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

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.


Adult Development: Part Two

Adult Education ConceptThere’s nothing as practical as a good theory. Kurt Lewin

Until very recently I kept what I was learning about adult development theory “behind the scenes.” While it guided my coaching and the programs I design–it was not something I shared directly with clients. Increasingly, I have been introducing it to clients, friends and family. If I was finding it to be such a valuable lens through which to understand my world–perhaps they would too. And, almost to a person, I’m finding that to be true.

These posts are my attempt to provide an introduction to this work–in hopes that you, too, will find it of value.

I’ll start off by recapping my last post:

  • Adults develop too–development doesn’t end in adolescence. Our brains and capacity change and grow throughout our lives.
  • We develop as adults by being able to see more as Object rather than as Subject. Seeing something as Object means seeing it outside of ourselves being able to notice, reflect upon and have choices about what we perceive. When something remains Subject, it “has” us…when something, be it an emotion, a thought, a point of view, a pattern or a system, is Object, we have agency.
  • As we develop, we are able to make meaning of the world in increasingly complex ways–because we are able to see more and more as Object and expand our perspectives.
  • Because the world is becoming increasingly complex and demanding–increasingly complex ways of making meaning are required if we are to address the challenges ahead of us in our lives, our work and our world.

The Stages of Development

Development is not a race to the finish line. There’s no prize for being the most self-transformational on your death bed or the first in your high school class to become self-authored. Development isn’t just about this theory or these forms of mind; it is the journey of our lives, the way we come to see and re-see the world around us.    Changing on the Job, p. 17

The stages of development described here are based on Robert Kegan’s model and his language for describing the patterns that adults follow as their systems of making meaning increase in complexity. Each stage represents a qualitative shift, or expansion. Because the range in each stage is fairly broad, we can be in a stage for long time and can be “in-between” stages as well. In addition, even as we progress stages of meaning making, we may think and act in ways that are more typical of previous stages.

The risk in any stage theory is that we will see the “higher” stages as inherently better. As you read this, remember that there is no inherently bad or good stage. The reason to work on one’s development and to make the effort to extend one’s meaning making system is to match one’s capacity to the requirements of one’s life. For leaders, increasingly, the world demands greater capacity–so the work of growing into new stages may be not only useful, but essential.

And, also keep in mind that while these stages are useful ways to think about development, each individual evolves in unique ways. So, even as we look at the different stages, remember that growth happens in our moment-to-moment capacity to see that which we were Subject to as Object. Those moment-to-moment shifts in seeing are as important–if not more important–than the big shifts in stages.

A note: I describe these stages here with the help of Jennifer Garvey Berger–any quotes are from her very wonderful book, Changing on the Job, especially from the appendix. I also am a big fan of her second book, Simple Habits for Complex Times. 

Sovereign Mind

Typical of older children and adolescents, some adults still operate from Sovereign Mind. At this stage, children know that objects stay the same even as our relationship to them may change (the distant building is not actually smaller) and the world, as a result, is less magical and more complex. Feelings and beliefs stay constant too–we develop likes and dislikes–and so do other people. True empathy is not yet possible at this stage because we don’t see or understand the minds of others. Rules are followed because of the fear of being caught rather than an actual sense of right and wrong. Children—and adults—at this stage are self-centered–seeing others only in terms of how they can help them get what they want.

Socialized Mind

If you operate from socialized mind, you recognize that you can control your impulses, needs and desires. They have become Object. This is a key distinction between being an adult and being a child–and most adults do reach this stage. People who operate from socialized mind “internalize the feelings and emotions of others and are guided by those people or institutions  (like an organization or synagogue or a political party) that are most important to them.”  And, while they can be self-reflective and can think abstractly, “There is no sense of what I want outside of others’ expectations or societal roles.” So, when you operate from socialized mind, you try to do what others want or expect of you and your identity is shaped by what you perceive as the approval or disapproval of others.

While many adults can remain in this stage over the course of their lives, for many (and especially for people who are in leadership roles) it is not sustainable. When one operates from socialized mind one’s sense of self is reliant on others “because they are, in many ways,made up of those people, ideas, or ideals around them.”  In simpler times, one could live one’s life from socialized mind–following the rules and following the leader. In the world we are now in, the socialized mind can be very limiting.

It’s estimated that almost half the adult population operates from socialized mind.

Self-Authored Mind

About 35% of adults will transition, at some point in their lives, to self-authored mind. Just as it sounds, at this stage one creates a self that stands alone–outside of its relationship to other people. “The opinions and desires of others that they internalized and that had great control over them when they were making meaning with more of a socialized form of mind are now object to them.”

Operating from a self-authored mind, one has an internal compass from which to make decisions or manage conflicts. True empathy is now possible as the self-authored mind is able to genuinely consider what others think and want. When faced with different and conflicting opinions and views, the person with a self-authored mind can navigate these views and use their own system to make decisions.”These are the people we read about in the literature who ‘own’ their work, who are self-guided, self-motivated, self-evaluative.”

The limitations of the self-authoring mind emerge when a person’s values are in internal conflict, and one’s internal compass is not sufficient to handle a situation that is more nuanced and even less black and white. While the self-authored mind sees shades of gray, there are still limitations. A person with self-authored mind may not be an excellent diplomat, because: “when other people don’t understand or see the need to follow her rules, she may be so invested in her own way of doing things that she cannot easily see connections between her ideas of what is right and other people’s ideas of what is right.”

Self-Transforming Mind

This form of mind is relatively rare–though, as complexity grows in our world, more people are evolving to this level of complexity in their thinking. Adults with this form of mind “have learned the limits of their own inner system—and the limits of having an inner system in general. Instead of viewing others as people with separate and different inner systems, those with a self-transforming mind see across inner systems to look at the similarities that are hidden inside what used to look like differences.” What this means is that people at this form of mind are likely to see a spectrum of grays. This form of mind creates the capacity to see the systems at play and mediate between seemingly opposed views to find common ground.

Why Does Understanding The Stages of Development Matter?

Understanding the stages of development has helped me to both understand myself, work more effectively with my clients (help ensure that I ask the right questions,) and make sense of the world around me. It enriches my life by helping me see and grow in new ways.Significant development doesn’t happen because we have more knowledge, but because we have better meaning making systems. In a world where we can never “know” enough–I find this comforting.

I hope that what I’ve shared in these two posts has given you some things to consider as you think about your own meaning making systems.