No easy thing, and I don’t have all the answers. But the Trump Administration’s so-called “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping” of September 22, 2020 set my wheels spinning in all sorts of unproductive and productive ways. What a travesty of executive privilege already strained by several presidency of increasing use of Executive Orders that circumvent Congress and increase Presidential power. I have, of course, ideological and ethical reasons — hell, human reasons — to oppose these kinds of measures. But there is not as much practical and emotional pain for me of the sort that this action has on communities of color, the LGBTQ+ community, and other minorities.
The impact is also gravely practical for institutions of higher education and non-profits that depend on federal funding to do their work — which is a public good. This is where my wheels really spin, because eroding the capacity for such organizations to promote social justice and equality — not to mention just the fact of using an Executive Order to push a racist agenda — smells disgustingly like the slow slide into totalitarianism. I don’t think I’m overstating this, but the fact remains: federal funds are now threatened if organizations explicitly conduct bias, race, and diversity trainings.
The first action should be outraged dissent. We must be anti-racist and radically inclusive in response to overt and veiled bigotry. Institutions of Higher Education who have wealth and power must speak out against this move … and some have. The University of Michigan released a bold statement that said in part, ““The educational efforts this order seeks to prohibit are critical to much-needed action to create equitable economic and social opportunities for all members of society to confront our blind spots; and to encourage us all to be better teachers, scholars and citizens.” Other colleges and universities have been more cautious; most have been cowardly. Many are now actively examining programs for the content the Trump administration wants to censor and are pausing initiatives.
Second, be smarter.
The second action is to be smarter. Not everyone can be as courageous as UofM president Mark Schlissel — not everyone has resources and power. And many schools, in a TERRIBLE irony, are simply seeking to preserve federal dollars that allow the very people being reduced by the Executive Order to seek education and empowerment safely, openly, and equitably. But here’s the thing. Those who can — be brave! Stand up! Dissent! And be smarter than this, better than this. We need to seek a dual strategy — active and vocal dissent along with careful, calculated actions aimed at dismantling the structural oppression we can reach in our own spaces.
I have been struck on my journey into mindfulness, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence training by the correlations around behavior. It is complex, yes. It is hard to assess and measure in research. But the correlations at the macro level are incontrovertibly there. People higher in Emotional Intelligence, to a statistically significant degree, are more self-aware and aware of others, more able to adopt perspectives, act on empathy, and shift behaviors. They are also more deliberately inclusive in their behavior, more expansive in their thinking, and more creative in problem solving. People with high Emotional Intelligence are more aware of their unconscious bias and have more capacity for resolving conflict.
If the Executive Order stands and is aggressively pursued, all of us have to stand up and resist. And when, as is likely, the threat of federal funding withdrawal is held over us — a loss which will devastate the ability of higher education and non-profits to reach the under-represented, under-served, and systemically excluded — we have to be ready to pivot.
“Bias and diversity training? The government will withdraw your funds.” Like Schlissel, we will say, “We declare our unwavering commitment toward actively dismantling all forms of structural oppression as well as constructing an environment where we treat each person with dignity and respect.” And then we will say, “But our training programs are in emotional intelligence anyway, and not subject to this racist, immoral, and divisive Executive Order.”
“What awareness brings is a new sense of responsibility and agency, not an actual new responsibility or agency.”
One of the double-edged swords of self-isolation is a lot of time to be introspective. This isn’t because I’m less busy or anything like that. It’s that certain kinds of distractions (like dinners with friends, or travel to see family) are gone and the other distractions (like binge-watching Netflix) just have their limits. So, that has meant that I feel like I’ve been worrying or meditating more than I might have before. What the hell is happening to us, to America? How can we be better? How can we do better? I believe that our common human nature can pull us to be better and do better, but worry that that same nature, perverted, is destroying us.
This week, two ten year old boys in a fairly peaceful rural township near where I grew up in Canada attacked another young boy because of the color of his skin, ran him over with a motorized scooter and stomped on his arm breaking it in two places. It was “newsworthy” — hateful, inhumane things like that happen all the time, after all — because the boys were ten. I’ve got to believe that such specific cruelty is generated out of circumstances, the contexts of our lives, not out of our true human nature.
Can we respond?
When we are socialized and conditioned in certain ways, can we break free? I believe that our common human nature tends to the better. While coaching or teaching, I often find (this goes for myself too) that Stoic ideas are very attractive to people, make sense, drive positive growth, because the Stoics assume the best is possible. But there is almost always a point when a person says, “Whoa! What?” as the consequence of a certain Stoic idea plays out fully. Embracing our human nature is like that.
Could a full response to our common human nature make greater demands on us than our social conditioning and personal boundaries have prepared us for or dispose us to accept? Almost certainly, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible or even desirable, just hard. If we see a better path that is harder to walk, will we take it? Seneca once asked a friend, “Can you reach a peak by walking on flat ground?” If you want to be better and do better, it turns out you need to do that work yourself.
The Four-Personae Theory, preserved in Cicero from one of his teachers, Panaetius, offers a way to understand the complexity of who, what, and where we are without giving even an inch on our moral responsibility to do better in every moment. For the Stoic Panaetius, human beings are social animals, automatically placed within family and social contexts, and we live our lives influenced by external circumstances of all kinds. But these circumstances (family, geography, environment, class, etc.), while they are inevitable and shape our behaviors and perspectives, do not eliminate our agency. And because they do not eliminate our agency, we must meet the moral and spiritual challenge of responding fully to our human nature.
For the Stoics, that human nature was to live according to reason (intellectual and emotional), to evaluate our perceptions, emotions, and beliefs in order to do the appropriate thing in every circumstance. What do you believe our common human nature demands from us? The four Personae (four roles, or identities) present a system that can account for our circumstances and current behaviors while giving us the agency to change. The first identity is the individual as a human being. A human being is rational, self-directing, self-aware, with an inborn sense of virtue.
The second identity is the individual as an agent. We all can make choices, even if they are interior, mental ones, about how to act. In fact, many, many things we do every day — while they feel automatic or habitual — began at some point as a choice. Which shoe did you put on first today, left or right? Of course, most of these things are automatized because we would find it very hard to function given the number of “decisions” we have to make — the brain is amazing — but that doesn’t mean we can’t make a choice. And yes, which shoe I put on first hardly carries huge moral weight. Other automatized decisions do. Becoming aware that we can make a choice, that we are agents in our own lives, is a huge step toward positive change.
The third identity involves our past and current circumstances. Where and to whom were we born? What have we experienced, felt, endured, embraced? All of these things have shaped us as individuals. Some have come to us by our own choices; many have just happened to us. But all of them have significance for who we are in this moment and how we will make choices.
The fourth identity is in essence the kind of person we want to be, a choice of life. What do you want for yourself? How does what you want for yourself impact how you deal with the world or treat other people? And here is the crux of the problem. How can I become aware of different possibilities if my circumstances limit them? What happens when we choose to follow ways of life that are hateful, bigoted, self-centred … Aren’t we back at the beginning again?!
“Up to you.”
As usual, Stoicism leads us to a set of conclusions about life or humanity, and then says, “up to you”. Anyone who has spent time with Stoicism as a holistic philosophical system understands why that must be the case. But it’s pretty damn annoying for everyone else. Here’s the thing though — while you are who you are because of a range of things — genetics, society, religion, etc. — you are STILL making your choices about many, many more things than you think you are. The system with which we navigate the world (our brain and body) makes it easy to assume many things that we do are not choices, like what shoe we put on first or how we perceive a group of young people having fun together.
The moral stringency of the Stoics demands that we take a good, long look at those automatic behaviors and those perceptions. And this is not just a moral imperative. The decisions we make and actions we take today are the circumstances and contexts of our choices tomorrow. It really, really matters, for every action you will take in the future, to consider your actions and decisions today. What people see and experience determines in a lot of cases what they think is possible. Chew on this for a minute: are you limiting or expanding possibilities for people around you with your behaviors?
This feels like a LOT of pressure. The truth is, this has been true your whole life. What awareness brings is a new sense of responsibility and agency, not an actual new responsibility or agency. So, in between binge-watching, zoom social hours, walking in the woods … whatever, we can all find time for some of the important questions. What are the key or essential beliefs that affect our decision-making processes? Where did they come from? To what extent and in what ways is “choice” implicated in our decision-making? Do I understand the full range of choices open to me at any given time? What is the inter-relationship between “What I am”, “What I can do”, “What effect my circumstances have” and “What my purpose is in acting”? What are your four personae? Am I going to worry today or meditate?
Those of you who have been following me on LinkedIn or Facebook know that Mondays are hard for me. Partly it’s the way the pandemic has reshaped our workflows and life in general. Each day for a work-at-home entrepreneur is basically the same. I feel like Mondays used to mean something for my work-life that they don’t really mean anymore. Partly also it’s my weird relationship with my venture, Inner Citadel Consulting. Monday is just another day after all, but it is also a day with which I tend to mark the passing of time toward work goals.
Usually what happens on a Monday is a spiraling of thoughts and worries about “the plan” and “the work”. This all drives me outward from both of those things, reinforcing my reaction, until I get a hold of myself and deal with it. Today, I thought I’d use this experience to talk about an emotional reasoning cycle you can do, employing ICC’s Notice-Engage-Empower model. The model is essentially a way to practice emotional reasoning.
Notice – awareness.
I write down what feeling I think I’m having: “worry”. Yes, actually write it down. I think about the context of that feeling – have I had it before? Is there a pattern to the feeling (like increasing intensity)? Does a person trigger the feeling? Or an event? We have an emotional memory system deep in our limbic system – and it can be very useful. The goal in the Notice stage is to acknowledge the feeling but also to observe the context of the feeling. My pro-tip is to examine where I am feeling it. For me, this Monday feeling hits me in the pit of my stomach.
Engage – evaluation.
Now that I’ve centered the feeling in this context, in what other contexts does the feeling happen? For example, I get a similar feeling when I realize I’ve made a mistake, or am doing something complicated for the first time, or am standing on a cliff before jumping into the lake. And I get it in the same place in my body. But when I worry about other things (like my kids, the state of the world, finances, making travel connections), I feel it in my heart/lungs/ribs. My chest can get tight, breathing gets shallow, or sometimes my heart even seems to ache. I can even generate this different feeling right now by imagining something I feel is more accurately called worry (like how kid#2 is doing with health concerns, or how kid #1 is managing work). But my pit of the stomach feelings come from different things.
In fact, I can create that similar pit of the stomach feeling pretty easily, by focusing on my failures. This is exactly the physical feeling I get on Mondays. Could what I am feeling be a sense of failure? Worthlessness? “I suck at this?” “Why aren’t I moving to my goals?” “This whole idea was a mistake. I can’t do this.” And so on. Yep, I’m not worried. I am afraid I will fail. With the Engage step my goal is to examine the content of the feeling. What emotional memories help me analyze it? How is my body responding? Can I pick the feeling up and turn it around to look at it from the other side? Can I be open and honest with myself, so I can seek a solution? No solution will work if it’s not aimed at the actual problem.
Empower – action.
When I have noticed and engaged with my feeling, the emotional reasoning cycle insists that I have to do something. Years ago, I would have shoved it down, pushed it aside, or spent time looking at job ads. As if a different job would have generated different feelings!! Oh, my. But once I am aware of what I am feeling and where I’m feeling it (Notice), and once I have evaluated that feeling and where it comes from as accurately as possible (Engage), I can consider a course of action to mitigate the unproductive emotion. I’m pretty sure now that, while there is overlap with worry, I am not “worried” about work. I’m afraid I’ll fail. I can empower myself to “resolve” this feeling by thinking what has worked in the past.
Years ago, I wouldn’t have done anything and the feeling would have turned toxic, emotionally and physically. Over the last 10 years or so, I’ve learned that the people who love me or admire my work will be honest with me. That people whose opinions I value can help me be objective about what’s going on. Most important I realize that usually just naming and expressing the feeling is enough to “resolve it”, release it. Objectively, intellectually, I know I am not a failure and that success is coming, whether slow or fast. Emotionally, subjectively, I feel what I feel. It’s what I do while I’m feeling what I feel that matters; I express my humanity with what I do and why . I am learning to embrace what I’m feeling, accurately and honestly but I’ve always been in complete control of what I do.
So, here I am expressing to you what I’m feeling on this Monday morning, and probably every Monday for a while to come. I’m hard on myself. But as I type this, I also realize that my grit, my insightfulness, my empathy and my intellectual curiosity and capacity have made me very successful at many things, even against the odds. Have I failed before? Absolutely, sometimes stunningly. Can I recover from failure? Absolutely, sometimes stunningly. Where does all this leave me with that feeling right now? After taking the time to feel that feeling, evaluate it, locate it, empower it… it’s subsided.
I’d be lying if I said it was gone. But I’m not in the spiral now, and next time I feel that feeling, in that context (this is how emotional memory works, folks), I can get here quicker. Until some day I’ll wonder when the last time I felt like a failure on a Monday is. That is the nature of growth, that when we look back over time, we can see how inevitable, incremental, and incredible our progress has been.
Well, hello, tense Tuesdays!! I guess there’s still work to be done, eh?
Our capacity to reason, intellectually and emotionally, is our human superpower.
VUCA and OODA are acronyms you have probably run across in your leadership training. Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity — these define our lives now during the pandemic, but they were always part of our lives. It’s true that the speed of change has increased, and that volatility is more intense and perhaps even more broadly consequential than a century ago. But this experience of the world is not a new one. Observe, Orientate, Decide, Act — a decision loop developed by USAF Col. John Boyd that has been adopted by leaders in some industries to help mitigate the VUCA-ness of life and work. Discussions of OODA I’ve seen don’t always dig into the core of Boyd’s model, Orientate, in which he outlined five dimensions at play, nor do they always underscore how many internal feedback-loops he outlined. But the basic idea, that we seek information, consider it, and then decide to act is not a strange one.
In fact, that basic sequence is the core of Inner Citadel Consulting’s system: Notice, Engage, Empower. What is brilliant about Boyd’s method as a response to difficult and complex situations is how much the decision process slows in the middle. Orientate is not one thing — it is a full and detailed consideration of many factors that influence a single moment. Orientate suspends the moment so that we can turn it and look at it from all sides. It makes total sense to me, from my background in tai chi as a martial art and my mindfulness practice, to counter volatility with deceleration. It is also intelligent, cognitively and emotionally. And it reflects the basic concepts embedded in Stoic psychology of perception and decision-making.
VUCA describes a situation, an evolving circumstance, in which the complexity of decision-making is made even more difficult to manage. OODA describes a solution to complex decision-making, of which the most significant part falls into Orientate. What I’ll lay out below is another way to approach such a solution. The thing I find most limiting about OODA is the relative lack of attention to the emotional response to VUCA. Cultural traditions, genetic heritage, previous experience, new knowledge, analysis & synthesis — very rational considerations. But not fully human without consideration of emotional experience and values. Believe it or not, Stoicism is in fact all about emotional value, not emotional suppression. Anyway, what I mean here is not that we need to integrate the expression of emotions, but we need to figure out the way in which the emotional response is not accounted for in the OODA loop. OODA privileges intellectual reason but does not fully account for emotional reason.
I suggested that ambiguous, volatile, and uncertain, complex moments are not new to the human being. Thinking about a solution for such moments is not new either. The Stoics framed a psychology of decision-making that, like the OODA loop, encourages us to decelerate and evaluate. Now, their particular solution to complex decision-making is tied up in a number of basic philosophical assumptions, such as strict materialism and a kind of cosmic optimism and providential worldview. This is all very interesting stuff and can get very distracting, but the upshot for this discussion is that the Stoic solution to complex decisions is ethical first and foremost– it places all ownership and responsibility for a decision and an action on the decision-maker. This ethical decision-making necessarily involves the whole human being in the decision.
For the Stoics, human beings receive input not just from our senses but also from our thoughts & feelings. These sensory inputs form “impressions”, which are then “perceived” by our minds. The difference between the sensory input and a perception is very important, because while an object or event might produce the same basic impression for a number of people, we might each perceive something very different. When we perceive these impressions, especially of certain kinds of things (unfortunately, often the exact things that are surrounded in complexity), we eventually make evaluative judgements (this is good, this is bad, this hurts, this feels good). We could verbalize these perceptions and judgements, although we often process them far too quickly to even notice what’s going on much less put it into words. “There is a donut on the plate,” and suddenly the donut is in my hand and I’m eating — this is a series of impressions, perceptions, evaluative judgements, and (in the end) actions. At a minimum, I would have to have evaluated the donut as something I can eat. When we perceive and perform these evaluative judgments (what we might call intellectual and emotional judgments), according to the Stoics, we also can agree or not with the evaluation. They call this assent.
Assent is the moment when, in this Stoic model, we can decelerate, slow down, examine the complexity. Without this capacity to decelerate — where we engage our full, human reason through intellect and emotion, we are simply animalistic, living only, I suppose, by instinct. For example, I see or smell or touch or think about the donut; I perceive it as a donut (as opposed to a bagel, or some other circular object); consciously or not I evaluate the “donut-event”, let’s call it; and then I act. I don’t just start eating it when I perceive it, like a dog chasing a squirrel. I must “assent” to any number of evaluative judgments. For example, that donuts are good for eating, that I like donuts of certain kinds, that this is a donut of one of the kinds I like, (maybe) that it’s good to eat when hungry, or that a donut would be a good thing to eat right now, or that donuts make me happy and I feel sad right now … and so on, all the way to me licking my sticky fingers and wondering where the donut went. And this is the place where many of my decisions become ethical. “Was that the right thing to do?” “Was that even my donut to eat?” It’s also the place where I can make really terrible mistakes, and where we all act out of unconscious bias.
Assent for the Stoics created a belief, and the belief always precipitated an impulse to act. In simple terms, when I assented at every stage in the example above, I affirmed my belief, and that belief led to another perception and another evaluation, assent, belief… all the way to the final act of eating and the consequence. At any point in the chain of perceptions and evaluations we have the capacity not only to verify the perception factually as much as possible but also to verify the evaluations emotionally, through emotional reasoning. Not only, “Am I hungry? Do I need these kinds of calories?”, but also, “What am I feeling when I see the donut? Do I really want the donut or something else? How will Sam feel about me eating the last donut?” The Stoics assert that when we assent to our evaluation, we affirm our belief in the evaluation, and an impulse to act arises. But they allow us to engage our humanity, to pause in assenting to an evaluation, sometimes even to withhold our assent until we can properly decide, to either spend more time evaluating — checking in with head and heart. “Why don’t I wait a few minutes to see if I still feel like eating the donut?” “I’ll ask Sam whose donut it is.” “I feel like I’m avoiding something by eating this donut — I wonder what else I could do.” Giving and withholding our assent is our human superpower. It involves our full capacity to reason, which is both intellectual and emotional. And when we combine our intellectual and emotional reasoning as leaders we can be decision-makers and leaders with humanity.
We are definitely living a VUCA-life these days, volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. We just can’t pause and reflect on every decision, although we can pause to reflect on many more than we do currently. And we need processes and models that help us cope, like Boyd’s OODA loop. But we also need models that will help us integrate the range of our reasoning capacities, to make fully human decisions. My donut example is kind of silly, but we can make it serious, deadly serious: I see a young African American man running on my street. I’m not including this to make light of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, or any one of countless acts of racially motivated violence. I’m using this example because for the Stoics there is no real difference, from a psychological point of view, between the decision process that leads to eating a donut or murdering a human being. It is all ethical, it all rests on the capacity of a human being to evaluate their perceptions, to regulate their actions intellectually and emotionally, with full humanity and a willingness to withhold assent when we can’t be sure. Obviously, we must at least start at the level of equal human worth, but the ideal Stoic, the Stoic Sage, makes every choice ethically. It’s not that it’s impossible, it’s just that it’s really, really hard.
If we cannot find way to engage with the complexity of our current reality individually and collectively, the increase in all the aspects of VUCA we face will crush us, body and soul. Systems like OODA work, of course. People wouldn’t use them if they didn’t. What I wonder is if they work fully enough to help us keep our humanity while the world is speeding up and growing more uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Do you want to be more stoic about life? Then be more human, learn also to reason through what emotions you are feeling and what emotions are relevant to the decisions you make. Livin’ la vida VUCA seems inevitable these days, but let’s live it like human beings.
The beginning of Seneca’s dialogue On Serenity of the Spirit captures, I think, what we all often feel about progress and stability. When we commit to working on ourselves, we commit to self-examination. And like looking at the stars on a clear night, the more we look, the more we see. Depending on the day, this can be utterly discouraging or encouraging, as we think about our growth. But honest, regular self-examination is already a huge step toward stability and progress. And having a good coach or mentor to contribute to the feedback we give ourselves is critical. We never “have grown”, we always “are growing” – true stability and progress are not a state but a condition that we manage. At the beginning of the dialogue, Seneca’s friend Serenus lays out this problem,
“As I spent time reflecting on myself, Seneca, some faults kept appearing to me as if laid out in front of me so that I could pick them up in my hand. Some were a little harder to see, back in the corner. Some weren’t always there but kept coming back from time to time. I would say that these last are the most exasperating. They’re like guerrilla soldiers, attacking every once in a while. Because of them I can’t stay prepared as if there were a war and I can’t be worry-free as if there were peace. Nevertheless, the condition I find myself in most of the time (why shouldn’t I tell the truth, as I would to a doctor?) is that I’m not truly free of the things I fear and hate, and on the other hand I’m not a slave to them either. It’s not as if I’m in the worst condition, but I am extremely dissatisfied and sad: I’m not sick and I’m not healthy…” (Anderson 2015)
I always feel a surge of sympathy for Serenus – who hasn’t been there? But he’s lucky to have a good friend. Seneca’s response is remarkably gentle and clear: look backward for a reality check, keep moving forward. He claims what Serenus is after is serenity of the spirit. But I think what Serenus wants is stability. He describes emotions and feelings that knock him off center, like surprise attacks and ambushes. Under no stress, he can keep his balance, but he is not stable.
For Seneca and other Stoics, this notion – that we can essentially hold steady against external and internal events that could tip us into reactivity and less productive behaviors – is key when discussing what we would call progress, or personal development. There are two factors (and we can see them at play above), steady resolve stabilitas and confidence fiducia. Steady resolve concerns a person’s ability to be consistent and reliable. Confidence concerns not only self-confidence but conviction that the path … the action plan … is the right one. When we can be entirely consistent and entirely confident, we achieve that thing Serenus is working toward, perfect balance, stability.
Most of us will always be like Serenus and Seneca, committed to our self-improvement, aware of our limitations, working toward something better. And we do get better, over time, with practice and reflection. Seneca’s response to Serenus is an amazing example of empathetic coaching. He remarks that what Serenus is describing shows how far he has actually come. Serenus, says his friend, is like someone who has come through a long illness and is well into recovery,
“It’s not that their bodies are not in good health, but that they are not really used to good health… you don’t need the harsher treatments, which we have already talked about (i.e. that you stop yourself, or be angry with yourself, or be stern with yourself), but the last stage of treatment: that you trust yourself and be confident that you are heading along the right path.”
Balance and stability are the result of a deep awareness of the self and an ability to manage the dynamic tensions in the flow of the day. We can all be better and do better – we are all progressing. The lesson of Serenus’ and Seneca’s honest friendship is that commitment, a plan, and someone to talk to can keep us moving on the path. Notice – be aware. Engage – work the plan. Empower – seek feedback and try again.
A question popped into my mind today as I did my practice: “Can the ‘old’ leadership traits be repurposed?” The question might take some unpacking, but as I sat with it a bit, curious about where the thought came from, I realized the underlying concern. 1) The kinds of leadership qualities that lie behind the different kinds of responses to the COVID-19 crisis are connected to the incredibly complex machinery of human emotional, neurological, and social realities. 2) Those qualities in the right roles and contexts can drive positive change and growth. 3) Those qualities in the wrong roles and contexts, as has become increasingly apparent, can be deadly both literally and figuratively. Our world (in the West, at least) has now changed – how will leadership traits change?
Leadership traits theory is controversial and I’ve no interest in diving into that rabbit hole. The “great men” mentality of the 20th century can hopefully be trashed as soon as possible and I’d like to believe that leadership is more complex and locally determined than that. Even so, research is still showing that there are some essential truths: some traits are a pre-condition for leadership as it was understood; these traits are connected to our collective neurological/biological history. For example, Conrad (2020) shows that among young emerging leaders, after careful analysis and regression modeling, only extraversion, openness, and dominance predicted leader emergence. Welcome back “big man”; goodbye functioning groups. We need a new understanding, especially in highly complex institutions like Higher Education.
One likely lasting outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic, which will be reinforced when there’s a second wave or another virus, is the disruption and decentralization of work and workspaces (Johansen 2017 wins again). The need across all kinds of organizations at all levels for EI leadership will be acute. The solution can’t be to toss out the old leaders. First it’s a ridiculous solution, since these leaders, whose leadership traits and instincts may become less productive but are still valuable, are also the decision makers – they’re unlikely to throw themselves out the door. Nor should they because, second, knowledge of the business, relationships, and experience are the other keys to good leadership. But without addressing the leadership crisis in this moment, we are likely to lose momentum for change and lose our chance to be better. As soon as it is “safe” again, we may return to old habits … but in a changed world. What we need is for leaders to want to change, to be repurposed.
Here’s the hope in the situation: our brains are plastic and with time, focus, and consistency we can change quite a lot about the way we approach leading. Books like Leading Beyond the Ego and Leading Well From Within make excellent cases for the neurological basis of leadership transformation. Whatever your current leadership traits, you can enhance and develop the kinds of emotionally intelligent leadership traits we are all going to rely on and that we need to cultivate for the new work and life realities.
Here are four things you can do to prepare yourself to work with a coach.
1) Reflect on *why* you want to change not *what* – invested people will find their intrinsic motivation for change sooner and feel it more strongly.
2) Begin or increase a mindfulness practice. The science clearly shows that visualization, focus, and a “calmer” brain (eg. heightened hippocampus activity) will promote and stabilize the new neural pathways you will develop.
3) Begin or refocus your daily journaling to reflect on “reactive” moments in the day, the times when you made a decision on “instinct”, snapped at a colleague, or connected with them (or when you wanted to but didn’t). Become more aware of your feelings, your responses to those feelings, and the moments when you chose to act not react.
4) Invest in yourself by choosing a coach who will give you validated, useful data that inform your action plans for development (like GENOS International certified coaches). Good Emotional Intelligence training confronts us with our feelings, but demands that we engage reason and discipline in order to see clearly – good coaching offers honesty, insight, inspiration to change, a plan to change, and accountability. You deserve both good coaching and good training.
The nature of worry and anxiety is to undermine the present, whether the worry expresses itself authentically or as anger, frustration, or any of the other emotions that are a person’s “go-to” response. We’re seeing many people’s “go-to” responses now in the face of a very real pandemic, with very real consequences short and long term. Some people are expressing this worry in creative outpouring, in active attempts to connect across “social distancing”, or in much more frequent contact with loved ones. Some are re-rooting into meditation and exercise practices, or shedding behaviors and the “needs” of pre-pandemic daily life (and finding that it’s OK after all). Some are lashing out at fellow citizens and neighbors, re-trenching their prejudices, fueled by bigotry and the fetishization of the science-denying movement. All of these things were part of our daily lives before the pandemic, just muted by our busyness and the swift rolling on of the days. What’s new is COVID-19 and the profound reshaping of how we engage with each other, with ourselves, and with worry. Is the world ending? No. Should we care about exposure and protect the vulnerable? Of course. Should we worry? Why? Can we choose not to worry, or at least not to fixate on a concern? Is this pile of boulders below about to crash down on me? Probably not. Did I *worry* about slipping and falling before I climbed and while I climbed it? Nope. But I did choose where to grab and step carefully and I chose my path deliberately (and made a change when a raccoon let me know where its nest was). It became a glorious and fun climb to a spectacular view of the Massachusetts ocean side.
Stoicism understood worry as an irrational attempt to avoid a possible future – this fixation of the mind on the possible (not the probable or the inevitable) is driven by an inability to properly deal with or let go of something we create in our imagination, something that has not even happened. “What is real has its own proper boundaries, but uncertain things come under the power of our guesses and out-of-control fears…. Even misfortune is capricious; perhaps it will happen, perhaps not. In the meantime it is NOT happening. So expect something better.” (Seneca, Ep. 13, my trans). I think what Seneca means here is that a present moment, a current experience, will naturally end, but when we engage our minds in worrying about uncertain outcomes, about possibilities, these worries do not have a natural end. We perpetuate them in our minds. Focusing on now, expecting a better outcome while remaining aware and reasonable about contingencies … this is what will lead us to a better relationship with our worrying.
A highly cited article from 2017 linked here showed a significant negative correlation between worry & rumination (and a positive correlation between emotional intelligence) and certain cognitive abilities (planning, attention, response inhibition, problem solving and cognitive flexibility). What the Stoics and most contemplative traditions have asserted, and what EI coaching can help us understand, is that dwelling negatively in the “possible future” disrupts our present effectiveness. What this study shows is that worry and rumination disrupt the specific cognitive abilities that make us effective, and that emotional intelligence (being deliberately aware of and evaluating our emotions) can mediate between worry and reality. People with high emotional intelligence still worry, get anxious, are afraid for their vulnerable loved ones … emotional intelligence is not a cure for the human condition. People with high emotional intelligence do not dwell in those fears, however… they wash their hands, they check in on their friends, they engage with the world that is. How is worry impacting your ability to plan, pay attention, respond non-reactively, solve problems, and be flexible? Do you need help working with your worry?
I shot this picture at the top of this post at the end of what was predicted to be a terrible ice storm last fall. I was responsible, did what I should in case power fails. But look at what happened too. And now it is spring.
We all have a toxic leader inside of us. For me, Mr. Toxic appears when I’m tired, frustrated, or triggered … as much as I’d like to want it otherwise, years of mindfulness, a stable life, a desire to be better and do better, a good heart, (probably too) much education, and a healthy dose of empathy can’t always stop Mr. Toxic. Just as I am racist in spite of all my efforts to be better and do better, to educate myself, and to be aware, these toxic responses to the demands of leadership are not something any of us can slough off as we ascend into a higher plane of leaderly existence. My post today is a long one and engages with some ancient philosophy. Even so, I hope you’ll find time to read it and think about it – it encapsulates my approach to leadership solutions from a mindfulness mindset: Notice, Engage, Empower.
One of my favorite dialogues by the younger Seneca (the Roman Stoic) is his De Tranquillitate or On Serenity. It begins with Seneca’s friend Serenus articulating a very common problem extraordinarily well. “As I spent time reflecting on myself, Seneca, some faults kept appearing to me as if laid out in front of me so that I could pick them up in my hand. Some were a little harder to see, back in the corner. Some weren’t always there, but kept coming back from time to time. I would say that these last are the most exasperating. They’re like guerilla soldiers, attacking every once in a while. Because of them I can’t stay prepared as if there were a war and I can’t be worry-free as if there were peace. Nevertheless, the condition I find myself in most of the time (why shouldn’t I tell the truth, as I would to a doctor?) is that I’m not truly free of the things I fear and hate, and on the other hand I’m not a slave to them either. It’s not as if I’m in the worst condition, but I am extremely dissatisfied and sad: I’m not sick and I’m not healthy.” (Anderson 2015)
To be self-aware, I think, is to be able to notice that you are not sick and not healthy. By reflecting on our days, like Serenus, in an attempt to evaluate where we can be better, how we can do better, we begin to notice the things that trigger us, the ways in which our frustrations sabotage other people’s good efforts as well as our own, or the impact of weariness – physical and otherwise – on our decisions. Seneca’s response is the response of a good friend, the kind of friend or mentor we all deserve: you are not alone in that feeling; you have come a long way even to be able to notice this; wanting to be better, to do better, is half the struggle.
What Serenus goes on to describe and what Seneca later seeks to remedy in the dialogue are very much like the behaviors we associate with toxic leaders. To be clear, good leaders have their bad moments, and I think it’s fair to say we all can respond in a toxic way unexpectedly, overwhelmingly, like a guerrilla attack. Seneca elsewhere presents a way of analyzing human affective behavior (emotions, feelings, passions) that I think can allow us to engage with our leadership responses authentically and to empower us to make changes. It has to do first of all with noticing.
Stoicism, in dealing with the “psychology of affective behavior”, was working from a very integrated and quite sophisticated (if sometimes perhaps desperately incorrect) view of the universe. To crudely summarize for our purpose today, all sensory input we receive is “true” and reflects the world as it is. Error is introduced through our own mental activity as we evaluate these “impressions” or appearances, forming judgments, and giving our mental assent to our judgments. I might, for instance, be on my way to a door when a colleague goes through and does not hold it open as I approach; this is “true”. I might evaluate this moment against others, against other interactions with this person, et cetera, and come to the judgment that this seemed deliberate; when I agree with this judgment, her action becomes deliberate for me, and I react. Or perhaps I say to myself, “probably, she didn’t see me” and disagree with that judgment, prompting a different (re)action. This process (sensory input, evaluation, judgment, assent, action) happens with purely mental activities (thoughts and feelings, I suppose) as well as with purely sensory input – it is the basis of our cognitive process.
Being better, from Seneca’s point-of-view, is learning to interrupt a faulty evaluative process and assent cycle in order to act properly. It seems to me that one of the things toxic leaders do is react, and react only or mostly, to what comes into their view without too much evaluation. You don’t have to be mean-hearted to be toxic, after all.
Can Seneca help? In another dialogue, De Ira or On Anger – one of the most dangerous of human emotions in his view, because it necessarily leads to action against another (eg. vengeance) – Seneca describes what seem to be three kinds of “movements” in the affective cycle. With some emotions, he suggests, we are necessarily affected by a “first movement”, a response to sensory input that is involuntary, like blushing, crying, flinching, or arousal. For anger, we might associate this first movement with a rush of cortisol and neurepinephrine. We cannot control these movements easily, or at all. A second kind of movement is voluntary – this is the assent to the judgment we form, especially in the important instances as far as leadership goes, around our experience of that first movement. The second movement offers an opportunity to regulate a further response to what precipitated the first movement. A third kind of movement results from being overwhelmed by input or from habitual bad judgments and assents: we are out-of-control, not just under the power of the body’s response but also under the power of toxic mindsets. “Get the hell out of the fast, lane, you idiot!!” “Copy me into these damn discussions – how many times do I have to ask?!?!!” “She always assumes it’s because she’s Latina!! I wish she’d get over it.” You know. I do too.
The amazing thing for me about the general ancient Stoic approach to affective behavior is how correct they can turn out to be. We now understand that anger can be regulated through the frontal cortex, as can many emotions. A now famous Harvard study showed that regular meditation resulted in not only changes to the thickness of the frontal cortex of the study group but also to the activity of the hippocampi, the paired lobes in the brain that build new brain cells and help counter the fight-or-flight responses of the amygdala. Even a regimen of just 8 weeks of regular mediation produces changes – long term meditators can have much more frontal grey matter as non-meditators – an astounding result. The healthy and unhealthy executive functions of the frontal cortex are exactly, I think, what Seneca is describing in the second and third movement, respectively, the point at which we evaluate our judgment before acting – a healthy executive function (oh, the irony!) is exactly what toxic leadership behaviors are missing.
When we notice and are aware of the world around us, when we engage our perceptions and our judgments, we can empower ourselves to be better. It might seem like this is a very involved process in a hectic day or a work environment that prizes quick decisions and rapid response. But isn’t that the crux of the problem? A decision or response is not made good by being quick. A good decision is made even better by being quick. Mindfulness, training, theory, good friends – all these can make it the goal of becoming less toxic and reactive much easier, giving us more resources, helping us be more patient, and less triggered. But it starts with wanting to be better, to do better.
Academia is an odd ecosystem for leaders and issues around leadership as well as similar issues around toxic individuals altogether. One of the major contributors not only to toxic leadership but also to the promotion of people who adopt patterns of toxic leadership is the recruitment of faculty into leadership positions they are in no way prepared for (from a development perspective) or meant for (from an affect perspective) – or sometimes even want. I’m not suggesting that there are more toxic people in academia than other industries. But I do think that academic culture in general and academia’s institutional structures specifically protect and sometimes even promote toxic behaviors. When this is paired with an internally focused leadership culture – in which gateway leadership opportunities are sometimes chosen because “no one else would do it” … or in spite of the fact that “I’d rather be teaching or doing my research” … or the kinds of bias that lead to burn out of under-represented faculty – the negative knock-on effects are inevitable. For instance, many leadership positions in academia simply do not scale – it is absolutely not the same thing to be a chair of a department or the director of a program and to be a Dean or Vice-Provost. But these gateway positions are often the places out of which the next level of leadership comes … in organizations where it is next to impossible to remove under-performers. Anyone in higher education who has paid any kind of attention knows of colleagues who got caught in this ecosystem and then couldn’t get out (“I don’t have a research agenda after all this administrative work”) or knows of toxic leaders who just can’t be made to leave. It’s critically important to understand that the kinds of behaviors Hinshaw outlines in the post linked below are not just the behaviors of toxic people, they are the behaviors of good people who are overwhelmed by and under-prepared for leadership roles. Recognizing toxic leadership and confronting it is definitely one solution, just as we need to recognize and confront racism and sexism. But how much of that toxic behavior (just like racist and sexist behaviors) could we start to transform in otherwise decent people caught in this upward cycle of leadership? Can we identify, train, and promote people who are not only “capable” but also capable leaders? I’m not one of those people who like to bring business models into education … but the current focus on social & emotional intelligence as keys to business leadership success seems essential for higher education leadership, too. If you’re going to make someone chair because it’s “their turn”, without giving them leadership training (and I’m not talking about a weekend retreat here, I’m talking about conflict resolution training, dialogue facilitation, racial bias training, etc.), be prepared for the consequences. But if you want to address those consequences through conflict resolution, or get ahead of the curve with mindful leadership coaching for prospective leaders at your institution, let’s talk.