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.

How to Go Beyond Just Coping as a Leader

Ginny Whitelaw published a book on The Zen Leader in which she integrates her experience as a senior manager at NASA, a Zen Master and martial arts expert as well as her doctoral study of biophysics and personal experience of life’s challenges and difficulties, including divorce.  She draws heavily on the mind-body connection to provide a pathway for leaders to “lead fearlessly” and in a way that integrates mind, body and spirit.  Her pathway is presented in the form of 10 “flips” which she describes as inverting old ways of thinking through processes of reframing “your sense of self and the world” [imagine “flipping over” an omelette when cooking breakfast!].  Throughout the book, Ginny provides insights, practices, exercises and “takeaways” to help us embed Zen Leadership into our words and actions as a leader. 

From just coping to transforming self and others

The first of the “flips” Ginny introduces is flipping from “coping to transforming”.  For her, coping is reflected in blaming behaviour (blaming others, the system and anything external to oneself), denial or being blind to the reality of a situation and your part in it.  She notes that this unproductive and energy sapping behaviour often has its origins in adverse childhood experiences.  To reinforce this message, Ginny provides an example of a leader who refused to accept performance feedback in coaching sessions but was subsequently able to link his obstructive stance to a childhood trauma. 

Ginny explains that the real breakthrough came with acceptance – acknowledging that the feedback was true, rather than trying to fend it off or rationalise it.  I had a similar experience with a leader that I was coaching who refused to accept the fact that he was defensive, until the fifth coaching session when he acknowledged his counter-productive behaviour flowing from adverse childhood experiences. He unwittingly reinforced the concept of the mind-body connection when he stated that the insight was like a “blow to his stomach”.  As Ginny points out, acceptance replaces anger with joy, “being stuck” with creativity and debilitation with enthusiastic pursuit of solutions to problems and difficulties that previously appeared insurmountable.

Finding the energy to transform self and others

Much of Ginny’s approach is presented within a framework of energy obstruction and release.  For her, leadership is about achieving resonance, both internally and externally. She provides a simple practice to enable energy release and focus when confronted with a problematic or challenging situation.  The practice entails three steps – relax, enter and add value.  The core process is “enter” which draws heavily on Ginny’s deep recognition of the mind-body connection.  Entering entails fully immersing yourself in the situation, including its impact on your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. She describes this process as “entering the eye of the storm” and encourages this approach because from there the only path for your energy is “out” – towards transformation of self, others and the situation.  

This transformative approach of “relax, enter and add value” is in line with many mindfulness practices that involve relaxation and grounding, noticing and accepting what is personally experienced and changing the way you think, feel and act in line with the resultant insights.  To strengthen the ability to move beyond just coping to transforming, Ginny provides a further in-depth exercise that enables you to move from problem thinking to opportunity perception and creative resolution.  She also offers an online course titled Lead with Purpose to enable you to realise your best self as a leader and add real value to the world.

Reflection

As Ginny points out, much of the issue of just coping comes from our habituated, unproductive behaviours that flow from our early life experiences.  Entering fully into the problem situation, instead of blocking the realisation of our part in it, creates the possibility for transformation of our self, others and the situation.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, mindfulness practices, insight exercises and reflection, we can come to accept our personal blockages to energy release and free up avenues for creative resolution.

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Image by Myriam Zilles 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.

Developing a Balanced Mind

Tara Brach in her meditation podcast on Creating a Balanced Mind, reminds us that a key element of mindfulness is accepting what is, being able to remain calm in the face of the ups and downs of life. She argues that meditation enables us to develop a balanced mind, calmness in the face of the various vicissitudes of life. Tara also offers a specific meditation that focuses on developing that calmness and equanimity.

Accepting the ups and downs of life

We have all experienced aspects of life that are disconcerting or even distressing – whether ill-health, ageing, trauma, pain, disappointment or loss. We would much prefer a life of pleasure rather than pain, one of praise rather than blame or criticism. Mindfulness helps us surf the waves of life and prevent us from drowning in the downsides that we experience as part of being human.

Mindfulness developed through meditation enables us to accept what is – mentally and emotionally acknowledging what is happening to us but maintaining our calmness and balance despite the stresses of life. If we are ageing, for example, there is no point in railing against the progressive loss of our faculties, both physical and mental. We can take constructive steps to redress our situation or slow our decline, but accepting what is requires a balanced mind, a capacity to maintain calmness, rather than agitation, in the face of the downsides of life.

Sometimes it helps to reframe a situation that we are experiencing – being able to look at the bright side. Recently, I was getting upset that I could not play some tennis shots that I used to be able to do. This was during a doubles match involving two young people as opponents. I found it embarrassing that I was not able to hit some simple shots. What had happened was that I had lost strength in my wrist and forearm through injury. I could continue to be upset and get “down in the dumps” or, alternatively, I could accept the situation calmly, take some constructive action, and reframe the experience.

On reflection, after undertaking the balanced mind meditation discussed below, I was able to see that the fact that I was not able to use my full power at tennis, enabled the young people to be successful, practise their shots and learn to develop tennis strategy during a game. The meditation has helped me to do two things – (1) take constructive action to strengthen my arm and wrist through exercises and (2) reframe the situation in a positive way as an opportunity for the young people to explore their own developing capacities. The calmness achieved in meditation can enable us to reframe our situation and more readily accept what is.

Developing a balanced mind meditation

In the meditation podcast mentioned above, Tara provides a specific meditation designed to develop a balanced mind – calmness in the face of the downsides of life. This meditation begins with being grounded through our posture and conscious breathing. The first stage may involve taking a number of deep breaths and breathing out to relieve any tension in your mind and body.

Tara spends considerable time helping you to tap into your breathing and where you feel it in your body. She also suggests listening to the sounds around you, without interpretation or evaluation of the sounds. Tara maintains that mindful breathing or mindful listening can serve as anchor during your meditation. I find, however, that it is easier for me to stay grounded if I focus on my breath rather than sounds, the latter tends to be distracting for me (unless conscious listening is the primary focus of my meditation, as when I am enjoying the sounds of birds in a natural setting).

One thing that I find grounding is the way I position my hands during a meditation. I have my hands resting in a relaxed manner on my thighs but with my fingers on one hand touching those on the other hand. I find that I experience strong sensations through my fingers during meditation, such as tingling, warmth and energy flow. The simple process of bringing my fingers together can increase my grounding during meditation and can be an anchor that I can recall at any time or anywhere during the day to access calmness and a balanced mind.

Tara suggests that if you experience a compelling distraction during the meditation, you can focus on the distraction temporarily, but build the discipline to return to your meditation focus. For example, if you experience pain in your forearm, you can focus on that part of your body and soften your muscles to release the tension, then return to the focus of your meditation. This builds your capacity to focus and to sustain your calmness in the face of setbacks.

Capturing the experience of calmness

Tara suggests that during the meditation discussed above, you can become aware of the calmness and equanimity you experience in the process of the meditation. The meditation itself involves developing calmness through focusing on something other than what upsets you, e.g. focusing on your breathing or sounds around you. As you experience a sense of ease and peace, you can dwell on those feelings to reinforce what a balanced mind is like and what meditation can do to help you achieve this state.

She also offers a further way to reinforce the sense of calmness by having you recapture a pleasant experience where you felt at ease and calm, e.g. enjoying nature, being with friends, executing a successful tennis shot, being still on a beach or staying calm in a crisis.

The meditation can be concluded by thinking of a future, potentially stressful event and exploring acceptance of the event, e.g. a biopsy, and picturing yourself meeting the event and its outcomes with calmness and equanimity.

As we grow in mindfulness through the balanced mind meditation, we can approach the downsides of life and daily stressors with calmness, rather than anger, resentment or frustration. This opens the way for calmness, clarity, reframing and achieving equanimity, despite the upsetting waves of life.

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

Image source: courtesy of bertvthul 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. 

Identifying Our Assumptions through Mindfulness

One of the aspects of self-awareness that is important to master is the assumptions we carry with us that impact our thoughts, perceptions, interpretations, emotions and behaviour.  We can be aware of the negative impact on us of the assumptions of other people but be blind to our own assumptions and their negative impact on others.

Earlier I wrote about the impact for me of my social tennis partners making assumptions about my capacity to play tennis, given my age.  Last week I fell into the same trap through my assumptions about another player.

I was playing social tennis with three other players, one of whom was a woman.  She offered to play with the weaker player and I found this hard to accept initially because I assumed that she would be a weaker player, despite her size.  This proved to be a false assumption as the woman player turned out to be the best player of the four of us.

The woman player had a particular style of hitting her ground strokes which meant that the ball levelled out when it hit the ground, making it very difficult to get a racquet under the ball.  I spent most of the social game reframing my assumptions about the woman player and trying to counter her game.

The moral of the story is that assumptions can blind us to possibilities and reduce our capacity to cope with reality.  Assumptions are like tunnels – they can distort our perception of others and of everyday occurrences.

Incorrect assumptions are often the cause of conflict in relationships because we tend to make assumptions about the motivation of the other person.  They, in turn, make assumptions about our motivation and act on their own erroneous assumptions.  We respond having confirmed in our own mind that our assumption about them were correct (confirmatory bias).  And so a conflict spiral is created built on increasingly entrenched, but inaccurate assumptions.

As we grow in mindfulness we become aware of the assumptions we hold, how they play out in our thoughts and emotions and how they are manifest in our behaviour.  Through mindfulness we can increase our self-awareness in this area, better deal with the challenges of our life, enrich our relationships and develop our creativity.

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

Image source: courtesy of Wokandapix 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.

Our Thoughts Can Affect Our Performance

In the previous post, I discussed how nervousness can affect your mind and body and impact your performance.  I also looked at two strategies – naming your feelings and accessing your success anchor – to gain control over your nervousness.  In this post, I want to focus on how our thoughts can affect our performance.

Our negative thoughts

When we are nervous or anxious about our performance before some public activity, our minds tend to race, and we lose control over our thinking. We can be bombarded with a whole host of negative thoughts – “What if I forget what I was going to say?”, “What will people think of me?”, “How will I ever recover if I embarrass myself in front of my colleagues?”,  “Will I cope if they reject me?”, or “What if I do not meet their expectations?”

These negative thoughts often lead to procrastination.  I have found many times that people fail to start something because of these kinds of negative thoughts.  Sometimes, these disabling thoughts are not at a conscious level – they may just manifest as nervousness or anxiety.  This is where an exercise to name your feelings and the thoughts that create them can be very helpful.

Reframing with positive thoughts

I was recently following up people by phone who had participated in one of my courses – effectively a coaching session.  I was wondering what was causing me to procrastinate.  I have facilitated hundreds of courses and the people I was ringing were participants on my most recent course and yet I was nervous about the phone activity.  I started to follow the suggested step of naming my emotions and identifying the thoughts that gave rise to them.  The thoughts predominantly related to, “Would I live up to their expectations?”, and “Could I actually provide them with some help with their practice or project?”.  Sometimes, our doubts are not rational, but they persist.

Getting in touch with my feelings and negative thoughts enabled me to move on and actually conduct the phone coaching discussions.  What I found was that by controlling my negative thoughts through mindfulness, I was able to change my mindset and view the phone coaching differently.  I came to appreciate the very positive aspects of this exercise and this helped me to reframe the activity as relationship building.  I found that the participants were actually putting into practice in their workplaces the skills we covered in the course and they were having a positive impact on their workplace and the people in their team (intrinsically rewarding feedback!).

I came to the realisation yet again (somewhat blocked by my current anxiety), that my major role was to listen and ask questions for clarification and understanding (mine and theirs).  The experience then was very reaffirming.  Reframing the activity in positive terms, rather than focusing on possible (but not probable) negative outcomes, freed me up to perform better in the coaching interviews.  However, I have a long way to go to be free of “ego” concerns.

Becoming free of ego concerns

When we revisit our concerns or negative thoughts, we often have in advance of some public activity, we begin to realise how much “ego” is involved.  We are concerned about our image – how we will be viewed or assessed, what impact our performance will have on us or our future, what impression we will make or how embarrassed will we be if we “fail”.

These issues constitute ego concerns.  Tom Cronin (The Stillness Project) in his blog post, How to Find the Confidence to Speak in Front of 300 People, suggests that controlling your ego is a key aspect of gaining that confidence.  The less ego plays in determining how you feel about your forthcoming performance, the better you are able to just be present and appreciate the moment. Your presence and sense of calm can be very effective in helping you access your creative abilities and best performance.  He recommends daily meditation as a way to dissolve the ego and gain peaceful presence, no matter what we are doing:

… meditation plays a HUGE role. In the stillness of meditation we connect with that unbounded state of peaceful presence, beyond the limits of the ego. The work is to put aside time to meditate, and then outside of meditation, to observe the difference between that which is ego and that which is not. 

To remove all ego from our thoughts and activities requires a very advanced state of mindfulness.  As Tom indicates, this is a lifetime pursuit, because ego often gets in the road of our performance and our ability to have a positive impact.  However, we cannot wait until we are cleansed of all ego before we perform.

I have successfully addressed 1,800 people at a World Congress in Cartagena, Colombia in South America.  The topic was on action learning and I was doing the opening address as President of the Action Learning and Action Research Association.  My luggage had not arrived by the start of the Congress, so I had to present in my jeans that I wore on the flight over and a colourful Cartegena t-shirt I bought in the street outside the Congress.

I had to let go of any ego concerns about my standard of dress (the other dignitaries were in suits) if I was to actually get up on the stage.  I think this need and the casualness of my dress helped me in my address – it was particularly well received by the Colombians who were present amongst the representatives from 61 countries.  I certainly had ego concerns but the momentousness of the occasion and the potential contribution of the Congress to global cooperation, helped me to get through and manage my nerves.  But you can see I still have ego concerns that are alive and active when I undertake a relatively simple phone coaching activity (as described above) – lots more meditation to do!!

As we grow in mindfulness, we can clear anticipatory, negative thoughts about our performance, identify and control our emotions and progressively remove our ego concerns.

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

Image source: courtesy of xusenru 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.

 

Reframing Assumptions

Our assumptions play a major role in our lives.  They shape our perceptions, influence our emotions and affect our responses to people and events.

On one occasion, I was talking to a colleague who had been using a collaborative approach to undertake local economic development in a regional area.  He was telling me about a community consultation meeting that he had conducted on the Sunday before.  As he spoke, he became progressively more upset, agitated and frustrated.

When I asked him why he was so upset, he told me that the Mayor of the town had turned up to the meeting.  He then proceeded to share his negative perception about his attendance – “Why was the Mayor at the meeting?”, “Why was he getting in the road of our project?”, “What was he hoping to gain by being there?”

When I asked about the Mayor’s behaviour during his participation in the meeting, it turned out that he had participated constructively like everyone else present.  My colleague’s negative assumptions about the Mayor’s motivation and intentions were influencing his perception, his emotions and his response.

I suggested that he could actually think differently about the Mayor’s attendance – he could reframe his assumptions.  I said that I do not know of many Mayors that would spend an entire day on a Sunday, away from their family, to attend a meeting that was entirely optional. I suggested that the Mayor could have attended the meeting because he was genuinely interested in local economic development and community welfare.

After thinking this through, my colleague started to see the Mayor’s attendance as a positive thing – a sign of support rather than an attempt to sabotage his own efforts.  By challenging his assumptions, my colleague could reframe the event and the participation of the Mayor – he saw the person and the situation in a new light.

Our assumptions play out in every sphere of our lives – at work, at home, in the community – and operate at an unconscious level.  As we grow in mindfulness and inner awareness, we are more likely to become aware of our assumptions and the negative impact they can have on our perception, our emotions and our responses to people and events.

Image Source: Courtesy of Pixabay