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Presence in Complexity Series #9: Investing in Embodied Capacity

Complexity requires embodying new ways to lead.

The problem is, our lightning-fast cognition says “good enough” way before our nervous system has embodied a new capability. Physiological change and cognitive processing proceed at very different timescales.

A sound strategy for development requires components for both. We must feed our agile and impatient cognition. And, include somatic practices that build embodied, physiologically supported ways of being. There is no way to shortcut the latter, and the former will not produce the same results.

Ben, the newly promoted Director of Quality Control, was in trouble. Ben cared deeply about the organization. However, as smart and knowledgeable as he was, he was like a bull in a china shop with the operations people over whom he had authority. He alienated them with his brusqueness, and they understandably resisted. Morale and performance were suffering.

Faced with the very real possibility of losing his job, Ben was committed to learning a new way of leading that would allow him to work more effectively with operations. As part of a coaching engagement, and really wanting accelerate his learning, Ben joined a ballroom dancing class with his wife.

Accustomed to making things happen his way, Ben clumsily man-handled his wife around the dance floor, producing quick and painful results! With feedback, willingness, and guidance from the teacher, Ben began to experience in his body what it was like to lead. He practiced sensing his wife, joining with her, and moving gracefully together. This worked much better (and was fun and very good for their marriage!)

Dancing showed him the essence of what it could be to partner with the operations people at work. He brought these experiences back into the workplace and experimented with this new sensibility. Over time, Ben’s experimentation led to real partnering with the folks on the line. Coupling this embodied learning with parallel development strategies, Ben was able to turn his situation around and went on to become quite successful in his role.

Our marvelous nervous system is adept at encoding life’s experiences into long term memory.

Faced with a challenging job, Ben did what he’d always done: Focused on results, being direct. He was well-intentioned, but the results his actions produced were far from what he intended. This is what often happens in complexity.

Like Ben, our marvelous nervous system is adept at encoding life’s experiences into long term memory. We learned well who we should be, and the habits that supported this identity over time. However, complexity challenges our identities in sometimes painful ways.

Complexity asks much of us. We need new ways of sensing, being, and acting. We can’t create a different future from the same body — remember the popular definition of insanity? When we face challenges, we need new capabilities NOW.

The beautiful thing is that we know how to train our nervous system to organize itself around what matters to us.

The good news? The beautiful thing is that we know how to train our nervous system to organize itself around what matters to us. An investment in embodied learning can become a life-long practice in the continual renewal and restructuring of our psycho-biology.

We direct our attention towards what we care about. Then, we cultivate inner conditions that are aligned and congruent. We invite this aligned state to take up residence in our nervous system, knowing that we are actually, literally, changing the neural networks that shape and define us. In so doing, we are intentionally becoming a different person, a different body, for the sake of effectively leading towards the future that we care about.

Our development accelerates a natural process that has its own intelligence. We naturally move towards greater capacity, greater complexity, and an ever-larger circle of care. And, there are many methods that accelerate this natural process. Here are some that are particularly powerful:

  • Somatic practices: Like the ballroom dancing example above, we can find ways to practice in our body the capabilities that we need. Tai chi to practice settling our state, tennis to practice delegation and being in conversation, parachuting to practice trust while jumping into the unknown, conscious breathing to practice settling ourselves in high pressure meetings.
  • Community of practice: Find, or create, a community of people who share your interests and who are committed learners. Build regular structures for engaging with these people and practicing together. Be with people who are on a path of development, who are committed learners, and who have some discipline about learning.
  • Who you hang with: Find some conversation and thought partners with whom to have regular exchanges of ideas and support. Find people who are inspiring, who are intellectually nimble and able to take multiple perspectives, who will be direct and honest with you, who can be compassionate and incisive. Be with people who challenge and energize you; with whom you feel more alive and more yourself. (You can trust this feeling.)
  • Challenges: Say Yes to commitments that you don’t know you can fulfill on. Take on projects that demand you be someone other than who you’ve been so far.
  • Out of the box: Disrupt what you normally do in order expand your perspective. Begin small: take a different route to work, change something about how you structure time, write with your left hand, listen to music when you ordinarily wouldn’t. Then, you can travel outside your home country, look through a telescope, visit a national park, visit with people who live a very different life than you live and see the world through their eyes.

Our development accelerates a natural process that has its own intelligence.

Consider these questions:

  • What complexity challenge do you face?
  • What new capabilities do you need for this challenge?
  • What practices might build your capacity?

Presence in Complexity Series #8: Scaling Awareness

Complexity is unpredictable. Our world responds to good intentions and common sense actions with perverse and unintended consequences. Our noblest efforts fail to accomplish what we believe we should be able to accomplish. This is of course a huge challenge to our sense of self!

And, it’s not personal!

Complexity is actually normal

Complexity is actually normal. Even when cause and effect relationships are invisible. And, even when people with different motivations, and our own competing commitments, derail what we intend.

Guess what? There really are alternatives to working longer, pushing harder, concentrating more, or finding just the right experts to advise us (all of which are brilliant and useful strategies in certain contexts.)

Leadership techniques such as project management tools, performance management systems, outcome-based planning and complicated strategy development also have their place. However, in complexity, traditional tools often fail to produce the desired results, distorting our view and assuming a level of cause and effect correlation that simply isn’t there. And, they ignore feedback loops, polarities, competing commitments and other inherent complexities that derive from the human condition.

in complexity, traditional tools often fail to produce the desired results, distorting our view and assuming a level of cause and effect correlation that simply isn’t there.

Action in a complexity context is less about directing and engineering a process towards our desired outcomes. It is more about establishing an overall direction, discerning the present state of the system and the dynamics as best we can see them, stabilizing our internal condition, and facilitating a collective exploration of this context along with others who can help with the discernment of what we might invite to come forward.

In complexity, a different approach to leading is more likely to provide learning, build resilience, and and to evoke new responses from the system around us.

Leaders can cultivate spaciousness within themselves, focusing on the creation of conditions that make desired futures more likely

Leaders can cultivate spaciousness within themselves, focusing on the creation of conditions that make desired futures more likely.

Probing, taking multiple perspectives, experimenting, questioning and embracing “not knowing” can often both gather really useful information about how the system behaves as well as actually tweak the system in useful ways.

Consider these strategies for acting in your complexity context:

  • Normalize complexity. Have real conversations about how complexity is different. Share experiences and feelings. Engage the people in your system about their experience of unpredictability and uncertainty, and normalize it. It’s astounding what a relief it can be when people begin to understand that nobody actually could know what the solution is! We are right where we should be, and we can engage together to explore and discover what’s next.
  • Center yourself. Having done the inner work to be able to de-couple your own inner state from the stresses of your context, act in ways that support the others in your system in doing the same. A group of healthy, smart, creative people who are able to maintain a pocket of sanity and perspective in the midst of a crazy system can accomplish great things. Leadership is largely about building a culture; culture starts with what we embody and model.
  • Design and conduct safe-to-fail experiments: Conduct small scale, cheap, interesting experiments that are designed to explore how the system works, and that can be amplified if they do something worthwhile, or recovered from quickly if they don’t work. These experiments reveal things about the way the system works. Examples: hold the Monday meeting standing up for a month. Encourage a set of employees to work from home one day a week. Crowd-source logos for a new business, offering a small prize for the winner.
  • Organize around direction, not goals. Specific, measurable goals can drive organizing and planning. They also tend to narrow possibilities to one track towards the future. They become standards against which we measure ourselves in ways that actually reduce creativity and blind us to complexity dynamics. It is helpful to articulate an overall direction (e.g., better responsiveness to customer complaints, increased competency at delegating key tasks, more innovative product pipelines) and then to hold the focus on this overall direction while we experiment and amplify what seems to be working.

    Organize around direction, not goals

The usual ways of leading are often ineffective or even counter productive in complex environments. It actually can be tremendously liberating to be able to name this, to recognize that we’ve been spending too much energy in approaches that actually don’t work, and to play with a more spacious and wise way of leading that recognizes the dynamics of complexity. What if leading could in fact be both easier and more successful?

Consider these questions. Then change something, take some new action, or have a different conversation:

  • How are you seeking to drive or engineer change in ways that, if you’re really honest with yourself, aren’t working so well?
  • With whom could you have a conversation about these ideas?
  • What simple, “safe-to-fail experiment” might you try in your system? Who would play? What might you learn?

 

Presence in Complexity Series #7: Resilience: De-Coupling State from Context

Directing attention instantly and directly modifies our inner condition.

We live in extraordinary times.

It is a new form of agency to begin to discover that we can affect our mood, our sense of ourselves, our outlook on life, and our thoughts simply by directing our attention where we choose.

What do you mean? No drugs, no therapy, no decades of self-improvement reading? Really? Just directing our attention? That sounds too good to be true!

Well, yes and no. Yes, directing attention instantly and directly modifies our inner condition. And, with practice, we can build increasing fluidity at accessing new perspectives and greater resilience through our factory-loaded capabilities.

And, no, it’s not always that simple, and, even when it’s simple, it’s not necessarily easy. Let’s break this down a bit.

The cognitive portions of our nervous system (most frequently represented by the brain) are working constantly to make meaning of the world. We rehash prior experience in order to learn from it. And, we plan for the future by anticipating problems and opportunities and preparing for them.

The nervous system is exquisitely designed to ensure the survival of the organism in order to perpetuate the species. Most often, in our contemporary world, this is more about perpetuating identity and a pervasive sense of self than about physical survival, but in marginalized groups, in war, in poverty, with refugees, physical survival is indeed what is at stake.

The brain engages in identity-preserving “survival” activities relentlessly and automatically.

The brain engages in identity-preserving “survival” activities relentlessly and automatically. Seeing our thinking processes from the balcony perspective reveals an obsessive pre-occupation with re-living the past and preparing for the future. Triggers range from the mundane (a mildly irritating email, or something we suddenly remember we forgot to attend to) to challenges to our identity (a professional public failure, a conflict) to the traumatic and overwhelming (the experience of a car accident, violence, racism or sexism.)

Obviously, these are very different scales of triggering, but the fundamental processes of disruption of what we experience as “normal” are related. Our stress hormones go up, our heartbeat increases, our thoughts become rapid. We are triggered and reacting. Our inner condition has been disrupted by the outer context.

In many leadership contexts this experience of disruption, reactivity and disorganization is pervasive and continuous. We get caught up in the mood, pace, and intensity of what is going on around us. We “take on” the state of the system.

The more responsibility we feel for what is happening around us (and clearly this is the case for most leaders) the easier it becomes to be in a continual state of reaction. Our inner state becomes entangled with our context as we react to events unfolding around us which are not predictable and over which we have little control.

*************

Sound familiar? You, like I, live in a complex world that is continually challenging your identity. You experience this complexity as triggering precisely because you can’t master and control what is happening. And, you have been trained to believe that you should be able to do so.

The good news is that you can begin to cultivate the capacity to de-couple your internal state from the context. The cognitive function of “executive control” can be harnessed to direct your attention to something of our choosing. For example, per a previous post, directing your attention into sensation instantly changes your experience of yourself.

Here, the Subject to Object move of adult development becomes visible and pragmatic. You learn to step outside yourself and take a profoundly liberating balcony view. These four small shifts add up to big resilience:

  1. We can’t lead if we are entangled with the system around us: overwhelmed by, and therefore undifferentiated from, our context.

    Sense, and name, what is happening in your context. This naming makes it visible and knowable. It puts you on the balcony, seeing clearly what is triggering you or what feels overwhelming.

  2. Sense, and name, your own reactions to this context. Bear witness to how your identity is challenged, how you are taking on the stress of the system, how your thoughts are racing and shoulders hunched and attention span decreasing. Take a balcony view of our own experience.
  3. Consciously direct your attention in order to interrupt the automaticity of your own nervous system’s response to triggering. This begins to reveal agency in self-regulating your own state. Your balcony view here is that your state reacts to, but is not determined by, the context.
  4. With practice and sustained witnessing, you may arrive at the transcendent realization described by Viktor Frankl. After years in a Nazi concentration camp, he wrote that “the last of the human freedoms is to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances.” This is the essence of resilience: the de-linking of our internal state from the context around us. This is liberation.

I don’t claim that this is necessarily easy. The four shifts described above may take years of practice. Old and deep wounds heal slowly and may always remain triggerable.

Yet, this de-coupling of state from context is crucial for leaders. We can’t lead if we are entangled with the system around us: overwhelmed by, and therefore undifferentiated from, our context. Our internal state has become part of a self-reinforcing feedback loop. The actions that arise from this state are likely to perpetuate or exacerbate the prevailing dynamic.

We must embody optimism and creativity and boldness and kindness even when the system around us is overwhelmed and reactive and chaotic and mean-spirited.

Leaders must learn to de-couple their state from the context. We must embody optimism and creativity and boldness and kindness even when the system around us is overwhelmed and reactive and chaotic and mean-spirited. This resilience is key to leading in a way that is transformative.

Begin by cultivating your executive control of attention. Well-grounded research  demonstrates that as little as 8 minutes a day of consistent meditative attention practice produces long term increases in well-being, the capacity to take new perspectives, and to sustain equanimity in the midst of disruptions. That’s a pretty big ROI for learning to de-couple your state from your context!

Of course, Frankl was a remarkable guy. It’s patently unrealistic to expect to attain his liberating realization after a few 8 minute meditation sessions. We performance driven perfectionists naively think we should be able to make anything happen, and happen on our timeframe. This belief is a toxic recipe for suffering when operating in complexity: things really don’t work that way at all.

Relaxing, being present, and engaging in our worlds in new ways is both liberating and calls for more patience than our driven world easily supports. Baker Roshi said, “Enlightenment is an accident; practice makes us accident prone.”

Start now.

  • How does your inner state reflect the outer conditions in which you lead?
  • How are you taking on the conditions of your context?
  • What exceptions have you noticed? What is an experience of your state being very different from what was going on around you?
  • How might you experiment with de-coupling your state from your context?

Presence in Complexity Series #6: Leadership Presence in Complexity

Leadership presence is the means by which our internal feeling states are shared into our relationships.

Leadership presence is the means by which our internal feeling states are shared into our relationships.

Consider this thought experiment. You are walking down the sidewalk alone, at night. Someone is coming the other way on the same sidewalk, a hundred yards away. There’s nobody else around. How does this feel?

Well, how it feels depends on a lot of things. If you are a woman, and the other person is a man, it’s likely to be different than if it’s the other way around. We sense the race, gender, age, manner of walking of the other person. Our nervous systems, unbidden, manufacture stories about the other person and the situation that may be wildly inaccurate but which we believe to be factual. As our two bodies sense each other from a distance, we each assess the relative power and risk in the situation. By the time we are within 50 feet of each other, both of us know who is going to step off the curb and defer to the other. No language is needed. This is an example of a relational field.

Another example. We sit through a keynote with a compelling speaker. The speaker looks around the room, sensing the audience. She takes her time, changing her voice and cadence, injecting humor to shift the feeling in the room, using both animated movement and stillness in her body to produce affect and dynamism in the audience. We are spellbound, riveted. We feel our own energy and aliveness, knowing that the moment is special, and that the whole room feels it.

We could analyze what she is doing in terms of presentation skills and non-verbal communication techniques, which is part of the truth. However, it is more precise to say that she is attuned to the audience, that the audience senses this connectedness with her, and that collectively, we are experiencing a relational field within which something remarkable is happening.

Consider that our relationships are, in large part, interactions between biological systems. To pretend that communication is simply a matter of speaking the right words ignores millions of years

Our relationships are, in large part, interactions between biological systems.

of biology and a lifetime of accumulated experience. Relational fields are the invisible, yet palpable fields of energy that connect us when we are present with someone.

Skillful leadership has this kind of attunement. Presence can unite. Presence can build relatedness and connection.

Rather than the traditional heroic model of leaders acting on the world, and shaping it according to our intentions, we begin to experience leadership as a deeper process of acting with the world.

Why should leaders in complexity be concerned with this? In short, our internal condition is a significant factor in the dynamics of complexity. Our nervous system is a component of the feedback loops that build or undermine a system’s resilience. Anxious, driven, and over-focused leaders reinforce teams and organizations that are themselves anxious, driven, and over-focused. Settled, open, creative, and optimistic leaders foster the same traits in the human systems around them.

In complexity, much is unpredictable. However, when we learn to de-link our internal state from this unpredictable context, we begin to embody states that are congruent with what we care about.

We can reduce the pervasive anxiety and stress within ourselves, and through our presence, in the system around us.

Because of the relational field, our internal state is transmittable and palpable to others. (The examples in this post illustrate this principle.) Through presence, our state of creativity, optimism, settledness, and resourcefulness becomes available to others. Our nervous system becomes a resource for others. We often can’t know solutions to the complex, intractable problems we are facing. Yet, we can reduce the pervasive anxiety and stress within ourselves, and through our presence, in the system around us.

A striking example was shared with me by Charles Casto, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s senior executive in Japan during the Fukushima disaster. According to Casto, the remarkable leadership of Naohiro Masuda was a significant factor in avoiding catastrophe.

Masuda was the superintendent at Fukushima Daichi’s sister nuclear plant 10 miles up the coast. The sister plant, Fukushima Daini, faced similar conditions after being overwhelmed by the 2011 tsunami.

Barking orders and jumping into crisis problem-solving would likely not have worked in the immediate aftermath. Faced with rapidly changing and terrifying realities (magnitude 7 aftershocks, power out, sharks in the parking lot, uncertain fates of loved ones, potential nuclear meltdown, etc.) Masuda was calm and measured. He provided updates on aftershocks, and simply waited until the immediate chaos had settled down, allowing staff members’ own sense-making processes to catch up to the realities, and then to move fast when needed. What might have seemed to some a slow reaction to a crisis situation actually became crucial to moving fast and efficiently when it was time to do so.

Our inner state becomes an attractor in the complex system of our context.

The more resourceful and congruent we become, the more our energy and presence begins to shape the relational field in which we are interacting. Our organizing principle as an individual becomes an organizing principle in the system. Our inner state becomes an attractor in the complex system of our context.

We are living in unprecedented times. The cross-currents of unpredictability are disruptive and, for some, terrifying. The humans with whom you live, work, and share benefit from the stability of your presence.

In fact, your presence is an important part of your response to what is happening around you.

  • Who around you is stressed and anxious and ungrounded?
  • How are you stabilizing yourself, in the face of what’s going on in your world?
  • How might you extend your presence through the relational field around you in order
    to be a resource to others?

 

Presence in Complexity Series #5: Embodying Congruent States

To the extent that the system around us being chaotic or fragmented means that we are chaotic and fragmented internally, we have lost the boundaries that distinguish us from the system.

To the extent that the system around us being chaotic or fragmented means that we are chaotic and fragmented internally, we have lost the boundaries that distinguish us from the system.

Wow, what a world we live in!

It’s a New Year. And, we face a level of risk and uncertainty that I’ve not experienced since the Cuban Missile Crisis. My father is in the hospital, facing difficult decisions about surgery. My plans for the next weeks are completely subject to events. It can feel that there’s not much ground to stand on.

We are all constantly sensing and reacting to what is going on around us. When things are difficult or chaotic, this can be triggering in many ways. Our inner condition is sometimes completely invisible to us. More often, we just believe that our impatience, urgency, fragmented attention and tight shoulders are the inevitable results of our circumstances. We tell ourselves that we’ll take some time off when the project is complete. Or when our new team member gets up to speed. And, we endure.

We miss the fact that our taking on the condition of the system makes us part of the problem. To the extent that the system around us being chaotic or fragmented means that we are chaotic and fragmented internally, we have lost the boundaries that distinguish us from the system. Our nervous system has become inseparable from the organizational culture and the system dynamics around us. We have lost our perspective, and with it, our capacity to be useful.

This, from a client engagement a few years ago:

I worked with a leader a few years ago who had established an audacious business goal with her team. Ruth was a brilliant and charismatic leader, but in spite of her stellar track record in a very specialized role, also harbored inner doubts about her qualifications, and feared that she’d be “found out.” The stakes were high for her whole team.

In an unconscious effort to prove herself and accelerate the initiative, Ruth often dominated her tense and fast-paced team meetings. She interrupted, taking over others’ ideas, creating re-work, and disenfranchising team members in the meantime. This hyper-driven results orientation was adding to the stress in the system, and incurring significant costs in performance, workload, and team members’ ownership of the business goal.

De-linking our inner state from our context gives us the freedom to represent and embody something entirely new within the systems we intend to influence.

De-linking our inner state from our context gives us the freedom to represent and embody something entirely new within the systems we intend to influence.

One of the great discoveries of the human condition is that we all have the capacity to direct and organize our attention in ways of our own choosing. We can de-link our inner condition from our outer circumstances.

De-linking our inner state from our context gives us the freedom to represent and embody something entirely new within the systems we intend to influence. We can become an antidote to reactivity. We can be both a symbol and an instigator of a different way of being.

De-linking provides the freedom to choose an organizing principle, an inner state, that is in fact helpful and supportive of the future we intend to invite. We become internally congruent with a value, a cause, a destination that matters to us. This freedom gives us the possibility of becoming ever more intentional about what we take a stand for.

It is crucial that we embody what matters to us. Embodied leadership is how we turn minute firings of neurons into dams, books, trips to the moon, lasting relationships, financial success, and social justice. A future we care about. A culture of curiosity and experimentation. Relationships that are compassionate and supportive.

As I write this, I am awaiting a call from the hospital in New York where my father is facing a difficult treatment decision. There is no question about where my embodied commitment lies. I have a very busy couple of weeks ahead of me. And, if he chooses to have surgery, I’m going to be with him.

I am fully congruent in this. Sure, there are complexities that will need to be managed, events rescheduled or cancelled, and consequences. But, for me, that’s just details. My priorities are clear. I am going to be with my father.

Embodied leadership is how we turn minute firings of neurons into dams, books, trips to the moon, lasting relationships, financial success, and social justice.

Embodied leadership is how we turn minute firings of neurons into dams, books, trips to the moon, lasting relationships, financial success, and social justice.

Holding the focus of what we care about is not simply a matter of a mental picture, or a set of words that describe what is important to us. It’s a matter of taking these things in so that we experience them as a felt state, as an inner condition, as an organizing principle.

Ruth was prime for coaching. She intuitively knew that she had become part of the problem and recognized that she needed to shift something. Over time, she began to see how she was adding stress to the system. She experimented with replacing the old narrative that it was “all up to her” with a new narrative that her “team had the chops to deliver” on this goal. She began to organize her attention, and actions, around the assumption that her team could solve most of the big strategic and resource deployment issues that they faced. She didn’t have to provide constant motivation.

Embodying this new narrative took time and practice. Ruth increasingly saw her urge to interrupt, and let it pass. As she held back more and more, she also explicitly communicated her confidence in her team’s resourcefulness. She settled her own internal state, which in turn helped team meetings become more relaxed, productive, and creative. She asked questions, sat back in her chair rather than leaning forward, and allowed pauses and silence where previously every moment had been pressured and packed.

She extended calm confidence into the team environment. They in turn stepped into this new space in astonishing new ways.

Here’s the key. The behaviors that become problematic for us as leaders were acquired previously in our lives in conditions that no longer exist. But, because these behaviors worked at the time, they became embodied as tendencies that tend to emerge under pressure and stress now, decades later.

When we practice in this way, we cultivate useful and resilient states that are available to us both now and in the future.

When we practice in this way, we cultivate useful and resilient states that are available to us both now and in the future.

We can harness the same mechanisms of neuroplasticity and embodied learning to develop and integrate new congruent states, organized around commitments, futures and values of our own choosing. When we practice in this way, we cultivate useful and resilient states that are available to us both now and in the future.

  • What habits do you engage in that actually reinforce unhelpful dynamics in your relationships?
  • What resourceful internal state do you wish was available when this happens?
  • What conditions produce this state? And, how might you practice it when those conditions are not present?