A Dialogue on Leadership in Uncertain Times: Session 4

10/09/2009 09:47 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

We are tracking coaching sessions between JFM, who has been fired from her role as President of a medium-sized company, and her advisor, Jan Birchfield, Ph.D., of Princeton Leadership Development. JFM has been trying to make sense of how she wound up being fired, after having been a top performer in her industry for years. In this session, she recalls that there were clues along the way indicating that she was "out of sync" with her leadership, and her company. She is grappling with why she chose to ignore the signs.

JFM: After years in the corporate world I treasure the time between Christmas and New Year, a rare stretch of quiet time in which I slow down enough to catch up with myself. I recall that last Christmas I was sitting by the fire and I thought, "I need to speak to the board, to be honest about the fact that this situation is an untenable one." I imagined the dialogue going something like this: "There are things I need to tell you. At the end of this conversation you may decide I'm not the right person for the job. And if this happens, we can talk about next steps."

But another voice said, "You will make a fool of yourself. They will think you are off-base, that you simply haven't been paying attention. You will lose your job." In the end, I listened to this voice; it seemed safer. I overrode what I knew to be true.

Jan: Within all of us, there is a voice of "truth" (some people refer to this as an "inner knowing") and voices of obscuration. It sounds like you had the classic experience of not particularly appreciating the message of your voice of truth. Be careful about going into a self critical place with regard to this; best to simply observe this with neutrality.

It's tricky, because when you attempt to turn towards this "wisdom within," seeking guidance, there is often more than one voice; there can be a cacophony of voices having it out within us. How do you know what is true?

One hint is to look at the emotions that are driving certain voices. Be wary of any voice that is driven by fear. Fear is generated by the mind. Be wary of any voice that is the internalized version of someone else - your mom, boss, husband, etc. I find it is helpful to actually locate in the physical body where the message is coming from. When the message is coming from an anxious and runaway mind it is likely to be a voice of obscuration.

JFM: My mind is almost always busy and anxious.

Jan: Yes, that is true for many of us. That is why it is so important for leaders to cultivate a spacious mind, and a less anxious internal world. Making clear and objective decisions in an anxious state with a "monkey mind" is difficult, at best.

JFM: Yes...I am still unsure how to separate the voices of obscuration from the voice that perceives more clearly.

Jan: Refining this ability begins with paying closer attention; you have to bear witness to your internal world to see what you are up to. The "inner knowing" that you are wishing to access more effectively is located in the belly, not in the mind. We sometimes refer to this as "gut instinct." So when you are paying attention you can start here, noticing exactly where the voice or the quality of "knowing" is coming from in the physical body.

What you are accessing is an infinite field of intelligent awareness. This field has no boundaries, and it is directly accessible. The mind/body needs to be relaxed, spacious and in the present in order to hone its capacity to more consistently access this field. From this spacious quality of mind, innovation and creativity skyrocket, and a kind of brilliance in decision making shows up.

The flip side of this is the scrunchy, anxious, loopy monkey mind that desperately tries to "figure things out," the mind that is preoccupied with either what has happened in the past, or what may happen in the future. In this state, there will be times when, despite ourselves, "inner knowing" breaks through, and our decisions are clear. At other times, however, decisions arising from this anxious place reflect obscuration. Without an open and spacious mind, the brilliance and clarity that is possible remains unpredictable and spotty.

Living - and leading - in accordance with this inner guidance requires trust. I remember you saying that all of the major decisions in your life have come to you in this way; you simply "knew" what was true. You have noticed that when you live according to this guidance there is a sense of flow, as it is the path of least resistance. The best teacher is our own process of trial and error as we experiment with this guidance system. But it takes courage, often, to follow this voice of truth. The situation with your board is an example of this: it would have required courage to lead according to what you knew to be true.

JFM: How ironic that following the seemingly "safe" decision of not speaking up landed me right where I feared the most - unemployed!

Jan: Yes. Some Native American traditions call this the Medicine of Coyote, the perfect trickster/teacher. Coyote is often shocked at his own tricks. He falls into his own trap. You find yourself unemployed anyway, in a process of soul searching and reevaluation as you pick yourself up and try to understand what went "wrong." Perhaps, from Coyote's perspective, nothing went wrong!