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 out 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.

 

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.

Strong Opinions, Lightly Held

People TalkingWhat’s the key to turning a difficult conversation into a productive one? Years ago I studied with the people at Action Design–exploring this exact question. How do you have a productive conversation based on honesty, trust and transparency? How can you transform difficult conversations into opportunities for learning and understanding? The phrase “strong opinions, lightly held,” is a reminder for me of how to enter into a conversation that is difficult–or how to respond when a conversation becomes challenging.

“Strong opinions, lightly held” connects to one of the most powerful and practical distinctions I’ve ever learned–between advocacy and inquiry. Advocacy is about speaking up and inquiry is about asking questions–seeking to understand. Inquiry is about curiosity, listening and asking. While the benefits of inquiry are probably the subject of much of the leadership development work you’ve done–perhaps because it’s not all easy be an expert “inquirer”–advocacy is also important. Having a voice, expressing a view and being able to effectively express ideas is critical to effective leadership.

Expressing your view (strong opinions) while knowing that your view is just one view–and being willing to open your view up to inquiry by others (lightly held)–is one of the keys to productive, powerful conversations–and leadership. It’s one of the primary ways that difficult can become productive–and positive. Advocacy and inquiry are a polarity–both are critical, it’s not an either/or. Our work is to leverage the positive aspects of each–to speak up and also be willing to ask, to listen and also be willing to let go.

Living into “strong opinions, lightly held” is the work of a lifetime–a journey, not a destination. In recent years there’s been a host of research about our brains that demonstrates–over and over–that we are wired to crave certainty–to want to believe that we know, that we are right. (See On Being Certain by Robert Burton.) That need for certainty creates in us a false sense of knowing that blinds us to the fact that we might just be wrong. The need for certainty–and its corollary–the need to be right, ultimately get in our way, doing a disservice to the people around us, and preventing our organizations from thriving. It is part of why advocacy, rooted in a sense of knowing, can come so much more easily than inquiry. Inquiry requires that we be comfortable with not being certain that we are right, with being willing to hold open the possibility that we are the ones missing something.

It’s a hard thing to shift. We can begin by noticing when we’re holding a view tightly, when we are not asking questions or have ceased to be curious. We can notice when we are not allowing questions to be asked or making space for others to speak up. We can listen to ourselves when we say (or think) “we know” and check to see if it is really true. We can try on the language of “I believe” vs. “I know” and see what happens.

As we notice and as we make small shifts, we can work to become leaders who are clear rather than leaders who are certain, leaders for whom “strong opinions, lightly held” is an aspiration–one we are always moving towards. We can practice in every conversation. 

Updated, June, 2018.