In the spring of 2013, Amazon suggested that I read The Mindful Coach by Doug Silsbee. I did–on a 15 hour plane ride to Hong Kong. I was so excited by what I read that the first thing I did upon arriving in my hotel room was to go online and find out if Doug taught in person. He did. And, the program he ran, Presence-Based Coaching, sounded wonderful.
Doug’s work combined many of the things I was already exploring (mindfulness, neuroscience. adult development) with other domains I’d never heard of (somatic work, polarity management, and more ) in a way that was both fresh and familiar. I would be able to deepen areas I wanted to work on and gain new ways of putting it all together.
So began five years of study–in person at a beautiful retreat center near Asheville, North Carolina and through a variety of online courses. Throughout that time, Doug kept building, adding, growing and expanding his understanding of leadership, coaching, our place as humans on this planet. He was generous enough to include us in his journey. And I was fortunate enough to be his student.
The most important distinctions and insights that I’ve gained in recent years came from my work with Doug, and his partner Bebe Hansen. (Bebe has recently taken the reins at Presence-Based Coaching–meaning that the work is in great hands.) Doug introduced me to polarity thinking, which is central to my work as a coach, facilitator and human being on this fragile planet. When, on the last day of one of our retreats, Doug offered up the polarity of humility AND confidence to replace the dichotomy of confidence OR arrogance, I felt a shift and sense of possibility in that moment. Doug is one of those coaches who, with just a few words or an incisive question, delivered with compassion and humility, helps you see what was previously invisible.
Doug’s newest book, Presence-Based Leadership:Complexity Practices for Clarity, Resilience, and Results That Matter, was published in March. The book builds on Doug’s interest and exploration of complexity. The essential idea is that complexity –which is more and more a part of our reality–requires work with our bodies, hearts and minds, together, to be more fully present. Developing our capacity for presence, writes Doug is “possibly the most fundamental life and leadership competency.” Doug describes presence as the “conscious, intentional awareness that connects our deepest heartfelt essence to the furthest reaches of societal contribution.”
Unlike Doug’s previous books, which were written for coaches, this one is written for all leaders–which, in Doug’s definition, is all of us. The book is simultaneously practical and profound. It’s built around a model for cultivating presence, which he calls the nine-panes model, and supported by a myriad of accessible practices. Each pane is a window into a part of how we see and experience reality and, as with all elegantly systemic models, the panes are interdependent. They operate together, as a system. Being aware of them and working on them individually can influence how they operate together.
A few months before the book was published, Doug was diagnosed with a rare cancer. I wanted to believe that he would beat it. Doug was a healthy person–rugged, strong, balanced. Instead, Doug, perhaps sooner than the rest of us, recognized that this was not going to be “beaten”–it was going to be lived. And, he embraced it as the ultimate “complexity challenge.” For eight months now, Doug has been on this journey. He has been generous and courageous enough to share it with his community, including his students. He and his wife have authored a blog that has invited us into this journey. Even as Doug is consciously letting go of his professional identify, he remains a teacher. He embraces that role with wonder and humility. Just a couple of weeks ago, in reflecting on his choice to document his dying process, he wrote:
“I really don’t know how to do this, this dying thing. I’m (drum roll….. yes, the rumors are true!) a first-timer. Any actual knowledge I might profess about dying hasn’t yet been fully earned. So, it’s not expertise that I am offering.
Rather, it’s my lived experience, day by day, as it unfolds. Is it not true, at the end of the day, that our fullest selves and our lived stories are what we have to offer anyway?
Almost certainly, I will only get to die once. Not that I would wish cancer on anybody. More like, if I’m here, I might as well explore the unique perspective on living that is revealed by dying.
Doug’s curiosity, his willing to share his own experiences, his ability to bring humor (and reveal when he’s in deep pain,) has had an extraordinary effect–it’s the first time in my life that death, itself, has seemed just a bit less scary. That is an amazing gift. I know, because I’ve talked to many of his students (and read the beautiful comments on his posts,) that it’s shared by many of us. It is a testament to the truest power of vulnerability. Doug has embraced dying as a space for practice and decided to share what he’s been learning along the way.
If you don’t know Doug, read his books, listen to podcast interviews of with Amiel Handelsman. They were recorded as the book was being published and as he was coming to terms with his new reality. If you do know him, then I’m sure you and I are having many of the same feelings and sensations. It’s wonderful to have a teacher and hard to lose one. I’m grateful that Doug is guiding us in the journey.
Update: Doug passed away on July 30. May his memory be a blessing.