Dialogue on Leadership

A Dialogue on Leadership in Uncertain Times – Session 8

January 29, 2010 Today, I said goodbye to my client, JFM.  I did not see this coming.  A month ago, she was securing a position in a flagship company in her industry.  Shortly thereafter, she was accepted into one of the finest international MBA programs in the world.  This is the final piece in an eight-part series, chronicling our work together as we have tracked JFM through a full year of unemployment, exploring the inner journey, and its relationship to leadership.  She sought me out as a leadership coach a year ago, after being fired from her position as president of a medium-sized company.

JFM:    When I was in college, I became very ill.  I was in and out of the hospital, and my grades suffered as a result.  When I applied to this MBA program, I never thought that I would be accepted.  The school contacted me earlier this week, offering me a place in their program.  I have been teary for the past two days.

To accept this invitation is not the easy choice.  We are selling our home to make this happen.  I never thought that I could sell my house.  I worried about this as a possible outcome all year long.  For the past year, I have been driven to maintain my life as I have known it, to recreate all that was familiar.  But when it came time to make the decision to sell the house, somehow, I was ready to let it go.  I am learning to release my death grip on life. For years, I have turned away from a strong intuitive knowing.  I feel like I have betrayed myself by ignoring this voice.  I was always trying to do the right thing, to be perfect in the eyes of those around me.  My career offered me a well-travelled trajectory.  I watched others follow this trajectory; I watched many people ‘advance.’   I was on this same path and I never strayed far.  I lost my inner guidance along the way.

Now, it is as if the world has blown open.  There is no trajectory.  I am going to Europe, and I will study for the next year.  I feel like a dry sponge; I can’t wait to soak up knowledge.  As I step away from what  is known, and the illusory sense of certainty that it offered, my life feels a little more frightening, but also unshackled.  I do not want to betray myself any further.

Jan:      Everything that you have learned this past year, including both the experience of not listening to your inner voice, and your present sense of self-betrayal as a result, is grist for the mill.  In this sense, you can make friends with your ‘self-betrayal.’  It has been such a teacher. Long silence.  JFM gently cries.

Jan:    You are experiencing what it means to live according to the guidance of your own true Self.   Our true Self arises from an infinite field of intelligent awareness.  To lead from this place of truth is the highest form of leadership.

It requires tremendous discernment to know when we are deciding from this place of inner truth, and when our actions or decisions are generated from the mind, or ego.  Our true Self  embodies the highest virtues - Truth, Joy, Equanimity, Courage, Unconditional Love, Authenticity, Hope, Humility.  Our mind, however, tends to be fear-based, preoccupied with our survival and well-being.  When our decisions arise solely from the mind, we begin to feel alienated from ourselves, and this, in turn, creates a sense of alienation from the world around us.   We experience the world as chaotic, as though we have to fend for ourselves, hold ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  We feel separated from the very fabric of existence, and the matrix of interconnection that we are embedded within.  This sense of existential separation is a root cause of greed.  Our response is to hoard, plan, and obsessively strategize.   If we do not have the experience of living any other way, then the thought of releasing the illusion of a ‘planned trajectory’ is terrifying.  You were standing at this crossroad when I first met you.  A part of you wanted to live differently, and a part of you was terrified of leaving your well-worn path.

You have asked, ‘How do I know when a decision is coming from my mind versus my highest Self?’  Many times, I have said, ‘Study your own process.  Test what is true, and how things work, through your own experience.  Observe carefully within your own life the place from which your actions and decisions arise, and notice what happens.  Practice discernment.’ Discernment begins with becoming more alert to the ground that is right under your feet.  We sometimes refer to this as presence.  It often requires beginning to notice how you actually pay attention, opening and widening your perceptual field, so that you have the capacity to attend to the inner and the outer world at the same time.  The mind plays the critical role of discrimination in this process.  It does this best when it is spacious and open. To better discern we have to be willing to face into the dark side of being human – our greed, fear, deceit, judgement, impatience, and limited capacity to love.   This is necessary so that we begin to identify what makes us vulnerable to not facing our inner truth.  These limitations are a part of being human.  To face ourselves requires humility, and a tremendous amount of courage.

You have demonstrated that courage.  Our work together this past year, most of which has not been chronicled, has been an invitation to take an unflinching look at yourself.  You have been willing to face moments of self-deceit, shame, arrogance, insecurity, grief, and self-imposed limitations.  As you do this, you begin to sort out the image that you hold of yourself from what is true.  You are better able to discern when decisions are arising from the darker places within you, and when they are arising from your true Self.

As we were coming to the end of our last session, you began to cry.  You said that you were going to miss this process, and me.  I did not see this coming.  I said, ‘We don’t have to say goodbye quite yet.  You can come back next month.’  I then heard from that place of knowing within myself, ‘No, Jan, let her go.  She is saying goodbye to you, and this is correct.  It is time to let go.’  But my mind protested.  I repeated, ‘You can come back.’  You did not say anything, but, instead, wept quietly.  Again, I heard, ‘Let her go.  Turn towards this moment in which she is saying goodbye to you.’  I shared with you that I am one of those people that slips out of the backdoor at a party, instead of saying goodbye to the host.  In that moment, I watched my own resistance to separation, to endings.  We both cried, saying goodbye, with your intuitive knowing – your own true Self - as the voice of recognition that it was time.


A Dialogue on Leadership in Uncertain Times – Session 7

January 11, 2010 For JFM, the year 2009 was fraught with all that comes with unemployment – economic insecurity, a gnawing sense of uncertainty, questions about what went wrong, and struggles with a sense of identity and self-esteem.  At the same time, this past year gave her an opportunity to get off the corporate treadmill, to slow down, reflect, and go inward.  After sharing with me that she has been offered a position at a flagship company in her industry, she began to speak about her concerns as she considers making the transition back to the corporate world.

JFM:     The person who wishes to hire me invited me to go out for a celebration dinner.  But, without a contract in hand, I wonder if it is premature to celebrate.  With the possibility of a new position I am fully aware that even though I act as if I know what is coming I am in perpetual unknowing.  Having lived for the past year with a constant sense of uncertainty I can no longer hide from the fact that we never know what is going to happen next.  Even so, I find myself trying to anticipate this transition, assuming that the contract will come through.

I feel like I have had a year of grace.  It has changed my life.  I am coming out of winter.  When trees head into winter, they drop their leaves.  This past year I did this—I shed old and tired parts of myself.  Parts of me just dropped away.   As this happened some part of me has opened.  My heart has opened.  For the first time in my life, I do not want to be my story. Now that I am returning to work, I wonder:  how do I go back into the corporate world without returning to my old story, without wearing the masks of my old corporate persona?

Jan:     Listening to you reminds me of what it is like to go on a retreat, experiencing profound change, and the subsequent challenge of returning to daily life, with a desire to integrate what has been learned.  Although it is the nature of one’s mind to anticipate what is coming, rehearsal of this integration is not possible.  One of the most significant changes in your life has been the work that you have done on strengthening your connection to the present moment.  Perhaps what is most important at this time is to continue to deepen your capacity to be awake and aware moment to moment.  The desire to rehearse this transition is a training ground for this practice.  Watch the mind’s tendency to anticipate, and gently pull it back.  As you observe the mind in this state of anticipation, you are, by definition, returning to the moment.

Change is not linear.  Integration after a long period of inner work is not linear.  There will be times when you will find yourself falling into old habits and patterns.  Habit has a strong magnetic pull, and it will continue to exert itself, until it does not.  The challenge is to avoid self-judgement, and simply to observe.   Each time you bring your attention to the underlying habitual patterns themselves, they begin to loosen.  Nothing is more powerful than where we place our attention.

The way that you are presenting this question has imbedded within it judgement, as if there is something to fix, to get right.   There is nothing to fix.  There is nothing to get right.  There is simply the work of waking up, noticing your inner world, and its relationship to the world around you, its relationship to the company and the people that you are serving.  Your leadership will grow and evolve as you deepen this capacity to observe this relationship without judgement.

One reason we burn out or lose a sense of inspiration is that we start to live life largely defined by habit.  The moment gets absorbed in the suffocating coccoon of expectation and anticipation. Expectation and anticipation carry the burden of a chronic underlying sense of anxiety and worry.  At the heart of rehearsing what is to come is a desire to control the future.

As a leader, the more “experience” you have, the greater the possibility of falling into the trap of leading from this state of anticipation.  Although it is true that experience is a great teacher, it can also be a profound blindspot for seasoned executives, precisely because there is a tendency to continually overlay or impose this experience on the present moment.  The truth is, every meeting, every deal, every interaction is its own configuration.  When you release into uncertainty, and show up for each moment, life becomes more spontaneous, more delightful.  Leaders that show up every day with this capacity for “presence” are inspiring.  Work becomes dynamic and joyful under their leadership.

In our world today, as we begin to recognize the unsustainability of many of our business practices, those leaders who have the internal equanimity and “presence of mind” to see the present with clarity will lead change.  There is not a model or a paradigm for many of the challenges that we are facing, particularly since the world has been knitted together into a global community.  With the lessons learned from the past, combined with a sober and clear sense of what is unfolding in the present, there is recognition of what the future is calling us to do differently; we call this vision.

Your industry has not been on the cutting edge of change.   Given the state of the industry, it desperately needs leadership that is willing to take an unflinching look at where things stand, without relying on the illusion that somehow business can go on as usual.  Imbedded within this conscious appraisal of the present is opportunity.  This past year, in the silence that you have cultivated within, you have found the capacity to lead with greater equanimity.  You have strengthened your inner knowing, and you have begun to understand the relationship between this inner knowing and the vast field of interconnection that we are imbedded within.  This helps to take the pressure off of you as an individual, as you tap into a deeper, collective wisdom.  Your challenge in 2010 is to continue to practice taking action - and leading - from this place of inner stillness.  The pace of the corporate world will challenge this practice.  It will require that you continue to uphold your meditation practice, and most of all, it will require courage.


A Dialogue on Leadership in Uncertain Times – Session 6

December 3, 2009 After a full year of unemployment JFM came into our last session confident that she was on the brink of securing a challenging position within an innovative brand in her industry.  Although there was palpable relief at seeing “light at the end of the tunnel,” she was, at the same time, wistful about the past year.

JFM:    I look back at this past year with a certain kind of yearning.  I was aware throughout this ordeal that I was going through something painful but special.  Sometimes I wonder why I had to suffer so much in order to learn a lesson.  But at the same time it is clear that, for the most part, I needed this wake-up call in order to change.  I mean, who wants to change, really?



A Dialogue on Leadership in Uncertain Times – Session 5

November 4, 2009 After last month’s entry, I received multiple inquiries similar to this one:  “What happened to JFM?  Is she still working?”  I laughed; I had been so focused on the Big Important Ideas that had emerged in coaching that it hadn’t occurred to me that people were equally, if not more interested in the storyline.  When I shared with JFM that people were curious about what had happened to her she responded with this:

JFM:    That’s interesting…For the first time in this process, the fact that people are asking about the person behind the drama makes me feel a little self-conscious.  What has happened to me on the inside is much more valuable than what has happened on the outside.  Externally, I’ve been on some interesting job searches, even following one overseas, I’ve taken myself on a 10 day meditation retreat, and, while I am still looking for a position, I’m also considering an MBA.


A Dialogue on Leadership in Uncertain Times – Session 4

October, 2009 In this session, my client recalls that there were clues along the way indicating that she was “out of sync” with her leadership, and her company.  She is grappling with why she chose to ignore the signs. JFM:    After years in the corporate world I treasure the time between Christmas and New Year, a rare stretch of quiet time in which I slow down enough to catch up with myself.  I recall that last Christmas I was sitting by the fire and I thought, “I need to speak to the board, to be honest about the fact that this situation is an untenable one.”  I imagined the dialogue going something like this:  “There are things I need to tell you.  At the end of this conversation you may decide I’m not the right person for the job.  And if this happens, we can talk about next steps.”


A Dialogue on Leadership in Uncertain Times- Session 3

This is the third article in a series that invites the reader to eavesdrop on coaching sessions between JFM, who has been fired from her role as President of a medium-sized company, and her advisor, Jan Birchfield, Ph.D., of Princeton Leadership Development.  In this conversation, we explored the relationship between leadership and power.JFM:    I keep trying to understand what happened to me, how I contributed to having been fired.  My CEO had a strong personality, and at the same time he was insecure, had to be treated with “kid gloves.”  Looking back, there were many situations where I capitulated – I didn’t speak up and offer my point of view, I didn’t fight hard enough for what I thought was true.  I need to address this, so that I don’t repeat this mistake in my next position. Jan:     You are talking about your relationship to power.  It is critical that leaders have a clear understanding of this relationship.  It is rare to witness someone who holds power in a balanced way; most leaders either over- or under-power.  Many bounce back and forth, underpowering in some situations, overpowering in others.  Leaders who have a balanced relationship to power evoke trust.  It sounds like your tendency is to underplay your power. JFM:  Absolutely.  I tend to hold back, particularly with those above me. Jan:    What strikes me is how much power you actually hold.  You have a natural authority about you.  You stand out, even when you aren’t trying to, because of your innate authority.  At the same time, you are highly attuned to the feelings of others with a dislike of making others uncomfortable.  I suspect that you do not want this strong presence to overwhelm people or evoke envy.  So, in part, you hold back in order to protect people from discomfort they may have in relationship to you.  From what you have described with your CEO, you could sense that he was easily threatened, so you took care of him emotionally by throttling back, at the expense of standing firmly in your own shoes, in your own power. JFM:     Yes.  We had an unspoken agreement that I would tread lightly. Jan:    I’ve seen this many times, particularly with female leaders, although this isn’t exclusive to women; there are men who do the same.  But women seem particularly prone to this.  You have incredible capacity, but there is a way in which you are afraid of it.  In the end, this does not serve your organization.  You deprive the decision making process of the refinement in thinking that comes from dissent.  You end up in service of your boss’s ego, as opposed to being in service of the mission of your organization. At the opposite end of the continuum are those who are seduced by power, overidentifying with it and using it for personal gain.  When a leader exploits power there is a loss of deep listening to context.  The field of connection or the larger matrix that the leader operates within falls out of view, and again, the mission of the organization is not served. JFM:      So I need to accept the fact that the power that I hold may make people uncomfortable, and to step into it, anyway. Jan:  Yes, recognizing that this does not mean that your only other choice is to move to the opposite pole, which is to overidentify with power.  When you observe power you begin to recognize that holding authority is a gift.  In this sense, it isn’t “who we are.”  In Ancient Greece and Rome a person would be described as “having a genius,” not “being a genius.”  Similarly, when we “have power,” we are actually tapping into a field that is larger than us; power comes through us.  If you understand it in this way, you will hold it lightly, and you won’t be so afraid of it.  One of the dynamics at work when leaders exploit power is an overidentification with it; the leader shifts from “I have power” to “I am powerful.” To be in a balanced relationship to power requires tremendous humility.  This is true with our children, at work, with friends, with strangers, with those that we lead.  Humility arises when we see through the illusion of personal identification with power; this increases the chance that we will use it in service of something larger than ourselves.  Equally important, if you see power as a gift, than to not use it is to waste it. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jan-birchfield-phd/a-dialogue-on-leadership_b_279512.html

A Dialogue on Leadership in Uncertain Times – Session 2

August 14, 2009 Our conversation opened with CFM reflecting on how her boss had great difficulty facing her, after the board made the decision to let her go.  Having had a strong relationship to him prior to this decision, she was caught off-guard when he suddenly became distant and uncomfortable.  CFM spoke about the impact that the firing had on her self esteem.

Jan:  It’s not uncommon when you know you are about to lose someone, to inadvertently look for all of the things that were wrong with that person in the first place, in order to soften the blow of the loss.  When leaders are in the position of having to let someone go, one of the challenges is to stay connected to that person through this process.  A leader once said to me that when he was faced with having to fire someone his goal was to have that person leave his office with his/her self-esteem in tact.  It is not possible to do this if he uses distance as a way to get through this difficult experience.  It sounds like this may have happened in your situation. Nonetheless, being fired didn’t hurt your self esteem, rather it brought to the surface doubt about yourself that already existed.  Many of us struggle with tenacious feelings of self-doubt; this is embodied deep within American culture.  When this doubt arises we tend to look at the external trigger, and blame it for our bad feeling.  It is helpful to recognize this – that negative experiences can’t trigger self doubt unless the doubt is already there.  When self doubt is not present in the first place, a person will not be shaken when rejected by another, or when treated unkindly.  There will not be a lingering feeling of self doubt. There may be a fleeting feeling of hurt or anger, but this will pass quickly.


A Dialogue on Leadership in Uncertain Times – An 8-part Series – Session l

2009 – 2010This is an 8-part series that I wrote, in conjunction with a client,  for the Huffington Post. It tracks a six-month coaching relationship with an executive who had recently lost her job. I have reposted it so that it can be read in consecutive order. Below each entry you will find a link to the Huffpost.

June 6, 2009

Three months ago I was fired from my position as President of a medium-sized company, in an industry that had employed me for 20 years.  When I received this news I left the office completely numb.  How could this have happened to me?  18 months earlier, when I took this position, I realized that the business that I had been charged with was deeply challenged.  The most pressing issue was that this business, the size of a Mini-Cooper, was barreling along with a cash burn rate of a Mac truck.  Our monthly expenses were through the roof, while sales were creeping along.  The business was far from break-even.  On a monthly basis during our board calls, I felt that I might be the one to break, before the business became truly viable.