Learning from Head to Toe: Embodying Leadership

Photo: Petaluma, 2019

I arrived home last Monday morning from eight days at the Strozzi Institute for Embodied Leadership in Petaluma, California after completing the first two parts of a year-long program in Somatic Coaching. “What’s that?” is likely to be the question in your head right now. This post is all about providing a clear and meaningful response to that question—and, in doing so, share why I’m doing this work, why I think it is important—and hopefully interest you enough to continue to read more as I chronicle my journey!

If you’ve read my most recent posts (especially here and here,) you will have noticed an emphasis on paying attention to and working with small practices that are “embodied.” These practices require that we use our whole self, from head to toe, to effect the changes we desire in our lives and our leadership.  We learn to embody what we most want to be and become.

The “head to toe” part of this has become more and more important to me in my own life and in my work with leaders. I am increasingly convinced that one of the main reasons that change doesn’t stick, or feels hard, is that we typically try to do the work only in our heads. Many of my clients begin a coaching engagement telling me they are self-aware, which is often true. And yet, it’s not enough. They are likely to be seeking coaching because that self-awareness isn’t resulting in them fully showing up in ways that will best serve them as leaders–especially leaders who must navigate increasing levels of complexity.

Some of us might go a step further: “I get that I need to practice and that being aware is not enough.” So, we practice adopting new mindsets, new thoughts, new coaching or conversational strategies. And we are still not getting the results we seek.

Here’s where the “head to toe” part comes in. Our ways of being exist in our “somas”—a word that describes our mind and body as ONE. We have patterned or conditioned responses that live in our bodies that we adopted, in many cases, when we were quite young. These patterns were created in response to the conditions of our lives—and they served us well. In the words of one of my teachers, they were “hard-earned.” For the most part, these patterns and responses are invisible until we pay attention in new ways. When we try to shift our minds and ignore the patterns in our bodies, turns out it’s really hard. And, our bodies are probably not going to come along for the ride unless we consciously bring them along. Our patterns are strongly rooted and powerful enough to hold us back from the changes our minds want to make. So, even as our heads desire change, our bodies continue to operate in the ways they have organized themselves until now. Our bodies remain committed to our conditioned ways of being.

Let me share an example. A simple one.

Because you’re self-aware, you’ve realized that it is hard for you to say no. You take on too much, delegate too little, and end up overwhelmed and overloaded. So, you commit to saying no more. Once in a while you do, but not much changes. It’s still really hard. If you were working from head to toe, you’d spend time noticing that your whole body is “in on” this challenge. You recognize that this is a pattern that goes WAY back, so it’s pretty firmly within you. When you slow down and pay attention closely, you might notice that you have very specific sensations and ways of holding yourself when requests are made of you—all of which are oriented towards being uneasy with a “no” and conspire towards a “yes.” [Note: This is just one example. Perhaps you struggle more with whole-hearted “yesses” or with being able to ask for help.]

So, your brain is struggling to say “no,” unaware that the your body is perfectly organized to say “yes” and be fearful of the “no.” With further investigation, you can get granular about the way “yes” operates in your body, better understand how THAT shape supported you in your life. You can begin to explore and practice a new shape (literally—a new physical way of being and responding) that better supports your ability to choose your “yesses” and “nos.” Maybe you need to move back, breathe downwards, “ground” yourself. You practice that movement again and again (and again and again) and, over time, you notice that this new shape is beginning to become available to you even as the stakes get higher and the situations more pressured. It’s simple but not easy. A whole lot of repetitions are required to be able to access this new shape in high stakes, high pressured situations—so you also practice being a little more patient with yourself in the learning process. You are literally rewiring your nervous system.

My intention in studying somatic coaching—and specifically the system developed by Richard Strozzi Heckler–is two-fold. I want to become more skillful in supporting my clients in making the changes they most want to make to become the leaders they most want to be. The tools I’m learning are some of the most effective I’ve encountered to help translate self-awareness into consistent new behaviors. Just as importantly, I am studying for my own sake—so that I am able to do the same. I am learning to return to center more easily when I am feeling pressures—internal and external. I am learning to expand into the possibilities I see for myself—while allowing space for the people I are most about to do the same. That balance has always been one of my challenges and somatic work has been revelatory for me. Thus, my excitement about sharing it with others.

This is just the start of my journey. My plan is to write throughout the year and share some of what I’m learning. My teacher, Doug Silsbee, wrote not long before he died that “teaching is learning in public.” That phrase has stuck with me as it so well describes what I am doing when I write. These pieces are most definitely an act of “learning in public.” I hope you find value in them.

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.