Practicing Leadership

Practicing Leadership

“Awareness creates choice, practice creates capacity.” Amanda Blake

“We are what we repeatedly do.” Aristotle

About thirteen years ago I began to practice yoga seriously. A few years later, I added a regular morning meditation to my practice and began to attend meditation retreats. Both practices are now part of my daily routine. When I first began practicing yoga, I noticed that I was showing up differently at work—and that my team was behaving differently. There was a remarkable decrease in reactivity as I learned to be more present. My first response was to evangelize. I had a similar impulse when I began to meditate—if this did so much for me and my capacity to be present and engaged, why wouldn’t everyone want to meditate?

While both practices have been essential to my capacity to be present, which I view as a core leadership competency, I began to temper my evangelism as I noticed two things:

  • Not everyone is ready or able to adopt this kind of practice. Many of my clients are already struggling to make enough time for the things that matter—family, work, friends, exercise. Just thinking about how to find the time for one more thing is exhausting.
  • A regular practice can feel insufficient. For example, even though I meditate every morning, by mid-day I still can often feel unsettled, tense or anxious.

A little over five years ago I began to study Presence-Based Coaching with Doug Silsbee. At our first gathering Doug introduced a centering practice (I write more about it here) and gave us homework to do between the first two gatherings. The instruction was to center multiple (fifteen or more!) times a day. In order to do that, the three-minute practice we learned together had to be truncated, which is exactly what Doug encouraged us to do. I was able to center in ten to fifteen seconds, with four intentional breaths. Then, the challenging part—figuring out a way to remember to practice. I created cues that would remind me to center:

  • A bell that would ring at random intervals during the day
  • Transitions in my day such as when I took a break or before a meeting
  • Sensing mild stress or frustration

Getting into the habit of centering as a response to stress became a hugely helpful habit—helping me to find presence in the moments when it felt most elusive. What I didn’t realize at the time was that, just as important as the specific practice, I was learning a new way of thinking about practice—and discovering the “micropractice.” Today, micropractices, together with self-observations, are the most important element in my coaching toolkit.

More About Micropractices

Micropractices can include both generic practices, such as centering, that are available and useful for anyone. These are typically designed to support one’s general capacity to be present and reduce reactivity. Custom practices are specifically designed to support a goal or commitment that is unique to the person doing the practice and can support almost any behavior change that a person is looking to make.

Both types of micropractices work on the premise that, with enough repetition, these new behaviors will become more available—we eventually embody them in our nervous systems. If we’re diligent it’s not even that hard to amass thousands of practices–which is what it takes to truly change our bodies and brains.

Here are three examples of custom micropractices:

  • I’m working with a client who noticed that her shoulders slump and her overall posture “crumples” whenever she feels any sort of push back from people around her. It makes it hard for her to be receptive to feedback—and hard for others to give feedback—even though she knows (in her head) that feedback is important. Her micropractice is simply to notice her posture multiple times a day and lift up from her seat to her shoulders to her breath. It takes about ten seconds.
  • I describe a micropractice (though I didn’t label it as one at the time) that I designed to help me listen without being caught up in my intent to reply—and without interrupting. I learned to pause after a person speaks and before I start to talk. You can read more about that practice and how I came to it in this post, from a couple years ago.
  • Many years ago, I was listening to a talk by a Buddhist teacher Ken McCleod. He offered up a question that grabbed my attention. I wrote it on a post-it and placed it on my computer monitor: “How can I experience THIS and still be at peace?” My micropractice was to catch myself experiencing minor anxiety and simply ask myself this question. Just by asking it, I would immediately relax, breathe, and remind myself that I could be at peace, regardless of what was happening on the outside. Within a few weeks of discovering this practice, my father unexpectedly died. I found myself returning to this question and using it as a way to ground myself in one of the most challenging moments of my life. At least for a few seconds, I could find center.

Each of these sample practices are designed to help us be at our best—more present and more resilient. They include these elements:

  • Personally Meaningful:: It resonates for you. The same question that was so powerful for me might not be helpful for you at all. Similarly, you may need a different strategy to be a better listener than the one that I found so helpful.
  • Memorable: The practice has to be sticky for you. When I identify a practice that feels right for me, I know it—and I find the same is true for my clients. Sometimes that means working a bit to find the memorable practice and sometimes it becomes clear quickly. (Designing micropractices has become one of the most enjoyable and playful parts of many of my coaching sessions.)
  • Physical: Micropractices are embodied practices. For example, when I asked myself the question “How can I experience this, and still be at peace?” I stopped, noted the question, took a conscious breath and was able to feel myself shift.
  • Available: All of the practices described here, and most practices you’ll design, can be done without anyone else even knowing that you’re “micro-practicing” and are available at any time.
  • Quick: From start to finish, each of these practices requires just a few seconds.

Getting Started

Identifying or designing a micro-practice does note need to be difficult. I recommend starting with a centering practice. In addition to the one I describe in my blog post, here’s a 30-second video that provides an alternate practice from one of my favorite teachers, Wendy Palmer. Even simpler is to pause and take a couple of conscious breaths at various intervals throughout the day. Centering helps you shift form a reactive to a more responsive mode quickly.

Once you’ve chosen a practice, think about how you are going to remind yourself to do it. Use any or all of the methods I describe above—or find your own. What’s important is that you make a plan for remembering.

As you practice, be kind to yourself. You may forget to respond to your planned cues—just notice that and start again. You may find that the practice was not available to you when you could have used it most—that’s going to happen until you’ve practiced enough to match the level of stress or pressure you’re facing. Practicing when when the stakes are lower (e.g., just randomly throughout the day) makes it more available when the stakes are higher (when you are triggered.) Richard Strozzi Heckler,  founder of the Strozzi Institute for Embodied Leadership, writes:

When we’re under pressure, stress, conflict, or some form of transition we will inevitably fall to the level of our training and rarely, if ever, rise to our level of expectation.

When we feel as if we’ve “lost” the practice it simply means that it’s not yet fully embodied. So, celebrate when you do remember rather than berate yourself for forgetting—practice more and it will eventually be more available. The last thing most of us need is a new reason to beat ourselves up.

Finally, create some time for reflection. On a regular basis, check in:  What are you noticing? What’s working? What’s not? Is there anything you need to shift in the way you’re practicing? Treat you micropractice as an on ongoing experiment and adjust it over time as needed.

One thing you’ll want to plan on adjusting is the way you remind yourself. One piece of advice I got from Amanda Blake (author of Your Brain is Your Body)  is to change the reminders. When I use Mindjogger (an iOS app) to randomly remind me to practice, I need to change the message every couple days. If not, I’ll invariably stop paying attention. Our brains do better with novelty.

A Word About Practice

If we want to introduce new leadership behaviors in our life, we can’t count on will and discipline to make them happen; to become more effective leaders it’s necessary to practice. Richard Strozzi Heckler

As someone who used to believe that the answer to a problem was going to be found in a book, recognizing that change requires practice has not been an easy lesson for me to learn. Awareness is critical, but without practice the thing you are hoping to be different will simply not be available when you need it most.

As I did more yoga—and eventually added meditation—I gained significantly greater capacity to remain calm under pressure because my nervous system had an alternative path to follow. The enduring value of both practices–and of the micropractices that I have been experimenting with–is the result of many, many repetitions and a good deal of patience as I learn to accept how much practice is required.

The final quote that I’ll share is also from Strozzi Heckler–it’s helps me to come back, again and again, to these practices and micropractices because it reminds me of the nature of practice and the value of conscious practice in enabling me to show up in the world, and especially as a leader, at my best:

It’s necessary to come to terms with the fact that we are always practicing. In other words, the body is incapable of not practicing. And what we practice we become.

With that, happy practicing (and micropracticing!)

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