Slow Down, Do Less, Observe More: A Leadership Journey

My exercise routine in the mid-nineties involved getting up before my kids and working out to fitness videos in our basement. During a year when my job was joyless, I spent my downtime (there was quite a bit!) exploring a website with reviews of fitness videos–planning my next morning. Over time I accumulated a significant video collection and kept raising the bar on intensity and impact–adding props so I could include the then-very-popular step aerobics. While I started weaving in some high-intensity yoga, (yes, that’s the kind of yoga that I was drawn to) aerobics were the heart of my practice. That approach to exercise ended with (surprise!) one bad landing from a too-high step and a painful knee injury. Suddenly, I was looking for low-impact videos, spending more time with yoga videos (and starting to actually hear what the teachers were saying,) re-calibrating my practice.

Alas, this was not enough for my injured knee. Sitting on airplanes and going down stairs was excruciating. A bent knee would hurt after just a few minutes. I remembered that my mom, who was struggling with chronic pain, had found some relief with the Feldenkrais method. Created by Moshe Feldenkrais, an Israeli engineer and physicist, it is described as “an educational system that uses movement to teach self-awareness and improve function.” I found a practitioner who had been trained by Feldenkrais himself and worked with her–in hands-on sessions and using cassette tapes (MP3s are now available!) for well over a year.

It’s difficult to describe the Feldenkrais method. It was subtle, slow and radically different from anything I’d done before. The hands-on work was light, easy and never, ever painful. Feldenkrais challenged the notion of “no pain, no gain” and suggested that we learn best when we are at ease. Eileen never even touched my knee. She seemed to hover over it and gently work with other parts of my body. The tapes were a revelation, too. The instruction often went like this: “Turn to your right, now do 50% of that, now do 50% of that.” The message was to do less, not more. To do it slowly. And to observe your movements. I didn’t know at the time that Feldenkrais was describing the property of neuroplasticity before anyone else I knew was using this language. I also didn’t know that, when I lay on the floor doing extraordinarily boring tapes with the subtlest of movements, I was practicing mindfulness. I did know that my knee pain was diminishing dramatically and that I was able to move with greater ease and comfort.

As I was exploring movement in this new way, my career was advancing. I’d long ago left that joyless job, moved to California, and was assuming increasing levels of responsibility in a training and development organization. I was pursuing a masters degree that required late night and early morning hours. Working full-time, raising kids, doing a graduate degree, fitting in exercise–it was taking a toll.There was never enough time and I always felt that I should be doing more.

One day, just as I was finishing up the graduate program, I got a call from the school letting me know that I was was going to be named as the outstanding student in my graduating class. As the call ended, while a small part of me felt honored, my dominant emotion was frustration–with myself. It was time to apply the lessons of Feldenkrais to my life. I had poured myself into my classes, spent far more time than I really needed to (or had)–because I didn’t know how to do less and could not recognize when less was more than enough. I was paying too high a price for being all-in, all the time.

As I began to think more about it, I also realized that doing more was not only making my life harder, it was getting in my way as a leader. I wasn’t giving others the space to bring themselves fully to their work. I began to notice when I was doing too much of the thinking and the planning and not allowing others to step into the challenges that would help them grow. I needed to learn to step back, to make room for others.

This was a turning point for me as a leader. I began to experiment (though I wouldn’t have used that word at the time) with slowing down, doing less and observing more in my work. Most of the time other people stepped in–and sometimes they didn’t. I experimented with different ways of responding when they didn’t–short of taking over. Thanks to Feldenkrais, I knew what it felt like in my body to slow down. I was able, with practice, to translate that to work settings and, in the process, becoming a better leader. And, remarkably, one with more time for both work and home.

I realize now that Eileen, my Feldenkrais practitioner, was also my first leadership coach. The shifts I made when working with her were essential to the shifts I made in my leadership practices. Since then I’ve developed a regular yoga and meditation practice, and learned many in-the-moment centering practices that have, collectively,  further enabled me to embody the idea of “slow down, do less and observe more.” To a degree I couldn’t have imagined, this has become who I am. I can still move too fast, step in too quickly, speak too much. And, I do these things a lot less frequently–catching myself a whole lot sooner. I am better able to recognize when I am not present and find my way back to presence.

Almost every leader I work with struggles with the challenge of too little time and too much to do. Many of my clients complain about poor time management skills, hoping that there are ways to organize their work–productivity hacks–to make them more efficient. Without exception, at some point each of these leaders recognizes that it’s not about managing time better, it’s about thinking differently about how we “be” as leaders so that what we “do” begins to shift.

This kind of shift requires more than training our brains–it requires training our entire being, including our bodies. We can experiment with different practices, large and small. A regular yoga or meditation practice or a bodywork practice like Feldenkrais can have a dramatic impact. Just as important and easier to embed in your day are “micro-practices.” Taking a breath before you speak, five breaths before meetings, short centering practices several times a day–simple, quick, regular. What my teacher, Doug Silsbee, called “experiential neuroplasticity.” The key is to find something that works for you, and through practice and repetition, turn it into a habit. And then get curious about what shifts in the way that you respond. Does it allow you to slow down? to do less? to observe more?

Shifting in this way can feel challenging–even scary. Letting go of how we define ourselves–through our doing–and allowing ourselves to be shaped more by how we “be” is not so easy. It’s likely we’ll be pulled back (over and over again) to the comfort of doing more. Paradoxically, in fast-paced, increasingly complex environments that make more and more demands on us, learning to “be” a leader is the only sure fire way I know to thrive–to take care of ourselves and serve the people around us.

 

Super-Vision: An Introduction and Invitation

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Several years ago, when I was starting to ramp up my coaching practice, a colleague asked if I would be interested in being supervised by her. She was completing a program in Coaching Supervision and needed volunteers for her practicum hours. Not one to turn down anything that will support my development, I said “sure.” I had no idea what to expect. What was this thing called Supervision? How would it compare to the Mentor programs I’d participated in to become an accredited coach?

What I didn’t know is that Supervision is an established practice in Europe–a requirement for Coaches in the UK who wish to maintain their accreditation. I also did not know that it’s not what it initially sounds like–that Super-Vision is a better way to think of the practice than the “sterner” sounding Supervision.

Michelle Bastock and I met–and I was able to experience a type of support that I had not known existed. Unlike mentoring, where I would dig into the skills demonstrated (or not) in a specific coaching conversation, with a clear focus on building mastery of those core coaching competencies, this was a different experience. Michelle created a space for powerful reflection that helped me access new ways of being as a coach. I was able to speak openly about where I was struggling and celebrate the ways in which I was thriving. I was able to identify what was happening under the surface of a coaching conversation and zoom out to the larger picture of me, my client and my client’s world.

Michelle partnered with me in reflection, artfully asking just the right question to help me see more clearly. I was immensely grateful. Our sessions were critical to my ability to believe in myself as a coach at a moment when that was particularly important.

Fast-forward about two years. My practice was picking up steam. I was feeling overwhelmed by the number of clients I was meeting with (and I wasn’t yet at full capacity!) and concerned that I wasn’t making the space for deeper reflection, which, intuitively, I knew was exactly what I needed most. I also knew that I couldn’t do it alone. Despite my good intentions, I was not making the time to think deeply about my work–and, even when I did, I knew I was limited without a skilled partner. So, I called Michelle. We now meet about once a month–and our calls enable me to take time and step above the day-to-day–to reflect on my coaching. We often start with a client situation that was challenging–perhaps a situation in which I didn’t feel I showed up fully, couldn’t stay fully present, or was challenged by an ethical dilemma that arose out of the complexity of the client situation. I can be open, vulnerable, say what is most true. Invariably our conversation leads to insights about the specific situation and ones that apply more broadly to my work as a coach.

Knowing that Michelle is a part of my system allows me to feel more comfortable when I am challenged in my coaching. I can take on new clients with greater ease, trust in myself as a coach, and know that when I hit challenges or hard situations, I have support. I intend to always have a Supervisor–I can’t imagine being a Coach without that support.

Peter Hawkins, one of the pioneers in the field of Coaching Supervision, and one of the people I most admire in the coaching field, speaks of three primary aspects of Supervision

  • Qualitative—ensuring that you are able to maintain the quality of your coaching
  • Developmental—getting even better through new insights and realizations
  • Resourcing—retaining one’s capacity to be fully present as a coach

Hawkins describes the following functions of supervision–each of which I’ve fully experienced:

  • Supervision helps keep the coach honest and courageous, attending to what they are not seeing, not hearing, not allowing themselves to feel, or not saying
  • Supervision helps the coach to develop their internal supervisor and become a better reflective practitioner
  • Supervision is a key part of continuous professional development and action learning of the coach
  • Supervision provides a supportive space for the coach to process what  they have absorbed from their clients and their clients’  system

Soon after I began to meet with Michelle, I learned about a Coach Supervision Training program run by Damian Goldvarg. I decided to go for it. I didn’t quite realize what I was signing on for! It was a wonderful year of deep learning and reflection and tons of practice. In addition to Michelle, I had the opportunity to work with Nancy Tylim*, and see a differently and equally powerful way of supervising. The program was a mix of theory, models, practice and watching some of the best in the field conduct demonstrations. The more I learned, the more I recognized what Supervision could offer.

I felt proud of the work I’d done when I graduated in June–and fully ready to add Supervision to the portfolio of services I offer. Which brings me to the Invitation. If what I’ve shared here is intriguing and speaks to your experience and needs as a coach, consider Supervision. I’d love to work with you! I offer both one-on-one and group options*. I would love to have an initial conversation/trial session and work with you to craft a package of sessions that would best meet your needs. (As an added benefit, supervision is recognized by the ICF for core competency Continuing Coach Education hours.)

To schedule a time to talk, you can access my calendar here. I look forward to speaking with you soon!

*Nancy Tylim and I are offering a group supervision series. Learn more about that here.

A Tribute to My Teacher

PBLIn 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.