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Leadership, Emotional Intelligence and Positive Reinforcement

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This past month I've written a series of columns on leadership, discussing some issues in a very broad sense, and highlighting a number of individuals as well. Leadership, of course, can be defined in a myriad of ways, and for the individual observer it usually comes down to "I know it when I see it." My favorite definition, which I learned from Professor Marty Linsky at Harvard's Kennedy School, is "Leadership is disappointing your friends at a pace they can absorb." We've certainly seen that with President Obama's years in office, but it's fair to say that it holds just as well for most spheres of human interaction, including parenting children.

Professor Daniel Goleman, author of the immensely popular and influential revision of IQ called Emotional Intelligence, published in 1995, has just written a new book called Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. Partly warning us about over-reliance on all the distracting technologies out there that have created an advanced, multitasking Homo sapiens, the book's more lasting influence will be encouraging people to take the time, unplugged from the world, to nurture those quiet moments of focus that lead to creativity. He discusses both emotional and cognitive empathy, declaring that empathy can only be exercised through attention and self-awareness. He quotes Herbert Simon, the economist, who said that "a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention."

Paying greater attention and developing self-awareness -- what in Zen is called "mindfulness" -- leads to greater happiness. The connection of awareness to creativity, including Goleman's belief that positive reinforcement is far more persuasive and conducive to change than repeated diatribes that the sky is always falling, is my topic for this week.

I have a relatively unique take on this as a trans woman, one who was closeted for most of my life. Every moment of self-awareness -- and there were many since early childhood -- turned into fear-based paralysis. That paralysis caused a chronic depressive state, which drained me of the internal strength I needed to find my courage to break away. There were many reasons I finally found my courage, including time eroding my defenses, the trauma of 9/11, a decade of yoga practice with meditation, and the development of effective techniques of facial surgery that made a successful transition possible. Having embraced my self-awareness, I was able to leap across the chasm of darkness that separates the genders in Western society and emerge into a state of aletheia, or unconcealedness. I could simply be, as the woman I always was.

Part of my transition, which became public 11 years ago, simply entailed the freedom to be myself, the release from decades of wasted energy limited to trying to imagine an unattainable life as both a physical and social woman. After some effort I reached a comfort zone, which, in freeing me from needing to exert huge effort to control and protect, was a huge release and relief. Part of my transition was devoted to my family, particularly my adolescent children. Another part was my search for meaning as a member of society.

I choose to be an activist, channeling some of my early political interests into advocating for those who had less and to whom I owed so much. I found, as Goleman points out, that reaching outside myself, now possible because I wasn't concealed, afforded me the opportunity to be creative in a way I had never before been. While I had developed some novel surgical techniques during my career, being detached from the emotions associated with those efforts left me vulnerable and empty. Now, living as myself, I found, in spite of the prejudice and bigotry around me, even in some of the places one would least expect it, that I was able to create positive change in creative ways. Most of what was required was simply showing up and being willing to take risks.

Goleman's other major point is the greater effectiveness of positive reinforcement over fear tactics. We all know how effective the conservative political establishment is in generating resistance to progress based on inculcating fear among the ignorant, particularly with gay and trans issues. Unfortunately, we, the forces for progress, at times play the same game, sending out fundraising missives claiming the end is near. And while we don't associate those calls with an actual Armageddon, I've watched too many progressive organizations resort to those tactics over the years. They don't work most of the time, but even when they do, they have the effect of blunting emotional growth by creating a numbness that only perpetuates the stalemate and inhibits progress toward full equality.

Louis Pasteur famously said, "Chance favors only the prepared mind." We need to find our courage as we continue to struggle with our personal challenges, and to offer hope that in the future, in spite of the deluge of smartphone banners and notifications, we can find the space and time to be mindful, pay attention, become more creative, prepare our minds for those moments of serendipity, and maybe even find some happiness.