much pressure to be agile, and look after employees, plus the very survival of the business would often be at stake.
Colleen concurs, adding that due to the ongoing uncertainty that remains in the world today, business leaders have had to remain in a hyper-vigilant state, which frequently results in exhaustion.
“From wars to the cost of living squeeze, and from political uncertainty to what is happening in people’s communities, I find that people have stopped focusing on performance and goals. Instead, more and more people are just focused on coping and the day-to-day.
“For brain-based coaching to bring about sustainable change, we must do things differently, and continually. It’s hard and it takes a lot of effort and focus. But a coach is your accountability partner. We take you through the process step by step and gradually, small incremental changes start to occur. I see myself as a resource. I’m the person that can help you to manage your mind or get you to think differently.”
With that, I’m reminded that if we were playing Cluedo and I had just interviewed Dr Lightbody in the library, she would need to be placed with a possible murder weapon (I couldn’t see any lead piping during our video call, or a candlestick for that matter).
Mind control would have to be her weapon of choice. But the fact that she only ever uses the workings of the human brain for good means that she could never be the villain of this story.