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.  

Self-Awareness: A Developmental Theme of Mindful Leaders

Portrait Artist's Studio“Self-aware leaders are attuned to their inner signals. They recognize, for instance, how their feelings affect themselves and their job performance. Instead of letting anger build into an outburst, they spot it as it crescendos and can see both what’s causing it and how to do something constructive about it.” Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, & Annie McKee in Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence

An ancient teaching of philosophy and the wisdom traditions to, “know thyself” speaks to the significance of leader self-awareness, an element of emotional intelligence (EQ). EQ represents a developmental concept, supported by a weighty body of research, that examines “how should I feel about this?”

The interest in EQ has been growing in popularity and influence since 1995 when Daniel Goleman published his seminal book based primarily on the research findings of scholars, Peter Salovey and John Mayer. Since that time, thousands of research papers and hundreds of books on the topic have been published. While a trendy and popular topic of the leadership literature for years, EQ and its four elements (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, social management)  are as relevant today, if not more so, when it comes to leader effectiveness in our ever increasing VUCA environment.

The good news is that the ten developmental themes that emerged from my research (and my experience as a meditation practitioner for the last seven years) reinforce the growing understanding that mindfulness meditation can and does cultivate self-awareness and EQ in general. Without self-awareness, leaders are inclined to react from unconscious habitual patterns of thought, word, and actions (i.e., blind spots) that often have negative impacts on the work environment. The more blind spots leaders have, the more at risk they are for costly missteps.

Greater self-awareness provides the “inner-space” one needs to notice sensations and see thoughts arising within and to choose a constructive response over a destructive reaction.   Expanding self-awareness also typically evolves into the capacity to comprehend more complexity, which naturally involves a transition toward a more inclusive self-identity. Consequently, greater self-awareness translates into more intentional leading and living over time as illustrated in voices of these mindful leaders.

So, it (mindfulness practice) has helped me to notice how I am in relationship and how I come across. It has helped me to continue to refine how I am with others so that I can work better with people. It has helped me to manage conflict with people when there is conflict. It’s helped me to just kind of have a better sense of my strengths and weaknesses and how to bring that into meetings and working with the team. (Female middle manager in the personal-development industry)

So through self-awareness, I take a bigger picture approach, so I’m more open to what they (more senior leaders) are wanting to achieve and I can see the bigger context of why decisions are made. And in direct relationship experiences with superiors, I find that I’m more…probably more balanced, more open to discussion as well and having more confidence in myself and belief in my ability as a leader and manager of a group then I can integrate with persons of a higher authority and I’m not feeling challenged or inferior. I can see, not necessarily as an equal in status or rank, but an equal as a person to person kind of thing…discussing the ideas and then making it happen, so that’s been a definite change in me. (Male administrator higher education)

Thus, mindful leaders are more attuned to their inner worlds through growing self-awareness that makes a positive and powerful difference not only in their formal leadership roles but in all areas of their lives. This developmental theme of mindful leaders and the nine others that emerged from my research, as well as my own life-experience, support the transformative potential of mindfulness meditation. So, what are you waiting for? Try mindfulness meditation for yourself and begin reaping the developmental fruits associated with an active, consistent, and persistent practice (i.e., the path of mindfulness meditation is a PATH, a very rich one, but it is not a quick fix).

 

Note: This essay is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders by Denise Frizzell, Ph.D.

 

Commitment to the (Mindfulness Meditation) Practice: A Developmental Theme of Mindful Leaders

young man exercising yoga

Freedom is not the absence of commitments, but the ability to choose – and commit myself to – what is best for me. Paulo Coelho in The Zahir

 

 

Modern neuroscience is illuminating humanity’s understanding of the nervous system including the human brain and the evolutionary discovery that the human adult brain has a quality of neuroplasticity, the ability to change. This ability to change permits rewiring of the neural pathways or circuits established by longtime habitual cognitive-emotional-behavioral patterns throughout the entire lifespan.

It is difficult to emphasize the significance of this finding (and numerous others), because it undercuts a paradigm historically held by scientists and mental health professionals that the human brain becomes “hardwired” in childhood. Thankfully, humans can and do rewire our brains and form new habits throughout our lives which is extremely good news for individuals, organizations, and humanity’s collective future!

Despite the good news of neuroplasticity, we all know that changing longtime habitual patterns is not easy. This is in part due to our highly efficient human brains that naturally seek to conserve energy by autopiloting repetitive thoughts-emotions-action loops so as to free up cognitive capacity for new, creative, and more complex endeavors.

However, a growing body of scientific findings on meditation and the brain indicate that practices such as mindfulness meditation support the replacement of self-defeating habits with more constructive habits (to include meditation itself!) while also facilitating structural changes that enhance well-being.  The mindful leaders in my 2015 doctorate study demonstrated the capacity of the adult brain to rewire neural pathways and form development-oriented habits through a commitment to their mindfulness practice as depicted in the following example.

And when I don’t practice, I miss it.  I long for it, and I feel, it helps being married, having a barometer [laughs] that lives with you. Who says, ‘Has it been a couple of days since you sat?’  ‘Or a couple of weeks, perhaps?’  You know, ‘What’s going on?’  And, usually he doesn’t have to say that.  Usually just my own reactivity speaks to me, his responses to me speak to me that show me that I’m off base.  And I do miss it and it was profound for me when I realized that meditation is like food.  It’s nurturing.  So, there’s no longer the hammer of a should, if I don’t practice there will be negative consequences.  It’s more that I really long for my own sanity I think.

Thus, the mindful leaders studied appear to be experiencing the fruits of their practices and the promise of neuroplasticity. They are freeing themselves from unproductive habitual patterns and choosing new constructive habits for better (and more sane) lives to include commitment to their meditation practices.  For more information on the good news of neuroplasticity and additional (r)evolutionary findings in the realm of neuroscience and meditation, check out “Buddha’s Brain” by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

 

This essay is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders by Denise Frizzell, PhD, Holistically-Oriented Transformative Coaching and Management Consulting (http://www.metamorphosisconsultation.com).

Revised 7/12/2017