I’ve worked in recruitment for years, surrounded by senior executives with impressive track records. These are driven, disciplined people who have studied hard, achieved their goals, and are now working for prestigious companies. But they don’t stop there.
They keep pushing themselves to work on their personal development so they can meet the expectations of their employers and their peers. Because that’s what high-functioning executives are supposed to do.
So if these people are doing just what they’re supposed to do, why are so many of them unfulfilled in their careers and their lives? It seems to me that while they can DO what is necessary to manage a crisis, they have failed to develop in a way that allows them to BE effective leaders every day.
I think it comes down to one simple thing: a lack of presence.
When you are present in your own life, you can step back from old habits and ways of coping, and understand how your own behaviours affect you and the world around you. You move past your conditioned responses and learn to make decisions from a more authentic and truthful place.
Remember the bright idea you once got when walking in a forest? Or the feeling of grasping, even for a moment, the meaning of your life while gazing at a sunset? Or how about the epiphany you had in the shower? It was not about the forest or the sun or the shower. It was about your connection with the present moment that brought clarity. You don’t need a forest or a sun or a shower, you just need to be present.
Presence is the foundation of most leadership skills: resilience, impact, creativity, vision… but for leaders to be present, they need to rethink the way they learn.
Superficial “cognitive learning” is not enough anymore. That focus on the intellect at the expense of the whole self (mind, emotions and body) creates huge obstacles: a lack of inner balance, low productivity, difficulty in making an impact. Ultimately, it can stop you reaching the level of authenticity, sincerity, adaptability and trust required to lead organisations today.
So where do we look for answers? In recent decades, we have seen the emergence of contemplative practices that are rooted in ancient Eastern traditions. Mindfulness, meditation, yoga, Tai chi, centering, Aikido and communing with nature have all made their way into organisations that are searching for a contented workforce and a sustainable way of doing business.
Respected scientists like Tania Singer from the Mind and Life Institute and Dan Siegel from Harvard Medical School are spreading the idea that human learning cannot and should not be separated from deep presence. I was delighted to learn recently that one of our best Belgian universities is offering an executive programme in “Mindful Leadership”.
I think it is time we included presence as a core competence in every human development programme, starting from early schooling and continuing through the highest executive programmes.
By cultivating presence from a very young age, our leaders will learn to observe and understand their emotions. They will develop the skills to step back and avoid letting those emotions control their actions. Less guided by their fears and a need for control, they will be more inclined to embrace the interests of all their stakeholders. And this will lead to success for the organisation as a whole and greater happiness of all those involved.
The good news is that you don’t need to become an Aikido master or go back to school to be more present. You can start by listening to what your body is telling you. Practice deep breathing, self-observation or mindful walking even for short periods every day, and you’ll find they can help to change your life.
The ability to stay present is one of the key competencies I explore and develop with my coaching clients. Get in touch if you want to find out more.
If you’re interested in exploring presence and new ways of learning, here are some inspiring resources.
"Do schools kill creativity"? by Ken Robinson: video
And if you have more time, look at Daniel Goleman's teaching: "Focus: The Secret to High Performance and Fulfilment ."