Inside, out

Leaders’ self-transformation is born of interbeing.

“I have always been fascinated by the law of reversed effort. Sometimes I call it the ‘backwards law’. When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float. When you hold your breath, you lose it — which immediately calls to mind an ancient and much neglected saying, ‘Whosoever would save his soul shall lose it.’”

Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity

Few will forget 2020. The winter ended with a shiver, as coronavirus swept the globe. Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd in a spring burgeoning with fear, not blossoming with hope. Vicious, lethal wildfires swept through California in a summer that was, for many, a living hell.

“We cannot breathe,” says Terry Tempest Williams in The Pall of Our Unrest. “This is our mantra in America now. We cannot breathe because of the smoke. We cannot breathe because of a virus that has entered our homes. We cannot breathe because of police brutality and too many black bodies dead on the streets. We cannot breathe because we are holding our breath for the people and places we love.”

The longer-term impact of the pandemic, climate crisis and racial polarization on mental health, the economy, education, homeworking, privacy and social norms may not be fully felt for generations to come. Most of us saw at least a part of our world unravel.

Who am I?
How do I want to live my life?
What is important to me?
What is my purpose?

Only by starting with I could we then look more broadly at our organizations and communities, questioning our collective purpose, exploring how we could improve to better serve others. This was not simply a matter of doing better, but of fundamentally being different.

Beyond purpose

When author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek argued that we should “start with why”, he shifted workplace conversations. Suddenly business leaders had a reason to move beyond what to do and how to do it, and instead step back and ask more reflective questions about the purpose that informs and shapes our actions and the meaning that is derived from them.

A clear why helps us identify what is important. It enables us to distinguish between conflicting options and select those that will align best with our deeper purpose. Yet as a source of fulfilment it is necessary, but insufficient.
The idea that fulfilment can be found by exploiting external sources is a myth. People in industrialized and wealthy countries buy many more things than they did 50 years ago. Yet surveys show they are less happy.

Nor is the elevation of social status a viable path. “The root of insecurity is craving the approval of others,” says Wharton School organizational psychologist Adam Grant. “It gives them the power to inflate or deflate our self-esteem. A stable sense of self-worth stems from putting identity above image: worrying less about what others think of us than what we think of ourselves.”

So where can leaders find this inner esteem? Through relationships. Off-the-shelf ‘solutions’ for self-improvement miss the point. The personal-development and self-improvement industry is estimated to be worth over $11 billion, with products from motivational and spiritual teachers, personal coaching, and other products and services advertised online and on TV. Yet all these measures fall foul of the same destructive fallacy: that the self is a discrete entity, detached from its wider environment. It is quite the opposite.

Not being

In his book, The Self Delusion, Tom Oliver demonstrates how individualism is an illusion with no basis in biology. Most of the human body’s 37 trillion cells have short lifespans and respawn every few weeks. Many of our components are adopted directly from other organisms. We are literally the product of each other and our environment.

We must challenge the concept of fixed identity and replace it with one of fluidity and entanglement – interbeing. The premise of my book with Khuyen Bui, Not Being, is recognizing our deep fundamental nature as an ecosystem within an ecosystem, fundamentally connected at a visceral level. Not Being counters the notions of separation and solipsism, recognizing the complexity and dynamic mystery of who we are, as well as our interconnectedness with one another and our environment.

The four pointers

Leaders are interbeings of their organization, their teams, their family and friends and their wider network. How do they achieve self-transformation when so little of their being is within their direct control? Not Being offers four pointers.

Don’t think, but look Leaders must overcome the constraints of the analytical mind, which is often focused on propositional knowledge rather than lived experience. To live with Not Being is to go beyond fixed concepts and definitive answers, leading a life of inquiry, following our curiosity. Leaders can discover how they can widen their experience of being, drawing on the immediacy of our senses, and become attuned to the embodied and relational.

Matthew Crawford, author of The Case for Working with Your Hands, argues that it is not through the imagination or turning inwards that we should live our lives, but by turning outwards, by applying ourselves to, acting in, and developing our relationship with and affection for the world around us. The practice begins with paying close attention to what is not us. Such practice will count on different organs of cognition: our eyes, ears and hands. Senses precede reasoning. “The clearest contrast to the narcissist that I can think of is the repairman,” says Crawford: “he must subordinate himself to the broken washing machine, listen to it with patience, notice its symptoms, and then act accordingly.”

Memento mori

Not Being requires living with impermanence – with constant evolution. There is no place for fixity. The separate self – the protective carapace – must die to enable a more visceral experience of being. Leaders must learn to live with loss and grief as well as to appreciate the freshness of each moment, so that we come to see what truly is important to us. We do not evade endings or shun attachments. We learn to hold lightly, letting in and letting go.

Charles Handy in The Second Curve, Whitney Johnson in Disrupt Yourself and Geoffrey West in Scale have used the S-curve to illustrate the lifecycles of companies, cities, organisms, identities and roles. Those with foresight can anticipate the need to change, to pursue creative destruction, before the S-curve begins to flatten out. Leave it too long, though, and the moment is missed, with decline and obsolescence inevitable for the organization, and boredom, ossification and, ultimately, irrelevance for the individual.

Contemplay

With this fusion of contemplation and playfulness, we are asked to recognize how impermanence results in non-attachment and lightness. We develop the ability to engage in life as an infinite game with the energy of the trickster. Here we discover that equanimity is not about bypassing our feelings, but about being able to acknowledge and face them. Life becomes more about experimentation, joyfulness and play. We learn how contemplation is not the absence of action, but involves finding our own ways to reflect.

According to game scientist Bernie De Koven, writing in The Well-Played Game, “Play is the enactment of anything that is not for real.” Play is about that capacity to – albeit temporarily – ignore reality, suspend disbelief and entertain alternative possibilities.

Strategy and leadership consultant Johan Roos asked leaders and executives to model solutions to a management problem using Lego rather than pen and paper. Although the executives were initially resistant, eventually they dared to play with the blocks, constructing, dismantling, trying out different structures that reflected what happened in the case study. The results were startling. The participants came up with unusual solutions to problems, interacted good-humouredly with one another, and became deeply engaged through their ‘serious play’ with the Lego bricks.

Give your self away

We experience meaning and purpose more fully when we are not concerned with our self but, instead, turn outward to others. We explore what it means to give, the importance of community and belonging, and how we can move from separation to sharing our gifts with the world. We move from an abstract care for the universal to learning to love the particular, the person and the situation before us. The result is that we give our small self away, knowing that is how we truly find ourselves: in relationship. The paradox of leadership is that when it becomes less about self-interest we experience the most fulfilment and belonging.

Jojo Fresnedi, a sexagenarian former high-flier for a global beverage company based in London, semiretired to his native Philippines with his wife, Rhodora Palomar. On their return to the country, Palomar began to work for a foundation dedicated to ‘building a healthier Philippines’. She was involved in a variety of projects, which included promoting inclusion for people with disabilities.

Fresnedi also volunteered his time, running a leadership boot camp twice a year that helped doctors supplement their specialist health knowledge and practice with leadership and management skills. “This was personally fulfilling to me as it was about working to help people, not helping a corporation make more money,” says Fresnedi. “While there’s nothing wrong with the latter, there was a deep sense of purpose knowing that we were making an impact on doctors, many of whom served poor villages in rural areas.”

His experiences recall the wisdom of Sylvia Townsend Warner. “I think as one grows older, one is appallingly exposed to wearing life instead of living it,” she says. “For myself I found one remedy, and that is to undertake something difficult, something new, to re-root myself in my own faculties… for in such moments, life is not just a thing one wears, it is a thing one does and is.”

Steven D’Souza is senior client partner, leadership and professional development, at Korn Ferry, and co-author of Not Being: The Art of Self-Transformation (LID Publishing, 2021)