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Notes from the Nexus

Presence in Complexity Series #6: Leadership Presence in Complexity

6 Comments / in Blog, Series / by Doug Silsbee

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?


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6 replies
  1. Michael Belhumeur
    Michael Belhumeur says:

    Doug, I throughly enjoyed this article for many reasons, so thanks for sharing. I’m reminded of a time when I was walking at night in a college town. No one else was around and a woman and I were walking towards each other about 100 m away on the sidewalk. I had this whole interaction in my head about what she might be experiencing as we walked towards one another. My thought process brought up anxiety within me because I cared about her internal experience and/ or I was tuning into what I believed was her anxiety about the situation (which could have been a complete projection on my part). Within 30 m I decided to cross the street and continued on the other side, thinking that would take the edge off for both of us. On the other side, I immediately felt silly about the whole thing. Do I think she felt better because of my decision to cross the street? What did I think about myself in that moment as a self identified caring and considerate guy? Did I really miss an opportunity to connect with another human being? Did I confuse us both with that move? I dunno, life is funny like that.

  2. Scott
    Scott says:

    Wow, this article is amazing, thank you! Just what I needed to read/hear right now! It is something that I have intuitively felt for some time, but unable to articulate as clearly and eloquently as you just did. Again, thank you! It reminds me of the old stories where a Taoist Master would come to a village in turmoil, simply set up camp in a nearby hut, meditate on and transmute the energy of the village, and then leave when the balance was restored… Inspiring stuff!

  3. Barbara Patton
    Barbara Patton says:

    Hi Doug, Thank you for this lovely piece. It is so easy to be consumed by the external energies, the pull towards exciting dramas that churn our emotions and raise our levels of uncertainty and fear. Your writing reminded me not just of the peace to be found within ourselves, but of our responsibility to nurture it so that we can ease the being of others around us. I had forgotten that bit! I just love seeing your writing in my inbox – I always know I’m going to be the better for having read it! Barbara

  4. Linda Guttman
    Linda Guttman says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post. We sure could use more “acting with the world”. Neuroscience understands this process through mirror neurons. It matters how we show up.


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