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Dialogue On Leadership In Uncertain Times: Session 7

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In January, 2009, I had the honor of beginning to work with a client - we are calling her JFM - who had just been fired from her role as president of a medium-sized company. For her, 2009 was fraught with all that comes with unemployment - economic insecurity, a gnawing sense of uncertainty, questions about what went wrong, and struggles with a sense of identity and self-esteem. At the same time, this past year gave her an opportunity to get off the corporate treadmill, to slow down, reflect, and go inward. After sharing with me that she has been offered a position at a flagship company in her industry, she began to speak about her concerns as she considers making the transition back to the corporate world.

JFM: The person who wishes to hire me invited me to go out for a celebration dinner. But, without a contract in hand, I wonder if it is premature to celebrate. With the possibility of a new position I am fully aware that even though I act as if I know what is coming I am in perpetual unknowing. Having lived for the past year with a constant sense of uncertainty I can no longer hide from the fact that we never know what is going to happen next. Even so, I find myself trying to anticipate this transition, assuming that the contract will come through.

I feel like I have had a year of grace. It has changed my life. I am coming out of winter. When trees head into winter, they drop their leaves. This past year I did this--I shed old and tired parts of myself. Parts of me just dropped away. As this happened some part of me has opened. My heart has opened. For the first time in my life, I do not want to be my story. Now that I am returning to work, I wonder: how do I go back into the corporate world without returning to my old story, without wearing the masks of my old corporate persona?

Jan: Listening to you reminds me of what it is like to go on a retreat, experiencing profound change, and the subsequent challenge of returning to daily life, with a desire to integrate what has been learned. Although it is the nature of one's mind to anticipate what is coming, rehearsal of this integration is not possible. One of the most significant changes in your life has been the work that you have done on strengthening your connection to the present moment. Perhaps what is most important at this time is to continue to deepen your capacity to be awake and aware moment to moment. The desire to rehearse this transition is a training ground for this practice. Watch the mind's tendency to anticipate, and gently pull it back. As you observe the mind in this state of anticipation, you are, by definition, returning to the moment.

Change is not linear. Integration after a long period of inner work is not linear. There will be times when you will find yourself falling into old habits and patterns. Habit has a strong magnetic pull, and it will continue to exert itself, until it does not. The challenge is to avoid self-judgement, and simply to observe. Each time you bring your attention to the underlying habitual patterns themselves, they begin to loosen. Nothing is more powerful than where we place our attention.

The way that you are presenting this question has imbedded within it judgement, as if there is something to fix, to get right. There is nothing to fix. There is nothing to get right. There is simply the work of waking up, noticing your inner world, and its relationship to the world around you, its relationship to the company and the people that you are serving. Your leadership will grow and evolve as you deepen this capacity to observe this relationship without judgement.

One reason we burn out or lose a sense of inspiration is that we start to live life largely defined by habit. The moment gets absorbed in the suffocating coccoon of expectation and anticipation. Expectation and anticipation carry the burden of a chronic underlying sense of anxiety and worry. At the heart of rehearsing what is to come is a desire to control the future.

As a leader, the more "experience" you have, the greater the possibility of falling into the trap of leading from this state of anticipation. Although it is true that experience is a great teacher, it can also be a profound blindspot for seasoned executives, precisely because there is a tendency to continually overlay or impose this experience on the present moment. The truth is, every meeting, every deal, every interaction is its own configuration. When you release into uncertainty, and show up for each moment, life becomes more spontaneous, more delightful. Leaders that show up every day with this capacity for "presence" are inspiring. Work becomes dynamic and joyful under their leadership.

In our world today, as we begin to recognize the unsustainability of many of our business practices, those leaders who have the internal equanimity and "presence of mind" to see the present with clarity will lead change. There is not a model or a paradigm for many of the challenges that we are facing, particularly since the world has been knitted together into a global community. With the lessons learned from the past, combined with a sober and clear sense of what is unfolding in the present, there is recognition of what the future is calling us to do differently; we call this vision.

Your industry has not been on the cutting edge of change. Given the state of the industry, it desperately needs leadership that is willing to take an unflinching look at where things stand, without relying on the illusion that somehow business can go on as usual. Imbedded within this conscious appraisal of the present is opportunity. This past year, in the silence that you have cultivated within, you have found the capacity to lead with greater equanimity. You have strengthened your inner knowing, and you have begun to understand the relationship between this inner knowing and the vast field of interconnection that we are imbedded within. This helps to take the pressure off of you as an individual, as you tap into a deeper, collective wisdom. Your challenge in 2010 is to continue to practice taking action - and leading - from this place of inner stillness. The pace of the corporate world will challenge this practice. It will require that you continue to uphold your meditation practice, and most of all, it will require courage.

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