Sustainable Leadership: Leading with the Wise Mind (Part II)

This caught my attention!

This caught my attention!

In 2006, Celeste began her role as a newly appointed executive director of a small health clinic that provides free medical care to low-income community members. Within three years, she and her board were close to fulfilling the organization’s vision: To expand the clinic throughout the region. The organization’s operational budget more than tripled.

Exciting times.  Stressful times. The pressure of growing this primarily volunteer-based organization led her to admit:

I couldn’t handle the stress. I couldn’t sleep and had frequent stomach aches. I was exhausted and felt like I couldn’t go on. And, I was choosing to avoid making decisions. I feel I was called to do this work, but if I can’t handle the stress or make good decisions, this was not ok.

While her knowledge and experience of running a nonprofit grew by leaps –– her knowledge of her self as a leader also began to emerge.

I became aware that any decision I made during this stressful time were made from my false self, very much influenced by my own fears and the stress that was so prevalent in my life at that time.  Consequently, I made a conscious choice to avoid making as many decisions as possible until I had an opportunity to rest and regain a true perspective.  But, an executive director cannot do that for long, sometimes not more than a few days.  Inevitably times came when I had to make decisions.  There was no one else to make the decisions, and not making the decision was in effect making the decision.  Each time that happened, I found that the daily times I spent alone had born unexpected fruit without me knowing it–the decision had been made somewhere deep within me. 

What changed for Celeste? She started her intentional change process.

I found a safe place to learn about myself, share who I am and explore, ultimately getting to know myself. And, I deliberately spent time alone in reflection. Once I learned to deal with who I really am and learned that the answers would come to me when I took time alone, away from the work-based distractions, I discovered that deep inside I had already figured it out. I also started exercising and the change for me was immediate and life giving.

“Unfortunately, most people in leadership and helping positions lose their effectiveness over time because of the cumulative damage from chronic stress.” said Richard Boyatzis, PhD, researcher, author of The Resonant Leader and creator of the intentional change theory.

Celeste’s experience exemplifies the adaptive leadership capacity presented in the first installment of Leading with the Wise Mind. Clearly she was depleted physically and overwhelmed with her rational brain running at high capacity and distractions everywhere.  Lao Tzu wrote: “One can not reflect in streaming water. Only those who know internal peace can give it to others.”

First step: intentional self-awareness

The process of leading at any level is one of courage and the willingness to feel the fire for awhile, to be uncomfortable so that you are willing to look at yourself so that you can become self-aware. It can be emotionally painful. Yet, as Warren Bennis wrote: “Countless gifted people are broken by suffering. But leaders discover themselves in their crucibles. Great leaders have an extraordinary gift for coping with whatever life throws at them and have adaptive capacity….”

In reality, it’s about “getting comfortable with the reality of being uncomfortable,” said Chris Lowney, author of Heroic Leadership. “It’s also about knowing yourself,” he adds.

Executives who fail to develop self-awareness risk falling into an emotionally deadening routine that threatens their true selves. Indeed a reluctance to explore your inner landscape not only weakens your own motivation but can also corrode your ability to inspire others.”


In Celeste’s case, she paid attention to the (self) signals and made a deliberate, intentional decision to sustain herself so she could (manage herself) and lead.  She also found a safe place to focus her attention.

What is a safe place? In the Daring to Lead 2011 study, many executives cited “executive coaching, peer networks, and leadership programs as effective ways… to grapple with the universal challenges of their roles and reflect on their own leadership practices in a safe environment. Engagement with peers—whether formally constituted or informally convened—was frequently mentioned as an effective way to mitigate feelings of isolation and to develop personal leadership skills.”

As leaders, most of us are comfortable with doing, but training your attention and taking time to reflect are important because “strong, stable and perceptive attention affords you calmness and clarity, the foundation upon which emotional intelligence (EQ) is built,” said Chade-Meng Tan in Search Inside Yourself.

Why is EQ important? If we can develop emotional self-awareness and equanimity, key EQ competencies, we will be giving ourselves the tools to step into the “space between stimulus and response – where the freedom to choose our response exists,” as described by Viktor Frankl. This is also where the wise mind lives.

Exercise: Learn how to step into the space where freedom to choose lives with this Five-step process toward self-awareness and intentional change.

Sustainable Leadership, Part 1

Thousand Buddha Mountain, Jinan, China

It felt like someone had their hands around my neck…

Heat was coming up through my chest and neck; the next thing I knew my face felt like it was on fire.

My stomach felt like it had been excavated by a blow torch…

These are sensations shared by people reflecting on unexpected emotional reactions that derailed them, causing them to do or say something they regretted. Even though they could recall the sensations later, each person said they ignored them in the moment.

Think about the last time the demands of a deadline or the impact of bad financial news triggered something inside you. Did you notice your breathing or other bodily sensations? Or did you dive into your reaction?

How you adapt to the stress caused by emotionally-charged events can determine how well you sustain yourself as a leader. Pressures impacting sustainable leadership The word sustainability is everywhere–usually in reference to the environment, energy, and business. Here is a definition for sustainability: pertaining to a system that maintains its own viability by using techniques that allow for continual reuse.

If you think of yourself as a system to sustain, how can you maintain your viability as nonprofit leaders when your consider that a top challenge for many leaders is knowing which fire to put out first according to a report by Bridgespan? The stress of facing constant fires is alone enough to wear a person down.

In the Daring to Lead 2011 study, many executive directors said they felt efficient in leading themselves, but the negative impact caused by the economy was another story. Sixty-five percent (65%) of executives reported significant levels of recession-related anxiety. As one leader shared:

“I don’t know if I’d call it burnout but more panic. The 3:00 a.m. stuff for me is, my gosh, how are we going to find the money? And the feeling that it’s very personal, that it will reflect on my leadership, but also that it will affect people who are doing really amazing work—people who I don’t want to let down. More important than my own ego is that I think what I am really talking about is fear.”

YOU are the resource to sustain!

A self-sustaining organizational system has strong, organizational adaptive capacity, which includes having resources that are sustainable, adaptable and flexible, according to TCC’s sustainability formula for organizational effectiveness. Adaptive capacity is defined as “the ability of a nonprofit organization to monitor, assess, and respond to internal and external changes.”

As you come up against things that drain your energy and endurance, your capacity to adapt can feel evasive.

“In the context of a threat, real or imagined, our emotional state can rapidly shift to fear or anxiety, said Philippe Goldin, with the Search Inside Yourself Institute. “This shift in emotional reactivity occurs in our limbic system, or our emotion brain.” We need to call on our wise mind to help sustain us as leaders. Wise mind is where adaptive capacity for leaders lives. It’s the place where reasonable mind and emotion mind overlap, where we “grasp the whole picture when only parts were understood.

Going back to the executive above, when stress, anxiety and fear take over, our rational mind tries to kick in. We think we need to leave emotions out so that we can make wise decisions.

Right? Not exactly. We need both emotion and logic to make balanced decisions. Yet, wisdom can be hard to find in these moments unless we prepare ourselves to access it. The real challenge is how to develop a theory of being based on finding your wise mind so that you can sustain yourself as a leader.

Everyday empathy – for better relationships as friends, community members, lovers, and leaders

The tale of two gyms

I recently joined a new gym – not because I love the place. Quite the contrary. It’s exactly the type of gym I dislike: noisy and not very private (lots of leering going on). However, they offered the features I wanted. When I went to my current gym to cancel my membership (because they didn’t offer the features I wanted after all and because I was not impressed with the trainer who didn’t listen to what I wanted), I was met with a ho-hum attitude by the fellow taking my resignation. He could have cared a less when I explained why I was leaving AND, though his gym was about to add my desired features, he didn’t try to understand anything about needs. Now this isn’t a mega-gym swimming with members. It’s a tiny gym near my house. Meanwhile at my new gym, the fellow who enrolled me (also my future trainer) was SO understanding. He could sense that I was uncomfortable stepping on the scale so soon after the holidays, and expressed a comforting sense of relating. And, during our negotiations, he went out of his way to listen to what I said I wanted.

The trainer in my new gym is THE reason I joined, not because of what he promised, but because he put himself in my shoes and expressed the ability to feel what I was feeling and empathize. In the short time we interacted, I felt a relationship based on mutual understanding had begun. I’m giving this trainer an A for empathy!

The importance of empathy for leaders (and lovers!)

Empathy, the ability to recognize, understand, and appreciate the way others feel, especially when it’s different from how we feel, is a crucial component in building strong interpersonal relationships. It’s about being tuned in to others in a way that involves listening and curiosity.  Empathy, and its parent emotional intelligence competency, self-awareness, can be developed! Daniel Goleman offers three types of empathy to consider.   I think the gym trainer demonstrated “emotional empathy.” Goleman offers four emotional intelligence domains to grow in as leaders, or the “neuroanatomy of leadership.” Self awareness is at the top and empathy flows from it.

The reason empathy is important for leaders is this: nothing is more devastating to people than not being acknowledged, according to Edgar Schein: On Dialogue Culture and Org Learning.  As leaders, we want, and need to connect with the people whom we lead. As those being led, here’s why acknowledgement is important: our brains our hardwired to connect. We want to “feel felt,” as Daniel Siegel describes it. He offers a way to integrate empathy and compassion through “mindsight.”

When we feel felt by our loved ones, the bonds grow stronger. However, if our loved ones are disconnected…molehills can turn into mountains that implode, like Mt. Baker nearly did a few years ago. I was skiing with my new boyfriend, trying to show off my skiing stuff, which was rusty. I was struggling. Then, a hot-shot skier and female friend of his appeared at the top of a challenging run. My boyfriend turned to me and said, “you go that way – I’m going to ski with Mary.” As I stood on the hill watching them zip away, the feelings of humiliation boiled over into anger. When we met up at the bottom, worlds collided. Empathy was nowhere to be felt.

Today, the boyfriend is my husband. We’ve done a lot of work on our emotional connection – repairing misunderstandings (e.g., I help him identify empathy opportunities.) He’s doing great! In fact, last month on the slopes the EXACT same thing happened! He turned to me and asked, “would you like to take this run with us?” When we got to the bottom I thanked hugged him and said “thanks,” for exercising empathy..

How am I doing with empathy? For me, paying attention to empathy-building opportunities is a daily process that starts with intention and moves to self-awareness and attention. Believe me, I miss many opportunities where I can be empathetic. Awareness of this is the first step. Reflecting on this is the next step toward developing this muscle of attention: being mindful, present in the moment, paying attention to the cues that the person whom I’m engaged with is giving me. Then, asking lots of questions!

Here’s a self-awareness, empathy-building exercise for you: the next time you are in a conversation and you find yourself thinking about something other than what the person is saying (you know, like what you’re going to have for dinner or why your foot hurts,) gently remind yourself that you can only do one thing in the moment, or act “One-mindfully, as Marsha Linehan suggests. Then return your focus to the other person.

Next installment:  Empathy, authenticity, and the leadership connection