Learning from Head to Toe: Embodying Leadership

Photo: Petaluma, 2019

I arrived home last Monday morning from eight days at the Strozzi Institute for Somatic 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 interesting 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’II 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 only in our heads. So many of my clients begin a coaching engagement telling me they are self-aware, which is often true. And yet, it’s not enough. We’re very often working together 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.

Adult Development: A Leadership Imperative

The Stages of Life

If you’re a parent–or if you’ve learned about child psychology–you’re probably familiar with descriptions of the stages children move through until they reach adulthood. According to these theories, once we become young adults the development stages end–and for the rest of our lives we’re “adults.”

This picture of development–in addition to being a bit depressing–is also untrue. Just as the last decades have revealed that our brains change throughout our lives–that neuroplasticity is not something that ends after childhood–we’ve also learned that there are stages of adult development, which are just as significant as the stages of child development.

Adult development theory can help us to understand the very nature of the work required to become a leader who can thrive in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world. Adult development theory describes the evolution of our capacity to see ourselves more clearly, to genuinely appreciate multiple perspectives, to become actors and authors of our lives–while at the same time increasingly understanding the ways in which we are part of larger systems.

In Over Our Heads

Robert Kegan, author of several books that include the aptly titled In Over Our Heads, is pioneer in the field of adult development theory. Much of what I’ll share in this post draws on Kegan’s work. In a later post, I’ll explore some of the other resources that you can explore to learn more.

The stages of adult development, unlike the stages of child development, are not an evolutionary mandate. Whether we continue to evolve beyond the “entry-level” adult stages depends on the experiences we have and the way that we respond to those experiences. What questions do we ask ourselves? Are we willing and able to see different perspectives? Can we start seeing relationships, patterns and systems?

Kegan argues that our thinking must become more complex if we are to address the existential challenges we face ranging from climate change to global terrorism. Our capacities must evolve so that we are not in over our heads. This message is also vital for organizational leaders–people who, day in, day out, face multi-faceted problems that defy easy answers. In the words of Albert Einstein: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” To address the challenges we face, we must expand our consciousness.

The Move from Subject to Object

Our capacity to evolve from stage to stage depends on our ability to take that to which we are “Subject” and make it “Object.”  If something is Subject, it is invisible, a part of our self that cannot be seen, probably can’t be named and most certainly can’t be reflected upon. We can’t stand back and observe it–we aren’t responsible for it. That which is Object is visible, can be observed, can be reflected upon and, as a result, can be acted upon. Now we have choice and, as a result, we can change. In Kegan’s words: “We have Object; we are Subject.”

Here’s an example: If you are Subject to feeling anger, then it’s likely that you believe that someone else made you angry–it wasn’t your choice to be angry. It just is and it was inevitable. Your anger “has” you. You’re likely to act out of anger–whether that serves you or not. If, on the other hand, you can see your anger as Object, a shift occurs. You notice it as it arises, you can not only name it, but you can explore its sources, other feelings and thoughts that lie behind the anger, how it is like or different from experiences of anger.  You can see patterns. As a result of it not “having” you, of being able to see your anger as Object, you’re now able choose your response to the situation you’re in, to shift your emotional state, and to act in ways that serves you and others around you.

How We Make Meaning

Our evolution as adults occurs as increasingly complex elements of our lives move from Subject to Object. Emotions, thoughts, patterns and whole systems become visible rather than invisible. Blind spots are revealed. Gradually, and over time, these shifts from Subject to Object are significant enough that they give birth to new stages of consciousness or awareness. Each of the three stage shifts that Kegan describes opens up new possibilities for understanding ourselves and the world around us. Each shift “transcends and includes” what was learned before.

Coming Up Next

In the next post, we’ll look at these stages of consciousness. We’ll explore the stages that Kegan calls socialized mind, then self-authoring mind and finally self-transforming mind. We’ll also look at ways that we can develop the capacity to see more and more as Object and shift our level of awareness–regardless of our starting point on this journey.

In the meantime, take time to reflect on this view of adult development. How does it resonate with you? Think about your own work on becoming a more effective leader. Where can you see that you’ve made the shift from being Subject to seeing something as Object? What might that mean for other areas that you are trying to develop as a leader? What possibilities could emerge?

Resolutions That Stick: The Science of Goal-Setting

Composite image of new years resolutions on january calendar
Tis the season for making resolutions that we all too often don’t keep. As you enter into 2016 and are thinking about New Year’s Resolutions, I’ve summarized some of the science behind setting goals in the attached PDF, What We Know About Goals, drawn in large part from one of my favorite books, Succeed, by Heidi Grant Halvorson.

I created this summary to use with my team as a New Year’s gift– to help them in making their personal resolutions stick. These guidelines carried over into our ongoing performance conversations. And, we used these when we set shared goals for the year for our team.

FYI: My absolute favorite among these guidelines is “if-then” goal-setting–an extraordinarily simple and powerful way to frame your goals so that they become easier to recall at the time that you really need them. So, setting a goal of eating fewer carbs is far less effective than stating an “if-then” intention such as: “When I have a craving for a slice of bread, I will drink a glass of water.” (Yours needs to be unique to you, of course.)

Some other resources that you may want to explore on the topic of goals and habits are:

1. The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

You can also find an Actionable Books Summary of Duhigg’s book, here. These are brief and fun-to-read synopses of books that call out a few key ideas. (I like these so much that I recently joined the team of volunteer writers!)

2. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney

The Actionable Summary for this book is here and here (there are two and each are helpful.)

I hope you enjoy these resources–and that they help you to start 2015 off powerfully–and maybe even make resolutions fun!

3. Better than Before, by Gretchen Rubin

Rubin’s book gives some practical tools for creating lasting habits. My favorite take-away is that it’s not about self-control–create conditions where you don’t need to make decisions–executing your goal is “built into” your routines and systems. (Click on the link for the full summary.)

Happy Holidays!