Developing Our Inner Life as a Leader

As we grow in mindfulness, we develop our inner life – realising a deeper self-awareness, developing increased understanding of the nature and strength of our personal triggers and building a greater understanding of, and tolerance for, other people’s differences.  This enriched inner life builds our capacity for insight, resilience, creativity and integration of our words and actions with our life purpose – all essential traits of effective leadership.  Ginny Whitelaw, in her book The Zen Leader, describes this reframing and reorientation of a leader as a flip from “Out There” to “In Here”.

We create our world “out there”

Ginny explains that what we consider to be “out there” (external reality) is, in fact, a projection of our inner world.  Drawing on her study of biophysics, martial arts and Zen philosophy, Ginny marshals her arguments to demonstrate that our external world as we perceive and experience it, is mostly of our own making.  Her argument revolves around several key insights:

  • Limited perception – Ginny points out that our human capacity is to perceive external reality in two or three dimensions (the latter achieved mainly by artists and architects).  She maintains that our external world exists in ten dimensions, most of which are outside our awareness.
  • Cultural filters – our national culture, the world we are raised in, creates filters that shape our perceptions, beliefs, words and actions.   Naomi Osaka (Japanese tennis star), for example, explained in an interview for the Brisbane International that she was bemused by the enthusiasm, boisterousness and naturalness of Australian tennis spectators – which she pleasantly experienced as a sharp contrast to the “politeness” of Japanese tennis spectators.
  • Personal triggers – what we experience individually and differentially as negative triggers is shaped by our early life experiences which heighten our sensitivity to different interactions – a sensitivity that can be reflected in a constant need for control, an overwhelming drive to prove that we are “better than”, an obsessive need to please so that we are liked, or the continuous perception of criticism of ourselves by others.  These negative triggers are often the result of distorted perception of our external world – for example, we see criticism where none is intended or where the opposite is intended.
  • Expectations – our expectations reflect our self-image and influence how we experience others’ interactions with us.  Ginny maintains that through our expectations “we’ve pre-tuned our senses to notice only certain things and to place certain interpretations on them”.  Our expectations that reside “in here” create the world we experience as “out there”.

So, what we experience as “out there” is highly subjective and is of our own creation – we are constantly making our own world.  There are inherent deficiencies and dangers for leaders in assuming that what we perceive and experience, is “real” and is the only reality.  Reg Revans, the father of the action learning approach to leadership development, warns us that if we assume that we know what is real we are going to cause trouble for ourselves and others.  Politicians frequently attempt to shape our perceptions of reality by stating unequivocally that “the reality is…” (invariably something of their own making that serves their purpose).

Developing our inner life (as a leader)

In her book on Zen leadership, Ginny offers some penetrating exercises that address our individual distortions of “out there” and enrich our inner life (what is “in here”) thus empowering us to “lead fearlessly” but attuned to others’ reality and own purpose.  These reflective exercises fall into several categories:

  • What World do You Make? – this exercise built around personal skills and traits as well as values that you hold strongly, develops an insight into how you shape your world in a typical week. (p.86)
  • Turning a Difficult Relationship – involves reflecting on an interaction with curiosity and openness to ascertain what you personally brought to the interaction (in terms of perceptions and triggers).  It entails looking into the mirror, discovering the fear at the root of your perception and behaviour and “claiming your power” by naming and facing your fear. (p.97)
  • Sitting Meditation as a Core Practice – Ginny offers a guided meditation based on sitting and grounding that releases tension, develops deep body-mind relaxation and provides the opportunity to gain greater awareness of what is “in here” and “out there” for you. (p.101)

Ginny’s book is rich with insights and personal exercises and reflections to deepen self-awareness, enhance self-regulation and develop ways to empower yourself to take your place fully in the world (not constrained by distorted perceptions, unfounded assumptions and projections or unexposed fears).

Reflection

Our life experience and our personal responses provide a rich store for reflection and insight.  Developing our inner life is not a luxury for a leader – it is an imperative because leaders are able to influence others and to enrich their lives.  The starting point is acknowledging and accepting that the world we experience is something of our own making and that we can remake our world (and help others to do likewise) by growing in mindfulness through meditation (such as the sitting meditation proposed by Ginny), by reflection (such as focusing on what we brough to a difficult interaction) and by open exploration (seeking with curiosity to identify our personal “imprint” of our world).

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Naomi Osaka – Mindfulness in Action

Naomi Osaka won the Women’s Singles Championship at the 2019 Australian Open on Saturday 26th January, beating Petra Kvitová (winner of two Grand Slam titles). In winning the championship, Naomi became the first Japanese tennis player to win the Australian Open and the first Japanese player to become No.1 in the world. In reflecting on her mindful approach to her recent matches and her achievements, I have become very conscious of the level of mindfulness she has attained at such a young age (21 at this tournament). Her advanced level of mindfulness is reflected in her resilience, capacity to handle negative thoughts and emotions and her strong sense of gratitude which enables her to stay grounded.

Resilience – capacity to bounce back in the face of setbacks or adversity

Naomi was serving for the match at 5-3 in the second set, having won the first set. Despite three match points in that game, she was unable to win the second set. Her disappointment was palpable – she left the court after the set with a towel over her head to hide her tears. However, she was able to settle herself in the break before the third set and to to resume the match with a new resolve and focus that enabled her to lift her game and go on to win the match and the Championship.

In overcoming the setback when she served-for-the-match at the end of the second set, Naomi had to deal with two conflicting challenges that beset the best champions in these circumstances – (1) anticipating the result (she so wanted to be No. 1 in the world that she could almost see and feel what it would be like) and (2) her negative thoughts and emotions resulting from missing her opportunity to close out the second set.

Her capacity to bounce back shows her resilience when having to deal with disappointment following a setback. This resilience was also in evidence when she was able to win the US Open five months earlier, despite the bad behaviour of her tennis idol and opponent, Sarina Williams – behaviour which was both unsettling and distracted attention from Naomi’s wonderful achievement.

Overcoming negative thoughts and emotions

Naomi was distressed at not being able to serve out the match at the end of the second set. It would have been easy to continue to entertain the negative thoughts that were going through her head, “I was so close and missed my opportunity”; “Why did I serve so poorly?”; and “I’m not going to win now or be No.1 in the world”.

Naomi took time to get centred again and to control her negative thoughts and emotions. She reminded herself that she had come back from being behind and that she could regain her ascendency (building on a very strong sense of self-efficacy).

It is so easy to entertain negative thoughts and emotions to a point where they disable us. However, Naomi reported that in the third set she put her emotions aside (self-regulation) and focused on playing each point. Even when she made mistakes in the third set, she used one of her anchors to shake free of her negative thoughts and emotions – she could be observed shaking her head from side to side, taking a temporary pause or a few deep breaths.

Naomi revealed in an earlier interview that she is an avid online gamer, a passion she enjoys with her sister. She described gaming not only as an alternative pursuit for up to four hours a day, but also as a way to reframe her tennis matches. She describes this unique anchor as follows:

I just feel like I know [tennis] is sort of my job and, like, if I were to say it, like, in a gaming term, then it’s sort of a mission that I have to complete. Um, so yeah. I just sort of tune everything out and just try my best to complete the mission.

Naomi demonstrated what it takes to be a mindful tennis champion through her demeanour, her self-awareness and self-regulation and her capacity to manage her inner dialogue. Her sense of gratitude is another trait that belies her youthful age and demonstrates her advanced level of mindfulness.

Gratitude – a way to stay grounded

Naomi mentioned in one of her interviews that she had visited Haiti, the homeland of her father. This visit had a significant effect on her, not so much for her treatment as a hero and a publicly acclaimed sports ambassador for Haiti, but more for the profound sense of gratitude she experienced after seeing the abject poverty of the Haitian people.

This strong sense of the deprivation of others in her father’s homeland, made her appreciate how much she herself had – not only her natural talent as a tennis player and the opportunity to develop it, but also having the basic things in her life (a home, loving and supportive family, food to eat and water on tap).

Naomi reported that her sense of gratitude helped to ground her and enable her to stay in-the-moment, to really appreciate everything she had and to be able to absorb losses. She indicated in an interview that her sense of gratitude helped her to deal with the disappointment of losing the second set. She reminded herself that she was playing a final against a champion tennis player in Petra Kvitová and told herself:

I can’t let myself act immature in a way. I should be grateful to be here and that is what I tried to be.

As we grow in mindfulness, through developing self-awareness and self-regulation, we can build the resilience to handle the stresses in our life, manage our negative thoughts and emotions and be truly grateful for what we have in life. Having simple mindfulness anchors can help us to be more in-the-moment and less controlled by our emotions that can sometimes blind and disable us.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.