Bringing the practices of mindfulness and dialogue to leadership conversations

System upgrades

I began this year in retreat, solitary and silent. It was a period of much needed self-examination and reflection following an autumn in which I’d become increasingly ragged. My ability to be present was reduced, impacting the quality of my work. I was crabby and short-tempered with those I love. I was ‘out of sorts’, with a sense of having lost contact with my essential nature, the inner architecture that guides me, and supports my best work.

The erosion of my capacity was attributable to a gradual accumulation of causes, some clearly self-inflicted.

Others, such as frustrating IT, began as external events: Microsoft withdrew support for Windows XP, my printer broke, the new one had compatibility problems, and I received catastrophic ‘unhelp’ from a helpdesk. However, these too were exacerbated by my shortcomings: I was attached to the familiar, and unable to decide how to move forward.

As December approached, my computer and I both needed attention! Even without adverse events, a computer eventually reaches a point where adding more software, another programme or ‘app’, slows the system down. For a while, minor incompatibilities and inefficiencies can be managed by ‘patches’, reinstalls, clean-up tools or defragmenting the disk. Eventually though, more drastic action is required, such as upgrading the operating system.

In human terms, I feel a similar process applies. Whether leader, coach, or other practitioner, as we add tools, experience, knowledge and other ‘apps’ to our repertoire, the incremental additions create little dissonances with our existing approaches.

As with technology, small internal ‘conflicts’ can be handled for a time – through holidays, absorbing interests, and other mental ‘breaks’ that reconnect us with what matters. However, at some stage such inconsistencies begin to ‘leak’ into our interactions with others, signalling that a more fundamental refurbishment is required – an upgrade of our human ‘operating system’.

As a leader, how do you keep your human ‘operating system’ in good health? What activities help you to restore function, and to re-enter the fray?

For me, things like walking, T’ai Chi, and meditation all help me to regroup on a daily basis. I’m also in regular supervision, a ‘health-check’ on the quality of my work and practice. Yet, after a couple of years of pretty intense change, I found these were no longer sustaining me, let alone replenishing my reserves. My ‘operating system’ had become so sluggish and erratic that I had to work hard increasingly not to mess-up.

It was time to do the kind of ‘inner work’ that Parker Palmer describes in his book ‘Let your life speak’. Beneath what we do and say, we have a human ‘operating system’, a personal architecture of beliefs, values, principles and attitudes that characterise our leadership presence and practice. Our inner structure shapes our impact in the outer world, and when its coherence is disturbed by new experiences or by development, everything we do is affected.

Inner work is the process of attending to the well-being of this internal make-up. It is crucial for our leadership, because the way we carry ourselves engenders an energetic quality, or feeling tone, in our operating environment, touching the people in it.

In this vein, Parker Palmer describes a leader as:

‘someone with the power to project either shadow or light onto some part of the world.’

Whether we enhance or impair the experience (and proficiency) of those around us depends on the quality of our internal architecture, and the extent to which we are aligned with it.

Most of us (I believe) intend to make a positive difference through our leadership, to cast light. And yet…I’m sure I’m not alone in making small compromises with best practice, or in choosing expedient options if I think nobody will notice or care. The thing is, I notice, and when I do such things, I experience a small erosion of self-worth, a shrinking of spirit. This impedes me, and lessens my impact, either overtly as growing self-doubt, or covertly as a defiant ‘hardening’ of defensive vindication. I begin to project more shadow than light.

To return to the light, I must attend to my human operating system. This was the point I had reached in December.

First though, I had to deal with my computer. For a non-techie, installing a new operating system takes time and fortitude. I’m going to be faced with options I don’t fully understand (partitioning the hard disk?!). Then I’ll be reinstalling software and devices, some of which won’t work. Then I’ll be configuring displays, and email settings and so on. It’s tiresome, exacting, frustrating…and I can only hope the result will be an improvement.

If that was daunting (Reader, I did it!), the following day required even more courage, as I set out to reconfigure my human operating system. My chosen path was a Buddhist retreat of meditation, study and reflection, though there are many ways of approaching inner work. My experience was tough, moving, humbling, and profound.

Somehow, in the discipline, a sense of integrity and peace unfolded. I’m approaching the year with renewed clarity, although I expect to encounter compatibility issues as I readjust to the world and work.

Whatever the beginnings of 2015 for you, I wish you a fruitful and fulfilling year – and it’s time to attend to your human operating system, please join me for a residential leadership sojourn in September.

For more information, please contact me.

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