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Leadership and Stress
“Leadership has nothing to do with power and rank but is a matter of self-realization; attain self realization and the whole world is found in the self. Leadership has nothing to do with wealth and status, but is a matter of harmony.”
– Lao Tzu
In today’s fast paced and complex world we are constantly being bombarded with new information, choices, and responsibilities that place demands on us in ways that we’ve never faced before. For leaders, this may be even more true as the competition for resources and as the machine paradigm of leadership places the ultimate responsibility for the success of our organizations on them. At the same time as Robert Kegan, in his book “In Over Our Heads”, suggests few of us are prepared for the complex demands we are faced with in.
It is therefore, essential that we understand the context within which we are asked to lead and that we are aware of the ways that we are able to respond to the stress that we face. Becoming familiar with how our Enneagram type affects our view of, and responses to the world, learning how to identify old patterns of responding physically and emotionally to difficult situations, and learning new strategies for connecting with the peace and centeredness of our essence are essential to our survival and success when we do find ourselves in over our heads.
Stress, according to Hans Selye, is our bodies response to the demands placed upon it. Selye, an endocrinologist and the father of stress research, said specifically that it was the body’s non-specific response to demands that, if continued over time, led to breakdowns in our systems and eventually illness. He called the process by which the repeated adaptations to our world over time lead to exhaustion (e.g. illness) the general adaptation syndrome. This pattern then is not just our response to major stressors like loss, but also to the day in and day out wear and tear associated with living and being in the world. To the degree that we are living in concert with our essence, purpose, and values, we are less likely to wear ourselves down. Further, when we are in touch with the natural flow of life’s energy, our connectedness, and the importance of relationship, we are more likely to benefit from the resources that the universe has to offer.
The Enneagram and Stress
Stress then, may also be also be seen as an indication that we are out of alignment with our core values and the expression of our essence and/or essential purpose in the world. The essence of our being as expressed through the window of our Enneagram types becomes distorted as we move through childhood and as we learn to respond to the world through this distortion. Each Enneagram type has it’s own particular view of the world as a whole and we express those distortions through that particular window to the world. For example, as a six, my basic fear is not being supported by the world and therefore not feeling safe. My way to security as a child was to be a good boy so that others would like and support me which meant withholding my thoughts and feelings and being constantly on the lookout for anything that threatened my sense of well-being. The resultant impact that this symptamology had on my body was that I tensed in places to protect myself from perceived fears and from expressing anything that would cause me to lose the support of those that were close to me. This pattern of behavior then may be seen as my body’s response to demands placed upon me which over time became more pervasive and problematic. Lacking awareness of this process many individuals turn to eating, drinking, working too hard, drugs, sex etc. as a means of satisfying the inner need that is not being met while incurring more stress as the body responds to new stressors and the effect that they have on our bodies.
The expression of the unique distortion that we live out through our type becomes embodied in our physical presence and maintains the distortions that were developed as children. They are maintained by how we hold ourselves and how we have contracted to protect ourselves from the pain that was experienced as we first came to give up our basic connection with the world and formed the ego structures that allowed us to maintain a connection with our primary caregivers who were themselves living out their own particular distortions.
So, we have developed both a way of being in the world expressed through our primary distortions and fears and we have also embodied them in our presence and in the ways that we respond behaviorally to the situations and people that we come in contact with. There are then different ways to work on the stress. There are strategies that are the best fit with your particular type and through the development of a new presence free from contractions.
Our particular way of being in the world also influences how we interact with others, the satisfaction that we find in our relationships, the sense of inner peace and satisfaction that we feel in relationship with ourselves, and how we express ourselves as leaders. As a One, perfectionistic tendencies may cause me to be critical of others and to not trust the ability of others to perform day-to-day tasks, and to have a superego that provides constant criticism of how I perform. As a Two, my tendency may be to expect colleagues to be there for me as I have for them and/or to establish relationships in which I continue to do for others, way beyond my physical capacity to maintain, in the hopes that they will love and accept me. In both instances there is both an inner and an outside price to pay for operating blindly from the distortions associated with my type. In both cases I am not fully present and in concert with my true sense of being and connectedness with the world of relationship. This ecological deficit takes it’s toll on me physically and psychologically and influences how others view me as a leader.
Somatics and Stress
So again, one method of working on reducing stress in our world is to become more aware of the characteristics of your type and another is to focus on your physical presence. The two are interrelated. Your continued study of how your type affects how you present yourself in the world will be valuable to reducing the overall stress that you accumulate. The physical method I’m referring to for dealing with stress is based on somatics. Somatics views the body, the mind and our feelings holistically. We can deal with issues in our lives cognitively, physically, and emotionally as all three are interrelated. Being aware of what leads to my feelings, knowing where in my body I hold my anxiety, fear, anger, and releasing it, leads to the possibility of a different emotional response and a new understanding of ourselves and others.
When we learn to identify our old patterns of shutting down our feelings and the strategies that we’ve used to deaden ourselves we can then begin to accept the defenses that we’ve developed and learn to release ourselves into a calm place, our center. When we become aware of our patterns and allow our feelings to arise and pass, we can use new strategies to return us to our center. From our center we are better able to choose our response to situations.
Learning to do this is like strengthening a muscle. At first you have to use strategies and practices to center yourself. After enough practice you can learn to feel calm and present naturally. After sufficient practicing, this calm centered place becomes a more natural and pervasive part of who we are and we can, in the face of stress, begin there, rather than having to return there. As you progress you will be able to notice when you are “off” center and bring your self back. The process of being able to embody this centered place means practicing daily as often as possible. We practice many skills but rarely ones that provide us a sense of peace and centeredness.
So, how do we do this? Coming into the present means coming into sensation. We can focus on our breath, ground ourselves, and strengthen our attention and balance as a means of becoming more skillful in dealing with difficult situations. The good news is that you can do these exercises anywhere and anytime. I would recommend starting with a foundation of doing the centering exercise fully multiple times a day and then adding other times as you remember, while stopped at a stoplight, in line at the market etc. However, begin wherever feels doable. One example might be to remember to breathe into your belly each time you walk through a doorway. Another example could be that you take three deep breaths when you sit down at your desk and before you engage in any work.
As we get better at this we are able to withstand more intensity and, when we don’t have to resist what we are feeling, even our aggressive energy, we become open to changing our typical responses to situations. As an example, when in difficult conversations and/or meetings when feelings are strong, you can turn your attention to the feelings in your body (anger, fear, etc.), allow yourself to feel the intensity, and then either give the feelings time to complete their cycle, or relax your abdomen and breath slowly from your belly until the feelings diminish. Resisting our feelings maintains the intensity and results in a decreased capacity to respond authentically. One of the associated benefits of using these strategies is that when communicating, the more centered we are, the less likely it is that we are operating from a reactive position, and the better able we are to communicate from a place that leads to trust, commitment, and mutual learning.
As a leader embodied presence is the starting point for expressing our values and commitment. Those around us will respond to our leadership more from how we present ourselves than from the actual words that we say. Have you ever been with someone who said all the right things and yet you know that they were not connected to the words from their hearts? Is this the kind of person you want to follow? Eric Fromm said:
“ideas do not influence men deeply when they are taught as ideas and thought…But, ideas do have an effect on men if the idea is lived by the one who teaches it; if it is personified by the teacher, if the idea appears in the flesh.”
In a future article we’ll deal with commitments and declarations. Forming statements that embody your mission or goal and being able to declare those commitments from a centered place is powerful. My own personal commitment is to being fully present and connecting compassionately. This represents the why of all my actions or, as some have said, it represents the answer to the question, “For the Sake of What? “What’s the larger reason for why I do thing things that I do? Richard Strozzi-Heckler states:
“if our actions are not directly connected to a narrative of what matters to us, and why it matters, we are simply performing tasks, going about our days tediously completing a checklist. We get things done when we perform tasks, but with our nose to the grindstone we’re disconnected from the bigger picture.”
It is stressful to go about one’s day disconnected from our inner sense of purpose, the world around us, and other people. Further, a number of independent Gallup studies have indicated that approximately 75 percent of employees are not engaged in work. This costs companies billions of dollars every year. The same research suggests that employees don’t leave companies but rather leave supervisors that they feel don’t care about them as individuals. Leaders under stress and disengaged from a sense of purpose are also disengaged from their employees.
Below you will find a series of exercises that you can begin to use to move in the direction of becoming more centered and/or being able to return to center when in difficult situations. These are skills that, like any other, require some practice to develop. Because we are typically more used to operating from our heads and seeing our bodies and our minds as being separate it may seem foreign to focus on our physical responses to the world. However, if you view the body as a holistic integration of cognition, sensati5on, and emotion it becomes clearer that all roads lead to a greater ability to maintain your essential presence. Further, if Selye is correct about stress being our body’s responses to the demands being placed on it, then these strategies can also help pave the way towards being more present, maintaining our health and vitality, and increasing our ability to balance the stresses of work with our desire to have a more balanced life.
Each of the exercises below will help you deal with stress and allow you to be more present. The more you do the more natural it becomes. Each is a skill that is part of the Centering exercise at the end. Learning to find your Center, as I’ve noted above, can be a powerful tool in stress management and in developing your presence as a leader. Pick at least one of the exercises preferably the centering exercise and do it 10 times a day. At least three times a week do the following self-observations:
o How did centering shift your mood, thinking, and felt bodily sense.
o What was the primary thing you did with your attention to center? (e.g. feel your breath, let go of your jaw, relax your shoulders, soften your gaze, drop your attention to your center of gravity?)
o How can centering be useful to you as a leader?
Just Breathe – Focus on your breath. Let yourself breath naturally following the breath as you inhale and then exhale. Relax your abdominal muscles and allow your stomach to fill up like a balloon and let the in breath continue to expand filling the chest cavity fully and then when it feels appropriate, release the breath making a vocal sound slowly exhaling and following the breath until you have fully exhaled and it is time to take another and repeat the cycle. When exhaling, imagine the breath traveling either to a spot about 3 inches below your navel (your center) or down through your feet into the ground.
Scan Your Body- begin to notice the places in your body where you tense yourself in response to stress or difficult situations. Throughout the day, or during difficult situations, scan your body and when you find tension send a breath there and release the tension. Remember to check your shoulders, chest, hands, face and jaw.
Let Go, Let Gravity – While sitting, feel yourself sink into the surface you are sitting on. Feel the back of your legs, buttocks and back against the surface and feel the weight of your body sinking you deeper into the seat. Allow yourself to feel the sensation of gravity in your arms, legs, face and head.
Get Grounded. A simple strategy is to place both feet on the floor and feel your groundedness. Doing this during difficult situations is a simple method of bringing yourself into the present and providing a solid foundation for your responses. You can do this while sitting or you can do it standing by feeling your feet firmly on the ground.
Center Yourself – Stand with your arms at your sides relaxed. Place your feet approximately shoulder width apart finding a distance that is comfortable. Bend your knees just slightly while straightening your back and feeling your body lifting skyward as if a thread was pulling you upwards. Allow your head to tilt downward slightly releasing the stress on your neck. You may do this exercise with your eyes open or closed. If you do it with your eyes open, allow your gaze to focus slightly downward a few feet in front of you. Feel the bottoms of your feet touching the ground rocking backward and forward and side-to-side finding a comfortable grounded position to stand in. As you stand there scan your body and release any tension that you feel. Take two or three deep breaths as described above remembering to make a sound with your exhale focusing your attention on the breath/sound until it is fully exhaled and allow your natural rhythm to lead into the next breath.
Next, focus on gravity. See if you can feel the effects of gravity in your arms, legs, face, and head. Allow your face muscles to relax and your jaw to drop and remain open slightly. Now begin to study the energy field around you. As a culture, we are very forward oriented and rarely sense anything else around us. Ask yourself if you can sense the same amount of space in front of you as in the back, right and left, and above your head and below your feet. Spend a few seconds on each space sensing and imaging the space around you. When you go into difficult situations with this sense of wholeness you are more available and more present. Lastly, feel the sense of gravity throughout your body and this felt sense of presence and move on.
Doing this fully can take a couple of minutes but you can do briefer versions throughout the day. Ideally, doing this 10 times a day is most effective. You can also do this while sitting, or while lying down. This is a practice like learning to play golf or learning to meditate. It will become second nature after awhile and you will sense this feeling at other times even when not practicing. At times when you notice yourself tensing allow yourself to move back into center. It does get easier!
Good luck with journey. Remember, we are multi-dimensional beings who are connected not only to the energy within ourselves but also to the energy within our relationships and our environment. Taking the time to learn how to be more in touch with your natural ability to monitor your energy, to return yourself to a state of calmness and peace, and to understand your unique responses and offerings to the world, not only helps you to be healthier, happier, and more effective as a leader, but also allows you, in your leadership role to, as Gandhi said, “be the change” you would like to see in the world.
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