The ‘leadership’ word

I’m recently back from teaching Leadership Embodiment at Samye Ling – another thing I don’t do for the money (see previous article). It’s a privilege to lead courses at this Buddhist centre and, when working there, I grow as a practitioner because the groups are richly diverse and participants ask different questions to those posed in organisational settings.

The April group was no exception: a couple of people gently queried the word ‘leadership’, saying it didn’t resonate and this had almost stopped them signing up for the workshop. This often arises in my Samye Ling groups.    

Thankfully, I’m prepared for such reservations – a long-standing friend, colleague and retired leader also has misgivings about the term and, influenced by her perspective, I’ve given it some thought. In addition, I recognise that some public figures don’t do the notion of leadership any favours. I understand the disquiet being expressed by participants – whilst being intrigued by their presence, taking it as an indication that they’re open to changing their relationship to leadership.  

My response to such concerns has two strands, and we explore these directly and indirectly during the weekend:

  • What we mean by leadership; and
  • The possibility that, whatever we call it, others may look to us for inspiration and/or guidance when they’re facing something new, challenging or complex.

In terms of the first strand, I try to talk (and write) about leadership rather than leaders because I’m interested in how we bring out the best in ourselves and others, regardless of formal positions or seniority. I described this in Weekly Leadership Contemplations, writing:

‘I see leadership in support staff who find the courage to speak out when things are not right. I see leadership in those who meet the most adverse events with grace. I see leadership in those who do hold positions of power, yet have the humility to admit that they don’t have answers, listening to others without judgement and being willing to change their minds.’

In essence, I believe that leadership is about how we carry ourselves and how this affects others. It begins with leading ‘self’ and building capacity to handle ourselves as skilfully as possible. Leadership Embodiment practices support us in this and also offer insight into our leadership ‘vibe’ – what we’re communicating through our presence and energy. In the workshop, we use a variety of situations to compare and contrast our embodied habits with a centred experience in which we’re more aligned within ourselves and more open to others. When we access centre, we embody the qualities of presence, confidence and compassion – and this inspires others.

Which brings me to the second strand, where I suggest that, for good or ill, others may look to us for leadership – sometimes without our knowledge. This arises from a human tendency to observe others and note what we like, admire and/or respect (or not) in them. When this shapes our own choices, we’re following someone’s lead, unbeknownst to them. It stands to reason that, unbeknownst to us, others may be following our lead.

In this sense, we’re all exercising leadership in some part of our lives, perhaps as a parent, who is a reference for their child, or as one colleague supporting another by sharing experience or expertise. With this perspective, it’s valuable to be aware of the kind of leadership we’re embodying and what we represent to others.

However, I know that even the possibility that others look to us for leadership can be difficult to live with – and when it’s made tangible through words or actions, it can be deeply, viscerally uncomfortable. Personally, I squirm – and then I use Leadership Embodiment practices to help me respond with composure and generosity. More generally, when others attribute leadership to us, we have a choice – we can shrink and demur or we can gracefully receive the appreciation offered. Accepting what others see in us is an act of leadership in itself.  

And what I see, when I share Leadership Embodiment practices with others, is that they walk a little taller, occupy a little more space and radiate a little more inspiration. Their leadership presence changes, whether or not they embrace the ‘leadership’ word.  

Contemplations

  • What does leadership represent for you? Where do you see examples of good leadership?
  • How does this help you clarify the kind of leadership you’d like to embody in your life and/or work?

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