Practicing Leadership

Practicing Leadership

“Awareness creates choice, practice creates capacity.” Amanda Blake

“We are what we repeatedly do.” Aristotle

About thirteen years ago I began to practice yoga seriously. A few years later, I added a regular morning meditation to my practice and began to attend meditation retreats. Both practices are now part of my daily routine. When I first began practicing yoga, I noticed that I was showing up differently at work—and that my team was behaving differently. There was a remarkable decrease in reactivity as I learned to be more present. My first response was to evangelize. I had a similar impulse when I began to meditate—if this did so much for me and my capacity to be present and engaged, why wouldn’t everyone want to meditate?

While both practices have been essential to my capacity to be present, which I view as a core leadership competency, I began to temper my evangelism as I noticed two things:

  • Not everyone is ready or able to adopt this kind of practice. Many of my clients are already struggling to make enough time for the things that matter—family, work, friends, exercise. Just thinking about how to find the time for one more thing is exhausting.
  • A regular practice can feel insufficient. For example, even though I meditate every morning, by mid-day I still can often feel unsettled, tense or anxious.

A little over five years ago I began to study Presence-Based Coaching with Doug Silsbee. At our first gathering Doug introduced a centering practice (I write more about it here) and gave us homework to do between the first two gatherings. The instruction was to center multiple (fifteen or more!) times a day. In order to do that, the three-minute practice we learned together had to be truncated, which is exactly what Doug encouraged us to do. I was able to center in ten to fifteen seconds, with four intentional breaths. Then, the challenging part—figuring out a way to remember to practice. I created cues that would remind me to center:

  • A bell that would ring at random intervals during the day
  • Transitions in my day such as when I took a break or before a meeting
  • Sensing mild stress or frustration

Getting into the habit of centering as a response to stress became a hugely helpful habit—helping me to find presence in the moments when it felt most elusive. What I didn’t realize at the time was that, just as important as the specific practice, I was learning a new way of thinking about practice—and discovering the “micropractice.” Today, micropractices, together with self-observations, are the most important element in my coaching toolkit.

More About Micropractices

Micropractices can include both generic practices, such as centering, that are available and useful for anyone. These are typically designed to support one’s general capacity to be present and reduce reactivity. Custom practices are specifically designed to support a goal or commitment that is unique to the person doing the practice and can support almost any behavior change that a person is looking to make.

Both types of micropractices work on the premise that, with enough repetition, these new behaviors will become more available—we eventually embody them in our nervous systems. If we’re diligent it’s not even that hard to amass thousands of practices–which is what it takes to truly change our bodies and brains.

Here are three examples of custom micropractices:

  • I’m working with a client who noticed that her shoulders slump and her overall posture “crumples” whenever she feels any sort of push back from people around her. It makes it hard for her to be receptive to feedback—and hard for others to give feedback—even though she knows (in her head) that feedback is important. Her micropractice is simply to notice her posture multiple times a day and lift up from her seat to her shoulders to her breath. It takes about ten seconds.
  • I describe a micropractice (though I didn’t label it as one at the time) that I designed to help me listen without being caught up in my intent to reply—and without interrupting. I learned to pause after a person speaks and before I start to talk. You can read more about that practice and how I came to it in this post, from a couple years ago.
  • Many years ago, I was listening to a talk by a Buddhist teacher Ken McCleod. He offered up a question that grabbed my attention. I wrote it on a post-it and placed it on my computer monitor: “How can I experience THIS and still be at peace?” My micropractice was to catch myself experiencing minor anxiety and simply ask myself this question. Just by asking it, I would immediately relax, breathe, and remind myself that I could be at peace, regardless of what was happening on the outside. Within a few weeks of discovering this practice, my father unexpectedly died. I found myself returning to this question and using it as a way to ground myself in one of the most challenging moments of my life. At least for a few seconds, I could find center.

Each of these sample practices are designed to help us be at our best—more present and more resilient. They include these elements:

  • Personally Meaningful:: It resonates for you. The same question that was so powerful for me might not be helpful for you at all. Similarly, you may need a different strategy to be a better listener than the one that I found so helpful.
  • Memorable: The practice has to be sticky for you. When I identify a practice that feels right for me, I know it—and I find the same is true for my clients. Sometimes that means working a bit to find the memorable practice and sometimes it becomes clear quickly. (Designing micropractices has become one of the most enjoyable and playful parts of many of my coaching sessions.)
  • Physical: Micropractices are embodied practices. For example, when I asked myself the question “How can I experience this, and still be at peace?” I stopped, noted the question, took a conscious breath and was able to feel myself shift.
  • Available: All of the practices described here, and most practices you’ll design, can be done without anyone else even knowing that you’re “micro-practicing” and are available at any time.
  • Quick: From start to finish, each of these practices requires just a few seconds.

Getting Started

Identifying or designing a micro-practice does note need to be difficult. I recommend starting with a centering practice. In addition to the one I describe in my blog post, here’s a 30-second video that provides an alternate practice from one of my favorite teachers, Wendy Palmer. Even simpler is to pause and take a couple of conscious breaths at various intervals throughout the day. Centering helps you shift form a reactive to a more responsive mode quickly.

Once you’ve chosen a practice, think about how you are going to remind yourself to do it. Use any or all of the methods I describe above—or find your own. What’s important is that you make a plan for remembering.

As you practice, be kind to yourself. You may forget to respond to your planned cues—just notice that and start again. You may find that the practice was not available to you when you could have used it most—that’s going to happen until you’ve practiced enough to match the level of stress or pressure you’re facing. Practicing when when the stakes are lower (e.g., just randomly throughout the day) makes it more available when the stakes are higher (when you are triggered.) Richard Strozzi Heckler,  founder of the Strozzi Institute for Embodied Leadership, writes:

When we’re under pressure, stress, conflict, or some form of transition we will inevitably fall to the level of our training and rarely, if ever, rise to our level of expectation.

When we feel as if we’ve “lost” the practice it simply means that it’s not yet fully embodied. So, celebrate when you do remember rather than berate yourself for forgetting—practice more and it will eventually be more available. The last thing most of us need is a new reason to beat ourselves up.

Finally, create some time for reflection. On a regular basis, check in:  What are you noticing? What’s working? What’s not? Is there anything you need to shift in the way you’re practicing? Treat you micropractice as an on ongoing experiment and adjust it over time as needed.

One thing you’ll want to plan on adjusting is the way you remind yourself. One piece of advice I got from Amanda Blake (author of Your Brain is Your Body)  is to change the reminders. When I use Mindjogger (an iOS app) to randomly remind me to practice, I need to change the message every couple days. If not, I’ll invariably stop paying attention. Our brains do better with novelty.

A Word About Practice

If we want to introduce new leadership behaviors in our life, we can’t count on will and discipline to make them happen; to become more effective leaders it’s necessary to practice. Richard Strozzi Heckler

As someone who used to believe that the answer to a problem was going to be found in a book, recognizing that change requires practice has not been an easy lesson for me to learn. Awareness is critical, but without practice the thing you are hoping to be different will simply not be available when you need it most.

As I did more yoga—and eventually added meditation—I gained significantly greater capacity to remain calm under pressure because my nervous system had an alternative path to follow. The enduring value of both practices–and of the micropractices that I have been experimenting with–is the result of many, many repetitions and a good deal of patience as I learn to accept how much practice is required.

The final quote that I’ll share is also from Strozzi Heckler–it’s helps me to come back, again and again, to these practices and micropractices because it reminds me of the nature of practice and the value of conscious practice in enabling me to show up in the world, and especially as a leader, at my best:

It’s necessary to come to terms with the fact that we are always practicing. In other words, the body is incapable of not practicing. And what we practice we become.

With that, happy practicing (and micropracticing!)

Creating Psychological Safety from the Inside Out

Organizations that seek to stay relevant through continuous learning and agile execution must cultivate a fearless environment that encourages speaking up. In any company that thrives in our complex and uncertain world, leaders must be listening intently, with a deep understanding that people are both the sensors who pick up signals that change is necessary and the source of creative new ideas to test and implement. Amy Edmonson, The Fearless Organization

I finished reading Amy Edmonson’s new book, The Fearless Organization, a few weeks ago. It’s about psychological safety–what it is, why it matters and how to cultivate it. As I read the book I had two alternating thoughts. At times it felt simple–almost too simple. Speaking up matters. A lot. Psychological safety is all about speaking up. On the other hand, it’s complicated–even complex. Speaking up doesn’t come easily for many people and, in organizational settings, it can be exceptionally difficult. Creating the conditions for psychological safety is an intentional act of leadership.

Edmonson first stumbled upon the importance of psychological safety while researching medical errors in hospitals. The initial results showed more errors in the teams that scored as “better.” That’s not what she expected. So she dug deeper and discovered that the better teams were willing to speak up about mistakes and address them. The less effective teams hid errors–there was a lack of psychological safety. It’s important to note that Edmonson is not presenting psychological as a silver bullet– it does not guarantee team or organizational success. Without psychological safety, however, it is much harder to succeed–to produce innovative, powerful results. So, to reiterate the first point above, psychological safety matters a great deal.

Now here’s the thing that really struck me as I read Edmondson’s book. Psychological safety could be strong in one team and weak in another–in the same hospital. Local leaders (in this case, primarily doctors) determined the level of safety. This points to the role of individual team leaders in influencing the level of safety in their teams–making it safer or less safe than the dominant culture.

Let’s go back to the simplicity and the complexity of establishing psychological safety. What is it that individual leaders can and must do to encourage their team members to speak up–to share ideas, speak about their challenges, be willing to say what they aren’t sure others really want to hear? Edmonson’s Leader’s Toolkit (Chapter 7) provides specific suggestions and practices for creating the conditions, inviting participation and responding when people speak up. (An excerpt from this chapter is available in Strategy and Business.) While this toolkit is made up of deceptively simple actions, for these actions to be effective leaders must have the capacity to execute them, and that is anything but simple.

Creating and supporting the conditions necessary for psychological safety requires the capacity to say one does not know and to listen with interest and openness to other views. It requires the ability to appreciate ideas that don’t jive with one’s often strongly-held opinions (and the willingness to hold those opinions lightly.) It requires the capacity to hear the words someone is speaking even when the delivery is poor or the timing less than perfect. It requires that we recognize that our view is one view only and that we could be wrong. It requires that mistakes and failures, even the preventable and careless ones, are discussable. (Edmonson offers up a useful taxonomy of failures.) It requires that we abandon the misbegotten and widely promoted idea that we shouldn’t bring up problems if we don’t have solutions. It requires that we make it easy for people who struggle to speak up to do so–that we solicit input from the quieter people on our teams–that we as leaders practice inquiry as much, if not more, than advocacy. It requires that we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.

These requirements demand that we look at the ways that we respond (or react), day in, day out–and honestly assess our own performance (and ask for feedback from others.) They demand that we start with ourselves and the ways that we are showing up as leaders. They demand that we develop tools to manage our state–to catch ourselves before we react defensively. They demand that we recognize the power that we have to influence the psychological health and safety of the teams we lead–that we recognize the power we have as leaders to positively or negatively influence our teams.

If you are already someone who tolerates uncertainty well, who embraces not knowing, who can listen without defensiveness and who can be vulnerable–it’s likely that your team already experiences a high level of psychological safety. It’s also likely that there’s even more you can do and that, by working on how you self-manage and self-regulate and on your relationship to not knowing and to uncertainty, that you can take that to even higher levels. And, if you read this and recognize that you are not yet there–know that you can develop these capacities. Through practice (and practices) you can develop new habits and behaviors. And if you’re not sure how you’re showing up–one of the ways to begin to increase the level of psychological safety in your team is to get curious–to have candid conversations and solicit feedback.

So take some time as we begin a new year to think about where you are now and what you can do to cultivate your capacity to support your team’s psychological safety.

Related posts:

Overcoming Your Habit Nature: Embrace Your Saboteurs provides suggestions for working with some of our more entrenched habits–including the ones that are limiting our capacity to support psychological safety.

The Age of the Uncertain Leader speaks to the necessity of embracing uncertainty and some practical ways to do just that.

 

 

 

Best of 2018: Books, Podcasts and Blogs

As 2018 comes to a close, I’ve been reflecting on the things I’ve read and learned this year. Here’s my “best of” list. It includes the books, podcasts and blogs that enriched, expanded and challenge my thinking this year. I hope you find one or two things that appeal to you and that you can learn from in 2019.

Learning About Complexity

The most important thing I discovered this year was that complexity is not only something we’re dealing with (increasingly!), it’s also the topic of serious study and a profound body of work. For an orientation to one dimension of that work, here’s a post I wrote this fall that summarizes much of what I’ve learned. Recognizing that we can develop greater personal capacity to work with complexity has allowed me to feel less fearful about the pace of change and the uncertainty that we confront daily. This is a framework that I’ve used one-on-one with coaching clients, brought to teams of leaders to explore together, and talked to family and friends about at the dinner table.

Books to Read and Savor

My teacher, Doug Silsbee, wrote his first book specifically directed to leaders rather than coaches. Presence-Based Leadership holds a special place for me as Doug published it just weeks before he died of a rare cancer. The book is a guide for tackling complexity challenges. Doug embraced his own death as his final complexity challenge and shared his journey with grace, wit and vulnerability. I write about that here in case you are interested in learning more about Doug. And, if you’re a coach or interested in coaching, Doug’s first book, The Mindful Coach is one of, if not the best, book I’ve read about coaching.

Margaret Wheatley, who wrote Leadership and the New Science over 25 years ago–and is also a student of systems theory and, more recently, complexity sciences–this year published Who Do We Choose To Be?: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity. While Wheatley’s assessment of our current reality can at times feel harsh, this is ultimately a powerful and inspiring book suggesting that what we do, day to day, moment to moment, matters deeply.

I highly recommend Amanda Blake’s Your Body is Your Brain. Amanda, a wonderful teacher, shares inspiring stories and practical guidance for making change that lasts by attending to both body and brain and the linkage between the two. This book is a great read for leaders and coaches (and not quite as heavy as the first two books.) My most recent post provides a small introduction, drawing on both Doug and Amanda’s work, to the power of somatic (body) work.

Podcasts to Walk With

For me, podcasts and walking go together. Podcasts get me walking, walking gets me to listen to podcasts. I’ve traversed many, many miles while listening to these podcasts. You can listen while driving, doing housework or at your desk, of course!

My day is not complete without listening to the New York Times podcast, The Daily. Each day, for 20 minutes or so, I learn about one story in the news, in depth. While it’s often the “obvious” story of the day, just as often, it’s not. It’s a deeper dive into something I was barely aware of or not aware of at all. I’ve stopped listening to all cable news–so this is one of the few ways I “hear” about the world. (There are other, very good, political podcasts, but this is the only one I listen to all the time.)

While the Coaches Rising Podcast is ostensibly for coaches, I’m including it here since some of you work as coaches and I think that even if you don’t, you’d enjoy listening to the amazing collection of interviews that Joel Monk, one of the co-founders of Coaches Rising conducts on a regular basis with some of the most profound and inspiring people in the coaching universe. Coaches Rising also offers affordable and superbly designed and executed courses for Coaches and those interested in coaching.

One of the ways I’ve learned more about complexity is through the Human Current podcast. Angie Cross and Haley Campbell-Gross host conversations with a wide array of people who explore many different aspects of complexity. One of the most powerful episodes this year is the conversation with Meg Wheatley (see above)–though, honestly, you can’t go wrong with any episode you choose to listen to!

Other podcasts that are oriented to coaches and leaders include Tim Ferris’s podcast–which is almost always a rewarding listen, Amiel Handelsman’s podcast (there are two episodes with Doug Silsbee that are exceptional!) and Work/Life with Adam Grant (there are a limited number of episodes and they are all good.)

Blogs to Follow

Four of the blogs I follow most closely explore the topic of complexity. These include the writing of  Sonja Blignaut, Chris Corrigan and Dave Snowden . Other writers/blogger/collectors of insight whose work I’ve come to appreciate include Jennifer Garvey Berger (and her colleagues,) Ed Batista, Mark Storm, Bruce McTague, Jane Watson and Carol Sanford. What all of these people have in common is a willingness to dig deeper–beneath the surface–and almost always surprise me with a new thought or perspective or way of framing something. I recommend them all highly. And, they are all people who have rich Twitter feeds–demonstrating that, used thoughtfully, Twitter can be a force for good. (And, I know I’ve missed some of the people whose work I really enjoy in this list!)

Collections

I also want to point to two collections of posts that I’ve started contributing to and enjoy a great deal. Lets Grow Leaders and the Lead Change Group both share monthly collections, typically around different topics in leadership, for your reading pleasure. You will often find my posts, both the ones I write here and the ones I write for Actionable, in their collections.

Wishing you a good close to 2018 and beginning of 2019! Happy reading and listening!