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How to ‘be’ a leader, not just how to ‘do’ leadership

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Leadership is about who we are, not just what we say, say Roffey Park's Sue Binks and Tom Kenward.

There is much talk of how complex and ambiguous, even volatile, the world of work has become in recent years. Leaders have to work within that complexity and make good decisions on a daily basis. As the challenges that face leaders change and evolve over time, so do the skills that leaders need to be effective. These skills are no longer just about the intellectual capacity to deal with massive amounts of information - the domain of head, or even just about the emotional intelligence to influence and inspire others - more the domain of the heart and gut. Leaders need to be able to pay attention to and fully harness their physical intelligence – their whole body - and integrate all three domains to be authentic, resourceful and present.

Our body, or somatic experience, is often left out yet it is an enormous source of information, wisdom and power. The body, especially in the western world, gets treated as if it is simply that thing that carries the brain around, particularly at work. However, emotions often manifest early as sensations in the body and get translated into words and actions. Often, all we can express is that something doesn’t feel right. Or, if we haven’t developed sufficient emotional intelligence, our verbal and bodily response is dictated with no intention on our part at all. Malcolm Gladwell explores this gut feel or the role of intuition in expert decision making in his book 'Blink'. A more creative, intuitive response to the complex and ‘wicked' [1] problems leaders encounter daily is courageous but necessary. But being able to distinguish between true intuitive responses and primal instincts is a tricky task.

Our brains developed as an incredibly powerful tool for survival, but it too often takes over without us even noticing. So many times I've heard people say 'I can’t stop thinking about...' or 'it keeps going round and round in my mind and I can’t make sense of it', 'my brain won’t switch off – I can’t sleep'. That powerful servant of cognition has become the master. Alternatively, our instinctive, emotional ‘flight or fight’ responses can also grip us in a flash. Whenever we feel threatened in any way, our brains can close off most of our options for data gathering and action, leaving us susceptible to playing out our lifelong habits in contexts where that will not serve us or our leadership responsibilities. The ability to lead from a place of being present enables us to take on the observer role, allowing ourselves to become more aware of our thoughts, our words, our feelings, our actions and ourselves as the thinker of the thoughts. This helps us see the bigger picture and make more intentional, impactful choices.

"Often, all we can express is that something doesn’t feel right. Or, if we haven’t developed sufficient emotional intelligence, our verbal and bodily response is dictated with no intention on our part at all."

By being able to lead with presence and from a grounded, centred sense of our true selves, we can act with more awareness, intentionality and, ultimately, impact. This means that we can make choices based on knowledge of our own assumptions, values and perspectives in the moment, and not just as abstract concepts. We can also understand what filters we are applying to the wealth of data that is out there and integrate our intellect and compassion, expertise and aspirations, and hopes with our discernment.

Peter Senge in his book 'Presence' talks about the state of presence being essential if we are going to survive, not just in business, but as a species. For him, presence gives us the ability to see ourselves as connected in so many ways, in and of so many living systems, whether this is environmental, macroeconomic, organisational, community or family. The responsibility we have as leaders is often far wider than we allow ourselves to acknowledge. By being present, we can see ourselves as connected, as part of a bigger whole whilst not becoming paralysed by the enormity of that.

What Senge also talks about is how being present can connect us to our sense of purpose. This ability to have a clearly articulated sense of purpose is immensely powerful as a leader. The desire to be contributing to something worthwhile in our working lives is becoming more prominent. A leader with this ‘compass point’ who can embody it moment by moment is magnetic. However, this is not a trait that you either do or do not possess, it is something that needs to be cultivated, practiced and explored on an ongoing basis.

The education of leaders and managers has become relatively sophisticated over the last few decades. A lot of very capable managers know a great deal 'about' leadership, but that learning doesn’t necessarily give the time or attention needed to develop authentic presence. The cognitive approach to leadership needs to be supplemented, now more than ever, by a more spontaneous, intuitive and felt approach; how to ‘be’ a leader, not just how to ‘do’ leadership.

Our approach to developing present leaders is to work pragmatically and collaboratively to explore what being present means to each person. There are a number of different tools and techniques which we blend including mindfulness, gestalt, somatics and equine-assisted learning. It is an opportunity to connect your head and what you know about leadership into your whole body and explore how you show up as a leader. It is also an opportunity to train your mind in a different way, so that it is less likely to trip you up and get in the way of you accessing this wider wisdom and power that is available to you in your work and wider life. This is about helping leaders develop a clear picture of what drives them, as well as how to stay rooted in that under pressure. This is about getting a clearer sense of how to engage and inspire others by connecting to what matters to you and them.

Sue Binks is senior consultant and Tom Kenward is development consultant at Roffey Park

[1] See Keith Grint “Problems, problems, problems”

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