In 2006, Celeste began her role as a newly appointed executive director of a small health clinic that provides free medical care to low-income community members. Within three years, she and her board were close to fulfilling the organization’s vision: To expand the clinic throughout the region. The organization’s operational budget more than tripled.
Exciting times. Stressful times. The pressure of growing this primarily volunteer-based organization led her to admit:
I couldn’t handle the stress. I couldn’t sleep and had frequent stomach aches. I was exhausted and felt like I couldn’t go on. I believe I was called to do this work, but if I can’t handle the stress or make good decisions, this is not OK.
While her knowledge and experience of running a nonprofit grew by leaps –– her knowledge of her self as a leader also began to emerge.
"I became aware that any decision I made during this stressful time was made from my false self, influenced by my own fears and the stress that was so prevalent in my life at that time. Consequently, I made a conscious choice to avoid making as many decisions as possible until I could get some perspective. But an executive director cannot do that for long."
What changed for Celeste? She started the intentional change process.
"I found a safe place to learn about myself, share who I am and explore, ultimately getting to know myself. And, I deliberately spent time alone in reflection. Once I learned to deal with who I really am and learned that the answers would come to me when I took time alone to reflect, away from the work-based distractions, I discovered that deep inside I had already figured it out. I also started exercising and the change for me was immediate and life giving."
“Unfortunately, most people in leadership and helping positions lose their effectiveness over time because of the cumulative damage from chronic stress.” said Richard Boyatzis, PhD, researcher, author of The Resonant Leader and creator of the intentional change theory.
Celeste’s experience exemplifies the adaptive leadership capacity presented in the first installment of Leading with the Wise Mind. Clearly she was depleted physically and overwhelmed with her rational brain running at high capacity and distractions everywhere. Lao Tzu wrote: “One can not reflect in streaming water. Only those who know internal peace can give it to others.”
First step: intentional self-awareness
The process of leading at any level is one of courage and the willingness to feel the fire for awhile, to be uncomfortable so that you are willing to look at yourself and become self-aware. It can be emotionally painful. Yet, as Warren Bennis wrote: “Countless gifted people are broken by suffering. But leaders discover themselves in their crucibles. Great leaders have an extraordinary gift for coping with whatever life throws at them and have adaptive capacity....”
In reality, it’s about “getting comfortable with the reality of being uncomfortable,” said Chris Lowney, author of Heroic Leadership. “It’s also about knowing yourself,” he adds.
Executives who fail to develop self-awareness risk falling into an emotionally deadening routine that threatens their true selves. Indeed a reluctance to explore your inner landscape not only weakens your own motivation but can also corrode your ability to inspire others, according to Harvard Business Review.
In Celeste’s case, she paid attention to the (self) signals and made a deliberate, intentional decision to sustain herself so she could (manage herself) and lead. She also found a safe place to focus her attention.
What is a safe place? In the Daring to Lead 2011 study, many executives cited “executive coaching, peer networks, and leadership programs as effective ways… to grapple with the universal challenges of their roles and reflect on their own leadership practices in a safe environment. Engagement with peers—whether formally constituted or informally convened—was frequently mentioned as an effective way to mitigate feelings of isolation and to develop personal leadership skills.”
As leaders, most of us are comfortable with doing, but training your attention and taking time to reflect are important because “strong, stable and perceptive attention affords you calmness and clarity, the foundation upon which emotional intelligence (EQ) is built,” said Chade-Meng Tan in Search Inside Yourself.
Why is EQ important? If we can develop emotional self-awareness and equanimity, key EQ competencies, we will be giving ourselves the tools to step into the “space between stimulus and response – where the freedom to choose our response exists,” as described by Viktor Frankl. This is also where the wise mind lives.
Exercise: Learn how to step into the space where freedom to choose lives with this Five-step process toward self-awareness and intentional change.
Next installment: Becoming an emotionally intelligent leader through mindfulness.