By Ray Williams
May 20, 2021

Leadership theory and practices for generations has been driven by the belief that the appropriate focus should be on the external world — what the leader does, and not what the leader thinks and feels.

It is the difference between doing and being.

When we search for a cause outside of ourselves for how we are feeling and behaving, we are always wrong. The truth is we create a feeling inside ourselves first; then we search for an outside cause. This allows us to escape responsibility for our choice to value our ego-generated thoughts.

Many of our ideas about leadership arise from our experiences working in command and control hierarchies. Such hierarchies have left huge legacies — all around us we see firms failing to capitalize on their organizational intelligence and losing their competitiveness.

The emotionally immature hold a false view of leadership. They associate leadership with the privileges and powers they would wield were they to become leaders — dream of staff standing by to carry out their every whim, dream of a large salary; dream of people being intimidated by them as they walk the halls.

The belief that external circumstances cause our troubles is almost universally held; the world seems to be the cause of our thoughts, feelings and behavior. But this is mistaken. When we stop blaming, we stop making up stories about the external world.

When we rely on our ego’s way of doing things — -firefighting, controlling others, coercion, we strive to win and see ours as external objects to be manipulated. whole and connections to others is denied. It is based on separateness.

Physicists have now demolished the view we once had that the universe sits safely “out there,” that we can observe hat goes on in it, from behind a foot thick slab of plate glass without ourselves being involve with goes on. The reality is we are not the observer, but the participator.

In the grip of our ego thinking we externalize. To externalize means we try to find an outer cause for our inner state of mind. For example, when we feel thoughts of anxiety or depression, we scan the external world for an explanation of our emotional state. Our ego loves to provide external explanations such as “I am anxious because I’ve heard the news ,” or “I’m anxious what may happen to…”

And when we see behavior in others that really bothers us, our ego, our defensive brain wants to project blame, criticism, judgment onto the other person for what really exists in ourselves. The reality is that external conditions is not a cause for our inner condition.

A leader should take complete responsibility for the emotions he or she experiences. It is unworthy of a leader to attribute emotions to external situations. We are not responsible for hats are doing, but we are responsible for how we experience what others are doing. We see the world not as it is, but as we are.

Dee Hock, the founder of Visa, says “the first and paramount responsibility of anyone who purports to manage is to manage self: one’s own integrity character, ethics, knowledge, wisdom, temperament, words and acts Without management of self, no one is fit for leadership.”

In many ways one could argue that the current practices in leadership have failed. Differences in the world and organizations are still approached by negative conflict often leading to war, and our leaders have done little to alleviate the humanitarian problems of poverty, starvation preventable diseases, and environmental destruction. In fact, our leaders have demonstrated these things are to be tolerated, but have a driving and unrelenting passion to make individuals and corporations wealthier and more powerful.

A spiritual leadership approach would ask fundamentally different questions about what it means to be human, what we really mean by growth and what values and power distributions are needed to enhance both organizations and society as a while. Nobel Prize winner Ervin Laslo’s book Science and the Re-enchantment of the Cosmos, he wrote, “What scientists are now finding at the outermost frontiers of every field is overturning the basic premises of Western civilization concerning the nature of matter and reality.”

The organizational model of leadership that we have predominately experience since the end of WW I emerged from the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview, predicated on man’s mastery of nature, and the philosophy of the manipulation of our environment to man’s ends, and the construction of a very narrow and destructive concept of capitalism.

The current challenge of leadership is how to demonstrate performance management and at the same time, create purpose and meaning. A living organization without inspiration or higher purpose does not last. Organizations must be able to move from information to knowledge to wisdom.

The basic assumption of the “cult of performance” is based on systems thinking, particularly that field of systems thinking that assumes that human systems are cybernetic systems and it is on this assumption that policy is built on. This has lead to the current organizational belief that has trapped us into thinking we an’ say anything about performance through the contesting of different ways of thinking. Good performance is a necessary leadership outcome and in the rational domain — financial, easily measurable. A difficulty, however, is that centered on the notion of the measurement of purpose and meaning. How do you measure the non-rational, post modern notion of spiritual leadership?

Business schools, management gurus and thought leaders focus on delivering an outcome in the shortest possible time that is measurable by participants which in turn determine your viability and status within the business community. Bill Emmott, the editor of the Economist,wrote in 2004 : “The inequality of resources and power is another inherent weakness within capitalism. Indeed, one of capitalism’s main motors is the very desire to create inequality, an inequality between those who succeed and those who fail. It is a competitive system. The incentive to create wealth, to build successful businesses, is an incentive to become unequal.”

Robert Kegan professor Emeritus at Harvard University and author of The Evolving Self, contends that the complexity of today’s work world translates into challenges very few people can meet without experiencing high levels of stress. From a developmental perspective, he mentions that what is needed to meet novel job requirements if not the introduction of new skills but rather reaching a new level of consciousness — a change in the way one gives meaning and acts in this world. In the field of management Karl Khunert and his colleagues writing in the journal, Academy of Management Review, go even further by stating that transformational leadership is strongly associated to the leader’s consciousness development. Khunert believes more specifically that reaching the higher stages of consciousness allows for ways of thinking, being and acting that foster collaborative learning and co-development.

Four empirical studies show how the leaders with more advanced developed consciousness are better at convincing subordinates and superiors to consider different ways of seeing, thinking and acting. They are capable of greater collaboration and when taking action often reframe and negotiate not only their ways of seeing but also ways of collaborating. David Rooke, William Torbert and Dal Fisher in their book Personal and Organizational Transformations, observed that those higher consciousness leaders are looked on as learning leaders and participated more significantly in organizational transformations. Gervase Bushe, Professor of Leadership and Organization Development, Management and Organization Studies at Simon Fraser University has written several books on appreciative inquiry and argues that more advanced conscious leaders ere better able to manage closeness and intimacy.

Christopher Edgar, the author of the book, Inner Productivity: A Mindful Path to Efficiency and Enjoyment in Your Work,says “inner productivity is the mental and emotional state that allows you to get the most done and find the most enjoyment in your work.” Inner productivity is “about becoming aware of and transforming the way you think and feel about what you do.” We have so much mental and mental “clutter” that interferes with our motivation and focus. Before we reach for simple external solutions such as time management techniques or office and file organizers and calendar organizers, we need to bring order to our inner experience — thoughts, emotions and sensations that come up as you engage in work. Then we need to focus on feeling more focused and motivated and joyful about our work.

Paying attention to our inner experience runs counter to conventional wisdom in Western culture. The common belief is that we should ignore or push away the thoughts and sensations that come up while we’re working and “deal with them” on “your own time.” And we’re not only expected to repress our so called negative emotions and thoughts in our culture, we’re also supposed to hold back our passion for we do, the excitement and joy. It’s considered unusual today for someone to say they love their job.

Very few business writers and management consultants or experts look at the impact our inner experience of working can have on what we achieve in, and how much we enjoy, our work. They assume the only to transforms our inner experience is the change from the outside in — altering your external environment be reorganizing it.

Why does our culture consider our inner experience irrelevant or dangerous to our working lives? Much of that belief comes from our beliefs about children versus adults. Young children are naturally emotionally expressive and they make no bones telling you about it. The same is true of children’s thoughts — whatever they are thinking, they don’t hesitate to let you know. Adults tolerate this kind of behavior in very young children. However, as children mature, they are taught they’re supposed to keep what they’re thinking and feeling to themselves. They learn to associate voicing their thoughts and emotions with embarrassing or angering their parents and other adults. In effect, children are taught to distort or repress their feelings. So often we hear these phrases: “stop crying,” “that’s enough now,” “be nice to your sister,” “how many times have I told you to….”

In a similar way, we are taught that work was not meant to inspire us, fill us with passion or joy, but rather a thing to do until we can get on with the really important things in our life — hobbies, fun activities, vacations, etc.

So when you hear someone say, “I’m following my bliss,” in reference to work or their job, we see them as being weak, selfish, childish, or “acting like a child.” If we want to act like adults, we must keep or chin up, bear the boring or dismal work and suffer. Given this mindset, if’s no small wonder we see the typical worker as being emotionless and work as boring.

Unfortunately, much productivity advice urges us to fight against our inner experience, giving us pointers like “force yourself to do the toughest task firs,” “tell that lazy part of you to shut up.,” “kick your fear in the rear,” become your own drill sergeant. This attitude encourages us to hate and ridicule parts of ourselves rather than treating them with compassion .

We flee from our experience when we turn our attention to something else to take our minds off what we’re feeling. Fighting with your feelings or fleeing may offer temporary relief form whatever emotion or thought is troubling us, but is also makes it harder to stay on task. Devoting so much energy to keep our inner feelings and thoughts at bay is not only distracting it is energy draining.

We may feel that we are “saving time,” when we push away our inner experience as we work — that letting ourselves feel emotion would draw our attention away from the task we’re trying to do. But the reverse is true. The very things we do to escape from our inner experience also prevents us from getting our work done. So fighting or fleeing our thoughts and emotions actually wastes time instead of saving it.

A more serious effect occurs when we try to avoid or block or push away thoughts and feelings — if we keep them at bay long enough they become monsters, and start sabotaging our efforts to accomplished our goals. An example is someone who represses anger for long periods of time, and then has n explosive episode at work directed at a work colleague or boss.

The very idea that the kinds of thoughts and feelings that assault us in our work will fade away in time, if we let them, is novel to most of us. We tend to assume, when we’re confronted by fear, anger or some other intense emotion while we’re working that the feeling cold potentially stay with us forever unless we “do something about it.” In other words, if we don’t fight or flee from our inner experience, we’ll be stuck in the same mental rut indefinitely.

In fact, most thoughts and emotions few experience ultimately pass away, and they often do so quickly — within minutes or seconds — when we allow them to flow through us without running away from them or shutting them off. Then, when the thoughts and feelings have naturally passed, we can gently return our attention to our work, without the need to punish, convince or coax ourselves into getting back on task. This way of relating to our inner experiences at work, is acceptance, consumes far less time and energy than fighting or fleeing and can increase our productivity.

Another advantage of learning to be with our thoughts and sensations, as opposed to running from them is that it helps us assume more and more control over how we live our lives. If we’re constantly fighting or fleeing our inner experience, there’s a sense in which we aren’t really in control of our behavior — instead our stray thoughts and feelings are.

We can learn to respond to experiences in our life instead of reacting. Accepting our inner experience as a way to show ourselves genuine compassion. True compassion for ourselves means accepting all of our experience without calling them inappropriate and trying to escape from them. Otherwise our love for ourselves is only conditional — well only accept ourselves if we’re happy or excited about what we’re doing

Accepting or allowing what you are experiencing doesn’t mean grudgingly resigning yourself to it. That’s the same as fighting against our experience and is passive-aggressive behavior. Nor do we need to pretend to be happy about what we’re experiencing to accept it — we don’t need to for ourselves to smile when we’re feeling down. Accepting our inner experience is more a matter of removing the labels wee put on it. Rather than treating the thoughts and sensations you have as “bad” or problems to be fixed, or trying to convince yourself they feel wonderful when they don’t see if you can let them be, just as they are, without mentally judging or categorizing them. Without the mental labels “boring,” “bad,” et. And however else you usually judge those sensations, they no longer seem so intense and difficult to tolerate.

We can also achieve a sense of ease and inspiration in our work by not only allowing the thoughts and feelings that come up to be there, but also seeing them as a source of valuable inner wisdom. Whatever enters our consciousness as we work — fear, despair, fretting, angry — it likely has something to teach us about where we have room to grow as human beings.

From the outside-in we experience situations, actions and events in their environment. From the inside- out–we feel, interpret, process these situations and decide on our response.

Kevin Cashman in his book,Leadership from the Inside Out: Becoming a Leader for Life, talks about this intersection as it applies to leaders. On the one hand, a leader’s environment obviously affects what goes on in the leader’s mind and, in return, the leader’s mental processing generates responses and actions that impact his/her environment. External and internal, it is a dynamic whole. You cannot seriously consider leadership development without addressing both elements.

Cashman is right on the money when he says that typical leadership development programs in organizations concentrate pretty well exclusively on the “outside,” the doing part: leadership actions, behaviors, competencies, techniques, and so forth.

But we have seriously neglected the importance of the inside world of leaders — the being part: the self-awareness, reflective thought, emotions and feelings.

As I describe in detail in my book, I Know Myself and Neither Do You, self-awareness is a critical element in a leader’s emotional intelligence, and a fundamental practice for self-awareness is self-reflection. The ability of leaders to be aware of the emotions and feelings they are experiencing as a guide to thoughtful and rational responses and actions is a mark of a great leader.

Read my latest book: I Know Myself And Neither Do You: Why Charisma, Confidence and Pedigree Won’t Take You Where You Want To Go, available in paperback and ebook formats on Amazon and Barnes and Nobleworld-wide.

Ray's latest blog posts

Why Christmas is so Difficult for Some People

The Christmas season can be a time of great joy and happiness. It can also be a time of sadness, depression, stress and loneliness for many people. The expression “there’s no place like home for the holidays” promises experiences of warmth and joy that are...

How Belief in Conspiracies Erodes Society

Particularly in American politics, conspiracy theories and the number of people who believe in them appear to be increasing daily. A 2019 poll from Insider found that nearly 80% of people in the United States follow at least one unproven theory, conspiracy or not. The...

Deciding Right from Wrong: Why Ethics is so Important

In the television show “The Good Place,” a dead philosopher named Chidi tries to make his fellow citizens into better people by exposing them to the concerns of moral philosophers. This involves the “trolley dilemma.” And it illustrates the...

People Who Apologize Frequently are Seen As More Warm and Sincere

Everyone is familiar with someone who constantly apologizes (maybe you are one).  This is the opening sentence of an intriguing new study by Karina Schumann and colleagues published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, that investigates how people...

Join our Newsletter for a FREE copy of Breaking Bad Habits e-Book by Ray