the becoming: June 30, 2023

Leadership as Practice

Hello from the other side of summer solstice! It’s cold as f*ck here in San Francisco and accordingly foggy as well. I recently learned SF summers are colder than South African winters so that’s something. It’s fun to be bundled up in sweaters while others get to wear sun dresses (not that I'm jealous or anything). But enough with that - I’m Andi, this is the becoming, and I am glad you are here.

A San Francisco succulent A giant San Francisco succulent I met on my way to Kung Fu class.

Practice and Intuition

“We are what we repeatedly do.” - Aristotle

Lately I have been thinking a lot about practice. Not because I thought it would be a good thing to think about, but because the word keeps showing up in my life - an email in my inbox, a course lecture, a podcast episode, a blog post, a comment in passing - enough synchronicity that I know better than to ignore it. And so here we are with the topic of this month’s newsletter: practice.

This is an archived version of the becoming. You can sign up to receive future editions using the form at the bottom of this page.

I’d like to unpack two things in what I just wrote: practice and synchronicity. Practice, as I take meaning from the conversations showing up on my doorstep, is about cultivating a feel or an at-home-ness with something new or unfamiliar. It is about the movement of return, coming back, and remembering. This kind of practice isn’t about acquiring a new skill (e.g. learning a new language) as much as it is a kind of tending to our own becoming. It is practice that shifts how we are in the world and how we respond to life. These types of practices require the support of not just the mind, but the heart and body as well.

Over the course of 2023 I have been developing my intuitive practice - the ability to be aware of and in connection with non-rational ways of knowing. This requires a shift in how I interact with the world - from head-based thinking to more holistic, full-bodied perception. It also requires radical presence and connection with myself and the more-than-human world at the same time.

I don’t really have an answer to what this looks like, no end-game in mind, but I do have a few questions that have been guiding me. Things like:

  • What is arising in this moment?
  • Am I present enough to fully sense what is here now?
  • How can I be in conversation with what is here now?
  • How do I move in congruence with what I am sensing?

And these questions in turn informed the design of a set of practices to keep me coming back, day in and day out, to my intuition. They helped me see the kind of body that is required to live intuitively: one that can be present and sensitive to what is arising. And once this became clear I created practices to deepen my capacity to be present and sensing. Which included:

  • Daily meditations the lineage of the Realization Process (an embodied practice for non-dual awakening)
  • Taking walks in nature without my phone, attuned to the world around me
  • Deepening my relationship with Tarot (working with the cards daily)
  • Working with my dreams and incorporating them into my meditation practice
  • Reading poems
  • Listening, opening, and receiving as a somatic practice

These practices, over time, have shifted how my daily living unfolds. Through the Realization Process I am more connected to a pervasive stillness that supports an ongoing deepening of my own embodiment. From this place I am more connected to the world around me, less “in my own head”. I do not have to think to create reality, but uncover it with my senses. And as this happens, my body becomes attuned to receiving - dreams, insights, connections, knowing - things outside the realm of rational thought but equally as true.

So yeah, practice. The word brings to mind rote, mechanical repetition - doing the same thing day in and day out with a kind of absent or partial attention. The kind that feels more like, “Do I have to?” rather than “Wow, I get to!” I’m sure we’ve all experienced this in our own lives, where resignation becomes the dominant mood when engaging in the activities of daily practice. But is this kind of practice really practice? According to Ness Labs (in an email that hit my inbox right after I finished the first draft of this essay) the answer is no. Practice is only practice when it is deliberate, systematic, and purposeful.

In The Leadership Dojo, Richard Strozzi-Heckler makes a distinction between practices and generative practices, which I think is useful for what we are exploring here. Practices are conscious choices we make to behave and act in certain ways towards a particular purpose or goal (saving money for a child’s college tuition, not eating or drinking three hours before bed in order to sleep better, etc). Generative practices, by comparison, are conscious choices to embody a behavior that can be used in any situation. Our way of being and awareness of reality shift as a result of generative practices, which can be used any time, any where. You can dive deeper on the difference between the two (as well as habits, routines, and reflexes) in You are What You Practice.

What is emerging for me is that practice really needs to include intention, purpose, and embodiment. This doesn’t necessarily mean it is easy, or that we always want to do it, but that when we do practice we are present, purposeful, and committed. We connect to the person we are becoming and the future we are living into and allow that to infuse our practice with meaning.

When we do this, practice becomes:

  • A way of feeling at home, a way of developing familiarity
  • A devotion, a calling in, a reminder of what is important
  • A process of becoming
  • Cultivation rather than destination
  • Embodied learning - about what we do and how we do it

Leadership as Practice

“What am I practicing to bring about the current conditions I find myself in?” - me

As leaders, we are always practicing something (though we may have practiced to the point our behavior has become habit). The patterns of how we engage with our colleagues, teams, and organizations may have developed very early on in our career (and life!), and become our default way of leading. If being liked is something that was important to us from a very early age, then we may lead by saying yes to everything or avoiding difficult conversations. Or if winning is really important, it will inform a style of leadership that includes competitiveness, long hours, and political maneuvering. Neither of these approaches is inherently bad; depending on the context and the needs of the organization each style could in fact be a good match for a particular context. On the other hand, these styles may lead to outcomes we really don’t want.

I frequently use the phrase “leadership practice” to bring awareness to the collective process of a leader’s being and becoming. Individual leadership practices are unique and dynamic - it is the sum total of what we do, day in and day out, and how we do it that creates the leader we are today. If we are not happy with how we are leading, or the outcomes we are getting, then new leadership practices can be adopted. Over time, these practices will result in new ways of leading, and different outcomes. But these practices have to be of the generative variety, in service of the who rather than a particular what.

From my very anecdotal research, it seems that many articles and resources lack a generative approach, and implementation details fall short of providing a leader with active, purposeful, and well-defined practices that can lead to transformative change.

For example! Maybe you’ve identified that ‘boundaries’ are something you want to work on. Boundaries both at work, and around work. You do a quick search and come across this TED article on setting clear boundaries. Hooray! You read the article and jot down a list of what you need to do:

  1. Understand your worth
  2. Be clear and concise
  3. Manage and negotiate expectations
  4. Identify your non-negotiables
  5. Make sure remote work also has boundaries
  6. Beware of burnout

The ‘what’ part of boundaries is clearly covered in this piece. Cognitively it is easy to understand the ground rules and parameters of better boundaries which includes activities like ‘understanding’ and ‘managing’ and ‘identifying’ and ‘beware-ing’. But… what is it that you actually practice to create better boundaries? And even more importantly - what are the generative practices that can make boundaries an integral part of your life, not just in specific work situations but part of your way of being and acting in the world?

This article from HBR on setting boundaries does a better job at including the practice angle, encouraging experimentation and reflection along the way. Their list of recommendations for what you should do is short and precise:

  1. Determine your top priorities in work and life
  2. Test out one hard boundary
  3. Practice a few soft boundaries
  4. Commit

I appreciate that the author first defines what boundaries are (who we give power to) and the types of boundaries one might use (hard and soft), and then guides the reader through the process of setting and testing boundaries with an invitation to commit to one quarter of experimentation as a test. Reflection questions are provided that can be used at the end of the quarter to review what worked, what didn’t, and what needs to change.

But, these practices aren’t generative practices because they are in service of a particular purpose or goal (e.g. more energy, more time with family, less time doing something you don’t like). The boundaries enacted through this process are built around a specific outcome. They are about how a leader, as a person, has more or less of x. This is useful, don’t get me wrong! But there is deeper question than can guide a leader to develop better boundaries: “What kind of leader do I have to be to embody healthy boundaries in all situation at all times?” This kind of question pushes us into the land of the generative. Practices in service of who we are becoming, not just what we want to achieve. Boundaries in service of living a life of integrity, coherence, and creativity.

What would boundaries look like as a generative practice? A few things come to mind:

  • Practicing the embodied ‘no’ 3 times a day
  • Sensing into alignment - before saying yes, create space to connect with what you want (this can be by taking 3 deep breaths, or by saying something like, “I need some time to think about it. Let me get back to you by the end of the day.”
  • Designing your day in service of how your energy flows
  • Making declarations (in service of who you are becoming)
  • Making offers (in service of what feels aligned for you)

These practices center our power in ourselves and deepens our awareness of what feels in alignment and what we have capacity for. Over time these generative boundary practices get deep into our bones, and when they do we won’t have to go through mental exercises to get clear on priorities and create lists of hard and soft boundaries to experiment with. Our boundaries will instead be an integral and embodied part of how we live and lead.

Additional Tips for Practice

In Your Body is Your Brain, Amanda Blake provides insightful tips on practicing:

  1. Make Your Practice Relevant. Know why you are practicing and stay connected to why it matters. This can happen at both the practice and generative practice level. For practices, you’ll be connecting to the ability or skill you will have as a result of committed practice. For generative practices, you’ll connect to the person and leader you are becoming.

  2. Practice Early, Practice Often. Short and frequent practice supports the body to sustain the transformation needed to get the capacities in our bones.

  3. Locate Your Practice in Time and Space. Engage in practices when you don’t need them, so when you do your body remembers for you. Blake suggests correlating new practices with something in your life that happens multiple times a day, and tying your practice to it (to act as a reminder). Examples include, whenever you change tasks, take a break, start a meeting, notice your breathing get shallow, or walk through the door. You can also set reminders on your phone or put post-its on a mirror or on your desk.

  4. Extra Practice or Embedded Practice. Extra practices are those you add to your life, like meditation, tai chi, or stretching. Embedded practices are “woven into the tapestry of your every day activities.” In the case of boundaries, that might be something like saying no three times a day. For busy leaders, embedded practices are more likely to stick because they flow into the activity of your existing day, rather than require you to fit something new into an already packed schedule. Taking a mindful minute before each meeting will have a better chance at becoming a part of your life than taking up a daily 30 minute meditation practice.

To wrap this all up, I’ll leave you with a few reflection questions should you wish to continue exploring practices in your own life:

  • What are the circumstance you find yourself in that you would like to change?
  • What are you practicing that has resulted in those circumstances?
  • What do you want instead?
  • Who is the person you need to be to have that happen?
  • What new practices will support you in becoming this person?

Worth Your Attention

I’ve started Bayo Akomolafe’s Slow Study course, We Will Dance With Mountains: Into the Cracks! I’m moving through it with a friend - we are taking the ‘slow’ part seriously and also delighting in the practice-based approach to learning. This course is what kicked-off the inundation of ‘practice’ into my life, with Bayo saying, “This course is not about finding theoretical answers. This course is not about getting these concepts. This course is about practice, cultivating a feel at homeness within cracks. Learning how to look to our left, to our right, up and down, around us, and learning our politics of surprise, without which we will continue to be stuck in social theories that might help us navigate the neurosis of this moment, but will keep us stuck within a house.”

Language is a technology, and as one my my professors at Weatherhead likes to say, words make worlds. So I appreciate John Cuttlefish’s observation that language can be used as a “hack” to organizational challenges as he explores replacing the word milestone with stepping stone to refer to “meaningful integration, movement, and learning points that focus the team, hold certain assumptions constant, and act as a forcing function.”

This is self-serving, but I am experimenting with writing articles on LinkedIn and recently posted one called, “The Myth of Player-Coach Management.” It’s a look at how two subnetworks in the brain - the Default Mode Network and the Task Positive Network influence how we show up as leaders, and what it is possible for us to do. When required to switch frequently and rapidly between the two networks (which player-coaches have a high probability of needing to do) we can run into trouble.

Situational Leadership describes an approach in which the leader modifies their style to match the developmental level of the person they are working with. The Path-Goal Theory, on the other hand, looks at how a leader can modify their style based on the motivational needs of the person they are working with. In his Penn State Leadership Blog, Paul Anderson explores what the Path-Goal Theory is and how it works. I found it an interesting approach that seems to integrate more nuance and responsiveness when it comes to people and contexts at work.

I don’t love linking to Substack posts because it’s, you know, a Nazi Bar, but this “brief” introduction to predictive processing is too good to not share. The theory posits that our brain evolved to be good at one things specifically: prediction. Roberto Cavelli talks about the brain’s predictive capacity in The Order of Time, and ties the use of memory as a foundation for predictions to our experience of the flow of time: “this being between past and future events is central to our mental structure. This, for us, is the flow of time. (P. 179)”. Similarly, Lisa Feldman Barrett’s model for how emotions are made similarly incorporates the brain’s inherent abilities of prediction as a lens through which to understand how past experiences inform emotions that arise as a predictive response to things happening around us. Predictive processing takes a look at how the brain engages in the process of prediction and discusses how the theory can help us understand our experience of life.

Thanks for reading, happy practicing, and see you next month!