Leading in the Time of Coronavirus

To say that this is an unsettling time is an understatement. Having been in Jerusalem during the first Gulf War, I am noting sensations I’ve experienced before. For me, doing what we need to do to address Coronavirus has the sense of being on wartime footing. Especially in this moment–not knowing what to do and what not to do–and beginning to absorb the significance of what we are collectively being asked not to do for the greater good. My mother-in-law describes wartime England–and the long period of hunkering down. And, it is all happening so quickly, only increasing the uncertainty.

So, what do we do?

First, we remember that this is a moment in time and it’s not permanent. I am grateful for the lessons I’ve learned from my Buddhist teachers about impermanence. What they offered me was the understanding that for impermanence to be meaningful and helpful, it needs to be more than a thought or mental concept. I would suggest that you stop, several times a day, and drop in to what you are sensing. Notice the tension, the anxiety, the fear. Be with it and let it be. Giving those sensations space and allowing them to run through you (without the stories) is a way to a more peaceful (at least for a little while) state. Every time we do this practice we experience just a little bit of that impermanence–feeling a little better in the moment and reminded that this moment will not last forever. Research suggests that it takes about 90 seconds for the sensations and the emotions behind them to run through us (when we avoid rumination and piling on the stories.) These days I am finding it’s take a little longer to get out of my head when I do this practice–and am working to accept that as well.

Working With the Polarities That Are Arising

Polarity thinking is one of the tools that I draw on–and this time is replete with polarities. It’s a time when we can get caught in either/or thinking–so seeking the both/and can be a powerful practice. Here are a few of the polarities I’ve been working with:

I’m challenged to BOTH stay informed AND create distance from the information. Each are important and each needs to be attended to.

We are all confronted with the polarity of Distance AND Connection. Are you calling people? Checking in with them? Picking up your phone and dialing (no appointment, not a text…a  phone call.) If you can step outside and walk and see and wave and say hello to people, are you doing that? Are you allowing more time than usual for check-ins in your virtual meetings? Finding out how people are (really) doing?

One idea I found in Deborah Preuss’s Twitter feed (yes, Twitter can actually be a resource!) was to create virtual co-working. Her suggestion: “Open a zoom call with friends. Set a co-working timebox. Set (personal) goals. Start timer. Turn off all audio/video (or use individual breakout rooms) Work, work, work. Check back in at end of time. Take a coffee break together. Repeat.”

And another polarity: Taking care of self AND Taking care of others. Even if you are scared about the economy and what this will mean for you–how can you give to others right now? Who can you donate to? What can you do to support someone who you know needs support (a phone call, a note)? Not only is it a good thing to do, it’s good for us–there’s a wealth of research that shows that. And, are you caring for yourself? Remember, we need both and will not be able to care for others if we don’t care for ourselves.

Last, but not least, consider, as a leader, how you live in the polarity of realism AND optimism? Think about the people who are doing that for you, and look closely at the way that are showing up, the way they are balancing that message. For me, Anthony Fauci has been a model. I like watching him to see how he is able to deliver a sometimes sobering message and remind us that we have power and that this will pass. Getting that right creates a much-needed authenticity. It allows us to be both vulnerable about what we are experiencing and aware that we have a role in helping people stay grounded and calm.

These are just a few examples. Holding the mindset of polarity thinking and simply knowing that there can be an AND is a way to navigate this moment that I find particularly helpful.

A Few Resources

First, in the spirit of staying informed. This is a podcast that helped me to understand the Coronavirus better and why, from a medical and epidemiological point of view. It breaks down some of the myths I’ve been suspicious of and adds some of the information I’ve been seeking. Michael Osterholm, a highly respected epidemiologist who has a broad and deep view of our situation is on the Joe Rogan  show.

Second, in the spirit of creating distance from the information, Tara Brach’s meditations are a generous gift from a talented meditation teacher. I listened to this one this morning and it seemed just perfect. Starting your day with some type of reflection or meditation is something that can radically shift how you “be” in this time. Tara offers meditations that are both shorter and longer.

Third: Since it launched about eleven  years ago, Glo has been my go-to resource for online Yoga. Over the years they’ve expanded the styles they offer, included meditation, extended to Pilates. The teachers are exceptional and the range of duration, intensity, level, etc., extraordinary. They have a great search engine. The monthly fee is less than most single yoga classes.  If you’re stuck at home and needing a way to practice, I can’t say enough good things. (And I am not getting a commission!)

Please take good care of yourself and those you love.

For the Sake of What?

Joshua Tree, Superbloom, Susan Hendel PhotographyOne of the emphases in the somatic coaching program I’m now immersed in is making powerful declarations that orient us towards a vision of what is possible. A declaration or commitment anchors our growth and development. One of the critical pieces of the process of creating those commitments is having a strong why. One way to frame our “why” is to ask, “for the sake of what?”

At the end of the initial eight days I spent at the Strozzi Institute in Petaluma, I began working with an accountability buddy, a young man at a very different phase in his life than I am in mine and whose declaration reflects that phase, just as my declaration reflects mine. Our job, as buddies, is to text each other regularly and report on whether we’ve completed our practices. These practices include the “standard” ones that include centering, meditation and practicing an aikido kata as well as unique practices that reflect our specific commitments. My buddy and I began to sense, independently, on about Day Eight, that our practice were beginning to feel like a checklist, that we were doing our homework without a sense of purpose.

As luck would have it, I had a meeting with my program mentor just that day, and we had an opportunity to talk about practices and commitments. I shared the concern about practices becoming rote. His suggestion was to come back to the question “for the sake of what?” That simple addition made a big difference for both of us.Since that call, I’ve brought that awareness of purpose, my why, into practice and have both increased my commitment to completing the practices and the quality of the practice.

My commitment is, ultimately, for the sake of living fully and wholly in this second half of my life. It’s also about being a more present coach, more skilled facilitator and writing more. Both the existential and the more practical “whys” that inform my commitment allow me to prioritize practice in my day.

In his last book, Smarter Faster Better, Charles Duhigg suggested that we tie the small items on our to-do lists to their larger purposes. Even at this granular level, the question of “for the sake of what” can be helpful. A few weeks ago, I had to dive deep into tax preparation. I could no longer avoid it. Due to a year filled with hacked credit card accounts, I encountered a mess I was not anticipating and a spreadsheet of transactions that required hours more than usual to sort through. Even in the midst of this, I did my best to invoke a “why.” It involved my responsibility to my family and my commitment to be a good citizen. It helped a bit.  (As did a glass of wine after I did as much as a could in one evening.) Same question, different scale.

This week I was working with a group of leaders, guiding them in a group coaching conversation. The client realized that the way to address a challenge he was facing was to slow down (note: when in doubt that’s almost always going to be the our most helpful response) and be sure that he asks questions early on that will allow him to avoid problems later on. When this became clear to him, instead of feeling that he was making progress in the conversation, he was agitated. He could not imagine himself being willing, in the moment, to actually slow down. He couldn’t see himself doing the very opposite of what he was now doing–even though he knew his current response was getting him to a result he didn’t want. The need to move quickly, to get things done under pressure felt too great. Slowing down felt nearly impossible. Here, too, the question “for the sake of what?” can help.

When I asked: “For the sake of what would you slow down?” he said that it was for the sake of not doing rework later and for the sake of a good end product. He realized that if he could actively invoke his “why” or “for the sake of what” in the moment, he could do what would get a better result. A few weeks later, when we met again, he reported on a significant shift in both his behavior and his outcomes.

This small example also shows that, in the moment, our habitual patterns of behavior can be strong enough to override our desires for things to be different. Invoking our “why” can be a powerful tool in getting over that hump. (And, like all powerful tools, the key is to remember that it is available to you when you need it.)

So, the next time you set a goal or commitment for yourself or simply put item on your to-do list, take the time to ask yourself “for the sake of what does this matter?” Then, when the moment arises and it’s time to act, invoke your “why?” and see if it isn’t just a little bit easier to make the choice that serves you best.

[Note: This post is the third part of an ongoing series in which I’m sharing what I’m learning as I study somatic coaching at the Strozzi Institute. My first post, introducing the work can be found here and here’s my post on the practice of mood checks.Picture credit to my sister, Susan Hendel, who captured the super bloom in Joshua Tree. Seeing the photos and the immense beauty around us is a big part of my own “for the sake of what?” ]

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 care 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. (The next in the series can be found here.)