In November, I returned to Samye Ling to host an introductory Leadership Embodiment (LE) workshop. It’s wonderful to re-engage with this work and to share these practices with others. Over the weekend we explored our reactive tendencies in contexts such as how we speak and listen; how we relate to adversity and unpalatable news; how we handle differences of opinion; and our patterns in leadership and followership. We practised responding to our reactivity with acceptance and using it as a prompt to do a centring practice to regain our composure and resourcefulness.
It was a joy to reconnect with the whole suite of practices. Even before touch was discouraged/prohibited by the pandemic, I’d focussed mainly on using LE within my dialogue work. This emphasis meant I didn’t give as much attention to some activities, such as exploring leadership and followership. As I witnessed participants experiencing these different roles in an embodied way, I recalled how this aspect of LE has shaped my life and work.
Not naturally given to followership, I’ve invested energy in understanding what it means to practise it. There were a few prompts for this inquiry – from life, from my engagement with dialogue practices and from LE itself. I had an early lightbulb moment when a participant in one of my dialogue programmes talked about the importance of followership and mentioned a TED talk by Derek Sives called ‘How to start a movement’. The essence of this light yet compelling talk is that without followership, someone engaged in a pioneering, radical or unique activity might be seen as a ‘lone nut’. When another person joins them, the seeds of a movement might be sown. A first follower authenticates ground-breaking activity and places the person undertaking it in a role of leadership. For me, this short talk reframed followership as an important act of leadership.
Later, I had a striking experience during an LE retreat led by Wendy Palmer, who developed this body of work. In a beautiful garden setting on a glorious summer day, we were focussing on our patterns in leadership and followership. I was working with a fellow teacher. As we began, my partner took on a leadership role and I decided to explore giving myself completely to followership. The nature of the activity is that any pairing works in silence for about five minutes, within which leadership may ‘change hands’ a number of times. This gives each person the opportunity to become aware of their embodied experience of both leadership and followership. ‘Changing hands’ is initiated by the person in the leadership role.
After a few moments, my partner/leader came to a halt in front of a delightful pond, pausing for a while. I practised good followership and waited alongside him, recovering centre whenever my attention drifted so that I could be open to whatever occurred. We remained there until a bell signalled that we should change partners. We bowed to each other and moved to work with other people.
Later, in the debrief, my partner expressed surprise that I hadn’t ‘taken on’ the leadership role, as he’d expected me to be bored and frustrated by standing still. This certainly reflects my character! However, unknown to him, I’d committed wholeheartedly to followership and although I was puzzled, I simply accepted that the choice to move or initiate a hand-over was his.
I’ve done this activity many times, but this experience gave me insight into the discipline of being constant, even when I’m perplexed. After it, I chose to be a faithful follower of both the LE approach and Wendy Palmer, the founder of it.
Following the approach has been easy! It’s valuable in my life and a pleasure to share with others. However, I’ve found keeping faith with a person to be more of a stretch. It can be hard to fathom someone else’s thinking and actions, even (or perhaps especially) if we deeply admire them. Whenever I’ve wavered, I’ve reminded myself that I’m committed to LE practices. In keeping faith with them, I’m able to keep faith with Wendy – in all her humanness. She has been an inspirational presence in my life.
- In what ways is your leadership shaped by your followership?
- When it’s a stretch to sustain followership, what will support you to keep faith with someone in a leadership role?
This piece is posted in memory of my teacher, Dharma sister and friend, Wendy Palmer, who died on 2 December 2022. She will remain an inspirational presence in my life and I will play my part in keeping her work alive.