“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is often a question for little children. Yet throughout my career, I repeatedly asked myself that very question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” In my 20s, 30s, and 40s, the same question kept coming up at different times until I realized two things: First, my life has a terminal end like everyone else’s. And second, we never stop learning and growing. Five years ago, these realizations led me to step out of the comfortable career that I had outgrown—a career that was making me feel too small to come alive.
That single step was by far the most daunting step I’ve ever taken. Anais Nin’s words describe most accurately and elegantly how I was able to leave behind everything that I’d worked toward for external recognition, and leap with faith for an internal calling to something new, unknown, and imperative that just wouldn’t go away: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” That first step I’d resisted was the very step I needed for my own learning and growth. With 20/20 hindsight, I can say confidently now that what I had hoped would be the right decision at the time has proven to be the best decision I’ve made by far.
These last five years have been my most alive and productive years since law school. I’ve been teaching, coaching, leading, and guiding leaders, students, and staff in higher education in a variety of roles including interim executive, executive advisor, and leadership coach. All these roles involved deep listening and active learning on the job—the best kind of learning in my view—and I was able to use the skills I gained in my prior career as a corporate lawyer in ways I would have never imagined if I had stuck to what I knew and what was expected of me for the sake of safety, comfort, and certainty.
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” ~Alvin Toffler
At the same time, learning itself alone isn’t enough in today’s VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) world. What worked for us to be successful in our past jobs or careers may no longer serve us. Or what worked for us as an individual contributor may not serve us as a leader. For instance, as an individual contributor, we often have to be the one solving and fixing problems and issues. As a leader, however, we need to help our team and staff to be effective and succeed in their contributions toward the collective goal rather than our doing everything by ourselves.
As part of my continual learning and growth, I was fortunate enough to be part of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI)’s 5-month long, inaugural “Engage” program this year. It started in June with the first 5-day immersion session, followed by online learning and sharing over the summer. Last week we completed the course with a second 5-day immersion session in San Francisco. Over 80 engaged leaders from 19 different countries gathered from October 4 until October 9 to complete the leadership education program on mindfulness-based emotional intelligence and neuroscience.
It was an amazing opportunity to learn and integrate the leadership knowledge, skills, and experience I’ve had in these past 4 years in higher education as well as the over 20 years of advising corporate executives and entrepreneurial leaders in resolving issues related to technology, business, and law. The underlying principles and benefits of leading with mindfulness-based emotional intelligence resonates deeply with what I have experienced and learned as a leader, a leadership coach, and a legal advisor to other leaders.
Leading is not easy in today’s VUCA environment. The good news is that leadership is a skill that can be learned like most other skills. The better news is that leadership developed through mindfulness-based emotional intelligence can help leaders to develop not only the skills to lead, but also the character to become better versions of themselves. I’ve experienced myself, the potent benefits of mindfulness-based emotional intelligence, including:
Being aware of how I am inside helps me show up with authenticity and confidence.
I can notice my inner thoughts, feelings, and emotions without judging whether they are right or wrong, good or bad. This neutral awareness naturally guides me to discover what internal resources I can draw from, whether I can trust my intuitions, and what support I need from others. The more I’m in touch with my inner core, the more I’m confident about who I am, and where I stand. This confidence gives me the clarity I need when I hear the voices of fear (“What if you fail?”), cynicism (“Why bother at all?”) or doubt (“Who do you think you are?”).
Managing myself first before I manage or lead others helps me to lead by example.
Knowing myself helps me to manage my own internal states, impulses, and inner resources (e.g., intelligence, courage, confidence, etc.) when a problem, difficulty, or challenge arises. Instead of reacting out of auto-response or an unhelpful habitual pattern that makes matters worse, I can respond skillfully and appropriately to volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. It helps me with letting go of the 99 things that don’t matter, so that I can focus on the one thing that matters most in the moment.
Knowing my motivation helps me follow my True North and generate needed stability.
Being able to stay in close touch with myself, and managing myself before managing anyone else, helps me understand my own motivation for leading a group, team, or organization. My motivation keeps me going when I hit a rough patch, or feel disillusioned with opposition or disappointment. Because I’m firmly aware of my internally driven motivation (i.e., to help my clients, teams, and organizations succeed), my feet are on the ground to follow my True North, so I can be the source of both stability and inspiration for myself and others.
Being aware of others’ pains, concerns, and needs helps create genuine connection.
Being aware of my own internal states helps me to be better attuned to others’ feelings, needs, and concerns. Many leaders only look to smart strategies, shiny objects, or sleek marketing as ingredients for success, and they forget that people are at the core of any success in business, research and discovery, education, and production. Employees, students, partners, customers, clients, and board members are all human beings. In today’s connection economy, empathy is a non-negotiable leadership quality.
Strengthening social skills enhance relationships that are building blocks of success.
When we are self-aware, and we can manage ourselves first to “show up” no matter what, and stay on track for the vision that guides us as leaders, while listening, paying attention, and noticing other members within and without our organizations, we get better and better at building relationships that matter to us and to the world. With mindfulness-based emotional intelligence, we can learn to follow Eleanor Roosevelt’s wise counsel, which is particularly suitable for leaders: “To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart.”
“I’m still learning,” were said to be the parting words of Michelangelo who died at the age of 88 in 1564 when people were lucky if they made it past 40! Even if learning doesn’t keep me young and strong as it did him, I still commit to learning and growing until the last breath as he did. Learn, Unlearn, and Relearn. That is the only way to keep up with the change that is constant in our lives.
Training with other engaged leaders who are committed to change the world to leave it a better place for our children and their children’s generation was both joyful and impactful. In the future, I’d like to share with you what effective leaders need to succeed in today’s VUCA environment regardless of industry or size.
We at SoulCo would love to hear from you. What has your leadership journey been like? What are you learning about the challenges and rewards of being leaders?