Holistic Leadership Development: Four Common Internal Barriers that Hurt Relationships and Hinder Efficacy (and Ways to Transform Them)

Most leaders, especially those of us interested in contributing to the “Great Transition” desire to be in “right relationship” with our family, friends, loved ones, coworkers, and hopefully, the entire Earth Community. However, many of us may find that as simple as it sounds, it is not always easy to consistently actualize. Furthermore, many of us may find that WE are our biggest obstacles! In other words, unconscious internal barriers may be hurting our relationships and hindering our capacity to fulfill our deepest desires to contribute to a better world.

These internal barriers or scripts are unconscious feeling-sensation-thought-action loops that can be activated by difficult people or circumstances (i.e., triggers). Bodily sensations and emotional responses to “triggers” happen much faster than mental responses or thoughts. In such difficult circumstances, our thoughts tend to lag behind our bodily sensations and emotional responses, and we are in danger of slipping into “automatic pilot” with our thoughts racing to catch up with justifications.

While these habitual patterns differ, there are four common scripts that leaders may recognize:

  • self-absorption,
  • fault-finding,
  • parental-childlike patterns, and
  • overidentification with ego defense

Self-absorption is an internal pattern with full attention on ME as THE reference point. Thus, my desires, thoughts, feelings, wants, comforts, etc., are all that matter. And, in this state, I will say and do anything that satisfies ME and my wants. I imagine most of us realize (when not stuck in autopilot) how destructive and hurtful this pattern can be in our lives. We can contrast this self-absorption pattern with the more desirable and helpful pattern of seeing oneself as A reference point while also considering the wants and needs of others and our world.

Fault-finding or critical mind is an internal pattern that places full attention on the faults or shortcomings of a person, place, circumstance, or space. Again, I imagine most of us can see the potential for unproductive and destructive outcomes of this script. A constructive alternative to this seductive pattern is the practice of “seeing the good” in a person, circumstance or space. This is similar to the practice of Appreciate Inquiry (link) at group and organizational levels.

Parental and childlike states arise from collective memories or permanent recordings of unprocessed life experiences primarily from one to five years of age. The parental state is often recognizable by absolutes of “should,” “ought,” “must,” “never,” and “always.” While our childlike state is often recognizable by strong feelings of both delight and despair. While there can be positive expressions of these both states and styles, Adult: Adult relationships are the aim in many professional environments (for more on this topic, please see my essay, “Using Transactional Analysis for Self-Awareness and Self-Management”).

An ego defense pattern typically arises out of an overidentification with a cherished self-identity associated with a belief, personality, role, or demographic (e.g., race, gender or political affiliation). Indications of being in a state of overidentification include feelings of defensiveness, anger, resentment, self-pity, and self-indignation.

The good news about these unhelpful and potentially hurtful internal patterns is that thanks to the neuroplasticity of our brains, we can reprogram them with constructive alternatives using practices such as the five Rs!

The five Rs to reprogram internal barriers that can hurt relationships and hinder efficacy are–recognizing, refraining, releasing, reorienting, and replacing.

  • Recognizing: Recognize your internal signals of a trigger person or event which may include a tightening sensation in and around the heart or stomach, an increase in heart rate, or a rush of bodily heat.
  • Refraining: Refrain from speaking or acting. Allow your internal signals to be while you mentally note them with compassion and nonjudgment.
  • Releasing: Release the energy or charge with a few deep breaths while you gently shift your attention to your hands or feet. If on your hands, gently open and close them while you take your deep breaths. If on your feet, gently press them into the floor as take your deep breaths. If you can take a walk, do so while placing light attention on your feet as they make contact with the ground.
  • Reorienting: Reorient your intention and attention on something or someone constructive and centering. This may be an affirmation, mantra, or value statement (e.g., May love guide me.)
  • Replacing: Replace an automatic reaction with a constructive response.

However, as many of us well know (I sure do!), in a difficult moment or exchange, the Five Rs or any other tool for more constructive relating is frequently overtaken by the force of long-standing habitual patterns (i.e., the amygdala response). Thus, for this type of inner development, it is imperative to integrate highly supportive or “transformative” practices into one’s life such as concentration and mindfulness meditation . Over time, these meditation techniques help cultivate the inner witness or observer self. They also help calm the typical human “monkey mind” such that inner mental space starts to grow and offer the practitioner more time to activate the Five Rs and begin dismantling our internal barriers to right-relationship and personal efficacy.  

Greater Tolerance for Ambiguity: A Developmental Theme of Mindful Leaders

An Integrative Leader Development Framework for the 21st Century

As the rate of change continues to increase exponentially and our lives become more interdependent, complex, and uncertain, humanity needs holistic or integrative frameworks to better understand and respond to the unprecedented demands of the 21st century. These unparalleled demands include threats to our very survival as a species from pressures of climate change, terrorism, water scarcity, food insecurity, poverty and social inequality, political corruption, and economic instability.

Consequently, U.S. philosopher Ken Wilber proposed that any truly integrative or integral view of human and social phenomenon must minimally include the individual subjective/interior, the individual behavioral/exterior, the collective intersubjective/interior, and the collective interobjective/exterior. Borrowing from Wilber’s All Quadrant All Level or AQAL framework, an integrative approach to leader development addresses the individual internal and individual external dimensions while acknowledging the larger context of leadership development and leadership. Thus, in this more expansive context, an integrative leader-development framework must first consider human existence and well-being from a holistic perspective, as well as the insights and learnings from adult-development theory.

Ken Wilber, American Philosopher

Given that leaders are first and foremost human, the foundation of this integrative leader-development framework is a comprehensive view of human existence and well-being or wellness. Wellness is a holistic and proactive view of health that regards humans as beings with physical bodies, mental bodies, emotional bodies, and spiritual bodies embedded in social and natural environments and dependent on a vibrant planet Earth. Wellness also emphasizes the overall quality of life and not solely the absence of disease. Wellness is highly significant to leader development because general wellness supports full and consistent access to current developmental capacities and provides the “fertile ground” necessary for ongoing self-development. Although various models of wellness exist, a general framework includes physical, mental-emotional, financial or material, spiritual, social, and environmental dimensions.

Physical well-being is a core dimension of wellness and generally refers to the capacity to meet the demands and potential crises of ordinary life. When physical health and vitality are compromised, it is more difficult to be one’s best self or tend to other areas of wellness. Physical wellness includes regular exercise or body movement, healthy weight, strength and flexibility, rest and relaxation, and sleep. It also includes one’s food and beverage choices and how they affect one’s overall well-being, including general health, vitality, energy, mood, weight, body-mass index (BMI), and stamina.

Mental-emotional wellness refers to awareness, constructive expression, and healthy integration of thoughts and feelings. Thus, mental-emotional wellness includes numerous areas that are highly relevant to an integrative approach to leader development such as mental attitudes, beliefs, mindsets, thoughts, feelings, personality, shadow, identity, motivation, will, self-awareness, perceptions, and self-regulation. Financial or material wellness refers to having adequate financial or material resources to meet essential basic human needs (e.g., food, potable water, clothing, and shelter) and support the fulfillment of higher needs (e.g., self-actualization).

Spiritual wellness refers to a sense of interconnectedness or relationship to and with all life/Life (immanent and transcendent), as well as a sense of awe and appreciation for the mysteries of life/Life. Furthermore, spiritual (or existential) wellness relates to the meaning and purpose derived from contributing to ideals or causes beyond the self (e.g., justice, peace, and sustainability). Social wellness refers to one’s ability to have and maintain healthy adult relationships in all areas of life (e.g., intimate, family, work, and community). Also, social wellness refers to a sense of belonging in the world as well as the capacity to engage in authentic, skillful, and constructive self-expression and communication. Environmental wellness refers to the overall quality and stability of one’s social and natural environments.

Furthermore, as highlighted in Wilber’s Integral Theory, the physical body can be viewed as three bodies, not one, which is also highly significant in an integrative leader-development framework. The three bodies are the gross body, the subtle body, and the causal body. The gross body or actual physical body includes all aspects of the body we typically think about—our skin, bones, muscles, systems, organs, tissues, cells, blood, etc.

The subtle body includes energies of the life force associated with human existence. Wilber’s AQAL associates the subtle body with dream states where earthly laws disintegrate. However, the energies of the subtle body are not limited to sleeping states. They are activated and alive in times of vision, inspiration, and creativity. Thus, although still not formally recognized by Western physiology, growing appreciation for and acceptance of subtle energies enlivens our being, as found in Eastern healing and religious traditions such as tai chi, yoga, and Hinduism. Furthermore, as other leadership writers have emphasized (e.g., Jim Loehr & Tony Schwartz,  2005 and Bruce Schneider, 2008), leaders who understand the role of subtle body energies will increase their potential for effectiveness, especially in the turbulent times of the 21st century.

The third body, the causal body aligns with deep sleep and an infinite openness, stillness, and formlessness or the Ground of Being. This is the body or state that the great mystics of the ages speak of, as expressed in the poem, “Expands His Being,” by Meister Eckhart (1260–1328):

All beings are words of God,
His music, His art.
Sacred books we are, for the infinite camps in our souls.
Every act reveals God and expands His Being.
I know that may be hard to comprehend.
All creatures are doing their best
to help God in His birth of Himself.
Enough talk for the night.
He is laboring in me;
I need to be silent for a while,
worlds are forming in my heart.

—In Love Poems from God (Ladinsky, 2002)

Thus, the three human bodies—gross, subtle, and causal—are highly relevant to this integrative leader-development framework, as addressed further throughout this book.

Note: This essay is an excerpt from my book, “Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders” available on Amazon. An audiobook version is also available on Audible, iTunes, and Amazon.

Ten Developmental Themes Audiobook Excerpts Now Available on my New YouTube Channel!

Greetings! I am excited to share that excerpts from the new audiobook version of Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders are now available on my new YouTube Channel. I invite you to check one of my first offerings:


Building a New Way of Leading: From Power Over to Power To and With

After the recent (September 2018) United States Senate Judiciary Committee voted to advance Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination to a full Senate vote, Senator Kamala Harris from California declared that Republican senators relied on “raw power” to push the nomination forward. While Kavanaugh ended up securing the Senate votes needed to fill the US Supreme Court seat, the degree of concurrence with this assessment of Senate Republicans (and Kavanaugh himself) indicate that change is in the air.

Change is in the air because this type of raw power or power over has been the norm of Western Civilization for eons. This history of power over includes the domination and objectification of women which was clearly on full display in the Kavanaugh drama as well. It was deeply painful for many women and men to witness this public display and “victory” of power over leadership. After all, haven’t Americans evolved as a people? How could this and so many other blatant displays of power over leadership succeed in 2018?

I admit to periodic despair and dismay over these failings of leadership. However, a growing number of people are rejecting power over leadership for a new way—leadership as power to and with. Power to and with occurs when individuals claim what the Native peoples of the American continents, according to anthropologist, author, and educator, Angeles Arrien (1940 -2014) refer to as “original medicine”  or their unique authentic inner power.

Speaker at Conference and PresentationAs we claim our authentic inner power, we free and fuel ourselves to genuinely express our deepest yearnings not only for ourselves but also for our world.  We are then able to move into power with relationships as we join in cooperative partnerships with others for a more equitable, inclusive, peaceful, and sustainable world for all.

For example, the current “Me Too Movement” which is bringing growing awareness of and action on sexual harassment and sexual assault against women, began in 2006 when Tarana Burke, an American community organizer, began using the phrase “Me Too” to bring attention to the severity of these social ills. Burke’s power to authentically self-express ignited a spark within American actress Alyssa Milano, who then used the term on the social media platform Twitter in 2017.

These two women claimed their power to authentic self-expression which has inspired thousands of women and men, celebrities and noncelebrities, to express power with one another to build an impactful movement. For example, the Me Too Movement has resulted in change within various sectors of American society, particularly the corporate media sector (e.g., firing and/or legal action against film producer and Miramax cofounder, Harvey Weinstein; CBS Corp. Chairman and CEO Les Moonves; NBC “The Today Show” anchor Matt Lauer, and CBS anchor Charlie Rose).

same Nasa url as the last one please

Further indications of this emerging new way of leading can also be seen in a growing body of academic and popular literature on this power to and with orientation such as feminine leadership, compassionate leadership, and participatory leadership. In addition, my 2015 doctoral research, which I highlight in my newly released book, Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders, identified integrated or balanced leadership as the primary developmental theme of mindful leaders. Integrative/balanced leadership is the term I chose to describe their shift from heavily weighted traditional masculine expressions of leadership to more balanced expressions of traditional feminine and masculine qualities.

Consequently, despite the darkness of our times and the onslaught of gross displays of raw power spued from high places, there are countless people, women and men, across the globe building a new way of leading from power over to power to and with. You too can contribute to this emerging expression of leading by engaging in a personal transformative journey that connects you with your authentic inner power and fosters an expansion of consciousness and heart our nations, world, and planet Earth so desperately needs.

You can also learn more about my book, Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders on my WhizBuzz page.