Zen Leader Blog

Leadership Advice: Listen For the Future

Posted by Diane Chencharick

May 15, 2013 5:50:00 AM

inspirationThis may seem like an odd concept to the make-it-happen mindset of most leaders. It sure was for me. I took great pride and experienced great satisfaction in ticking things off my list, reaching a goal, and striving for the next one. That's not to say that these qualities are bad. They come in quite handy when driving for an end result. But there are times when the desired "result" is not yet clear. I don't wake up every day with a clear vision of what the day will look like or have a need to make something happen. This is when I am most willing to slow down enough to listen. "In listening for the future, we suspend trying to make anything happen, and trust," states Ginny Whitelaw in The Zen Leader. This is what opens the door to inspiration.

Ask leaders where they get their best ideas, and you'll probably hear the winning answer heard 'round the world… "in the shower." Now, nobody gets in the shower to get a good idea or make something happen. But when the water hits our skin and we relax, our minds also open up. We enter a connected state. "It's what happens when we quit trying to make something happen," continues Ginny. "What I've noticed is that if I'm quiet enough to truly listen for what wants to happen, it's always there, always playing."

"In listening for the future, we are also listening to ourselves, because we and the future are not two different things. We are listening for our interests, passions, perhaps a sense of calling or the joy that comes with expressing our gifts. We are listening for what holds us back from the future we aspire to, what is too stuck, too small or too afraid to move forward. As our self awareness grows, the future we wish to attract naturally becomes a more realistic match to who we are."

This still may seem like a far-out concept, but you've more than likely already experienced this many times in your life. Have you ever had a thought suddenly pop into your head out of the blue? Once I was driving to work on a packed expressway when that little voice told me to get out of that lane. I listened - and not 10 seconds later a truck carrying a full load of steel pipe started fishtailing and began losing its load, right there in the lane I'd been in. This was a powerful lesson for me about listening to that inner voice. Another one of my favorite authors, Julia Cameron, refers to this experience as "synchronicity." Some believe it to be the voice of God. Call it what you will, we can all benefit from hearing it and responding when we do.

It can be a difficult path to simply trust when you are in leadership role. We are accustomed to making decisions that are based in solid fact. We like predicable outcomes based in knowledge and experience that follow a clear and defined path. Yet, brilliant ideas don't generate this way. Brilliance comes from those "aha" moments when we are opened up, trusting that the right thing will happen, the right solution will appear, a creative flash of inspiration will occur.

"To flip from driving results to attracting the future, we have to flip into this connected state, which also flips our relationship to time," writes Ginny. I invite you to experience this yourself by doing this powerful timeline exercise from The Zen Leader. It will help you see the connection between yourself and the future, as not a distant thing that's "out there", but as a part of you already.

I have also found that sitting meditation, done once a day for 15-20 minutes, has improved my awareness, thus my connectedness. If you are interested in beginning your own practice of meditation, there are many wonderful books to help you on this path, but here's a little "quick start" guide that can give you the basics.

Listening for the future is a skill that defines our greatest leaders. They know when it's time to push and when its time to slow down, listen and trust. Through constant listening, we connect with the larger forces at work and can use them to great effect. Think about your own experiences and the impact your inner voice or intuitive listening has had in shaping where you are today. Any you care to share?

Topics: awareness, leadership advice, the zen leaders, inspiration, leadership, Ginny Whitelaw

Leadership Advice: Simplification Changes Everything

Posted by Diane Chencharick

Apr 28, 2013 6:26:00 AM

simplicityI've been on a mission the last few years to simplify my life. It actually began out of necessity a few years earlier as I combined households with a man who was a more accomplished "collector" than I was. How did we ever get all this STUFF?! So, it began… an item by item triage that put everything in a category of keep, sell, gift/donate, or throw away. Little did I know that this lesson would carry over to other aspects of my life as well.

In this country, we've all become massive collectors. It goes way beyond the laughable "the person with the most toys wins." Some economist might call it consumerism, but we don't really consume it all. Most of the time it just sits there, taking up space. When you start running out of spaces to put things, we often move into bigger spaces. In 1973, the average square footage of a new construction home in the US was 1,525. By 2010, it had grown to 2,169.

Two years ago, we downsized again into a home roughly half the size. Some things went into storage, but for the most part, we simplified again - taking only what we really needed and loved. No clutter. Pretty soon simplification spilled over into other areas of our life. Our meals became smaller and a lot healthier. It was amazing how good all this felt - like I had more breathing room. And breathe I did.

I found myself drawn to meditation and yoga. The simple act of following my breath increased my awareness of all that is going on around me. I became more aware of all the mind chatter and began to recognize the voice of ego and the fears it works so hard to protect. "By doing less, we sense more," states Ginny Whitelaw in The Zen Leader. This act of simplification is at the very heart of the "flip," from Controlling to Connecting.

In leadership, "we can experience this flip when we do less ourselves and reach out to others more," continues Ginny. "When leaders have delegated away many of their everyday tasks to attend the programs I teach, I always caution them about how much they take back when they return on Monday morning. Who can help? Who can learn from this? Where else in the organization could we get support? The more we connect with people around us and their ideas, the more we scale beyond the capacity of being merely a 'one-man-band.' Not only does connection help leadership scale to greater levels, but it's even essential for the uptake of our individual efforts…It is the flip that gets people moving with us, not because they have to, but because our connectedness brings them along."

Connectedness rewards us in many ways. In its most complete state, we experience Samadhi - where "I" disappears and we reach total absorption in the moment. Athletes call it being "in the zone." But this is not something we can will, rather it is a natural state that arises on its own. We can nurture the conditions for Samadhi through meditation and breath. If you've never tried this, here are some basic exercises from The Zen Leader that are both relaxing and rejuvenating. I encourage you to give them a try.

Simplification has taught me many things. I have learned that I don't need half the things I once thought were important to own. Letting go of material things has allowed me to more easily let go of other things, like anger and disappointment. I also worry less because I spend more time in the moment rather than role-playing future scenarios that never play out. The greater "space" in my life allows me to connect more with people and activities I enjoy. Less is more - I get it now.

I invite you to do this simple experiment. Right now, focus on where you are. Take in your whole surroundings, the smell of the air, the posture of your body and the feeling of your clothes, the things around you. Pick one thing you see. Is it important to you? If it is, appreciate its function and place in your life. Is it something you really don't need? Then do what I did and sell it, gift it, or throw it away… and enjoy the freedom that begins to develop:-)

Topics: simplification, awareness, leadership advice, just enough, the zen leader, Ginny Whitelaw

Leadership Advice: When decisions offer no "good" outcomes.

Posted by Diane Chencharick

Mar 30, 2013 2:24:00 PM

decisionsWe've all heard the phrase, "The lesser of two evils," but sometimes leaders are faced with decisions where even the lesser of two evils is not clear. Sometimes decisions seem equally crummy in either direction, depending on your perspective. I was reminded of this while watching the news the other night, as yet another crisis evolves in the Middle East. It appears, once again, that an action by the United Nations and/or the United States will be forthcoming, and we will be judged harshly by our involvement or lack thereof.

So what do you do when faced with decisions where no one is going to be happy? It's sometimes hard not to seek out acceptance, appreciation, and validation that we are making the "right" decisions. We want our followers to stand behind us and support us, and when they don't, we can take it personally - as a slap in the face that says, "I don't trust you are doing the right thing." This is where clarity and awareness are most critical. They are how to remain clear on our intent so we make decisions that benefit the greater good. They're how we are able to weave through and not be clouded by all the voices we hear that are based in fear. They're how to find some peace ourselves, when faced with a difficult paradox.  So when you find yourself caught between rocks and hard places, here are three things that might help.

Sit and Breathe
There's only one way I know to stop all the mind chatter long enough to see through the fog: sitting meditation centered on the breath. I've recently recommitted myself to this, which has been an on-again, off-again practice for me. By paying attention to everything that's going on in and around my body, by dismissing thought as it tries to enter (or blending it with my breath), I am able to experience life as it is, non-judgmentally. This state, when practiced, can then be carried over into daily life including those times of tough decision-making. Meditate. And keep going back to it when you quit doing it. For the novice, here's a very simple guide to sitting meditation that also lets you experience the 4 energy patterns that work within you.

See the Big Picture
In the book, The Zen Leader, Dr. Whitelaw calls this "flip" From Local Self To Whole Self. What she suggests we do is to look beyond our own immediate inner circle to see all the players and, through role-playing, feel and experience the fears, challenges, advantages and disadvantages around your decision. To me, this is like viewing things from the peripheral wash of a floodlight, vs. the single beam of a flashlight. How much more we can see! Here's a helpful little guide from that chapter called From Local Self To Whole Self: Seeing All The Players, that illustrates how far-reaching our decisions really are.

Manage the Paradox
One of the most difficult challenge any leader may face is in managing a paradox that has a high emotional component to it. We see this in religious beliefs, political beliefs and cultural differences all the time. They create potential for over-reaction and under-reaction that keep us locked in the extremes of one side. "The leader who can see and show others that we're not dealing with a 'slippery slope' so much as a figure 8 of managing a healthy tension within bounds we can agree upon, moves the dialogue - and the company - to a higher level," states Dr. Whitelaw.  "The leader who can tease apart 'what exactly did we do last time that caused problems?' and identify thresholds within which we can maneuver successfully raises the bar of performance." Here's a guide to managing paradox, from The Zen Leader, that may be very helpful to you.

The toughest decisions we must make leave everyone feeling that they're not quite happy with the outcome. I was told this from a court arbitrator once, and it certainly holds true when you are managing a paradox. It's so much easier to take sides and have at least SOME of the people supporting you. But with paradox, that's not in the best interest of the company, the country or whatever collection of people you lead. Through clarity and awareness, it's easier to get through this unpleasantness. An unfaltering vision and a clear mind will help you navigate these waters.

And don't forget to breathe…


Topics: managing paradox, awareness, Dr. Whitelaw, mindfulness, decision making, meditation, the zen leader, whole self

Leadership development is not a straight path

Posted by Diane Chencharick

Mar 16, 2013 4:55:00 AM

winding roadNothing seems to run in a straight line. We start something, move things forward and then the backslide begins. Whoever penned the phrase, "two steps forward and one step back" understood the pattern of growth -  something we can see in everything from our personal relationships to leadership development. I guess I always thought that knowledge and learning were more linear - and preferably ascending at a 45 degree angle:-) Silly me! Learning advances in stages, with sometimes numerous setbacks along the way. Unfortunately, many people give up after the first one or two. Why? Because it feels too much like failure and we take it personally. Don't confuse failure with the normal forward and backward motion of growth.

How do you react to the first setback when working toward a goal?
It's so easy to take things personally when setbacks occur. What don't people like about my goal? Why aren't they on board with me? What did I not take into account? These simple questions, while varied in their answers, all have a common denominator - me, my, I. When we can make the "flip" from It's All About Me, to I'm All About It, we gain freedom, energy and the ability to move forward for the greater good.

The many faces of It's All About Me
No leaders I know think "it's all about me." "And yet," as Ginny Whitelaw states it in the book, The Zen Leader, "The need to meet our own needs is deeply human and doesn't disappear the moment we start caring about others or connect ourselves to causes." Take a look at a few of the phrases she's heard during her coaching career from high-flying, highly skilled leaders who indeed care about the people around them, and see if any of these ring true for you:
  • Only I can do this (fast enough, correct enough, and so on)
  • I (or my team) want credit for this
  • I'm worried about money
  • It bothers me that my peers don't like me
  • I need to be heard (or respected, or promoted, etc)
  • I'm burning out; I work too hard
  • If our groups get merged, I may be out of a job.
Perhaps you have your own I-centered statement you can add to the list. All of these have one thing in common - they relate to a current need asking to be met.

Maslow recognized human needs and gave us a simple way to understand how they build on one another in his hierarchy of needs. But we don't scale this hierarchy only once in a simple linear fashion. Instead, we go back and forth - "down to the physical level when we are hungry and up to the self-actualization level when we are doing our best work," adds Ginny. When we map the faces of It's All About Me into Maslow's hierarchy, we begin to see the root need that is trying to be met. For example:
  • Only I can do this -> self-esteem, personal power
  • I'm worried about money -> security
  • I'm burning out; I work too hard -> physical
  • It bothers me that my peers don't like me -> affiliation

Awareness opens more doors
Why is it important to map this out? Because when we discover the underlying fear/need that is not being met, we become aware of where we tend to get stuck in Maslow's hierarchy. "Really understanding how our needs function, not as a judgment against ourselves but with curious exploration, moves them from being faces in disguise to faces we recognize," Ginny further explains. Awareness gives us the ability to see those needs and the freedom to choose beyond them for the greater good.

Making the flip from It's All About Me to I'm All About It
When we can invert our way of thinking from a self-serving focus to one that focuses on serving, we are ready and fully capable of moving ourselves and others forward again with our goals. Let's take those same I-centered statements and see what they look like after making this eighth flip from The Zen Leader:
  • Only I can do this -> I'd enjoy doing this but who else can learn from this?
  • I'm worried about money -> I can be prudent about money and resourceful about living with just enough if I have to.
  • If our groups get merged, I may be out of a job -> Our groups merging may signal that it's time for a new chapter for me.
  • It bothers me that my peers don't like me -> even if Jane doesn't like me I'm going to help her anyway.
It's not as hard as you think to make this flip in consciousness. Here's a helpful guide from The Zen Leader, Flipping the Voice of Resistance, that maps out many of the common areas where leaders get stuck and how to flip them around.

Just because we now understand the pattern of growth that moves backward several times along the way doesn't mean we want to linger there when it happens. We can listen to the voice of resistance and become aware of the fear/need it is trying to protect and then ask ourselves, "If I could take my need out of it, how could I become All About It?" It's nothing more than listening, learning and getting out of our own way. Adjustments and decisions we make based on the whole picture are always better.

"When we work with a true steward, one who is creating a more valuable world for the sake of others, it brings out the best in us and we get bigger. When a great leader like President Kennedy reminds a nation 'Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.' he pulls people up Maslow's hierarchy toward a greater sense of who they can be in service to others, By contrast, the politician who promises it's all about you, and that he'll go to the Capital to 'bring back your money,' draws people down into angry selfishness. As leaders we are not only tending to our own hierarchy of needs, but inspiring (or dragging) others up (or down) Maslow's hierarchy as well. As we draw more people up toward their self-actualizating potential, we see more creativity, agility, spontaneity, and broad-based thinking, and less fear," states Ginny. And nothing draws people to a leader more than when they feel inspired to be their best self.  Why lead people anywhere else?

Topics: awareness, Maslow's hierarchy, voice of resistance, servant leaders, the zen leader, leadership, leadership development, Ginny Whitelaw

How to recognize - and free yourself - from coping mode.

Posted by Diane Chencharick

Jan 22, 2013 8:05:00 AM

describe the image
I was in a conversation recently with some other coaches that really struck home. We were talking about one of our biggest challenges - leaders who take transformational advice and try to make it fit into their current situation. Or, as one coach put it so well:

 "The challenge is how to bring something into a world that doesn't have space for it and which automatically co-opts it into the prevailing mindset, which perpetuates the problem."

This got me thinking: How can we help leaders see the "flip in consciousness" that is needed to get to the next level?

Leadership development has long been about fixing problems, utilizing strengths, and amplifying personal resources that improve one's ability to successfully implement change and drive toward goals. Doing things better, faster, and with less resistance is the goal. So we help patch here and fix something there and see signs of improvement that lead us to believe the current paradigm is still working, but it's often not the case. If we look deeply, what we often find is a leader in coping mode - someone who's barely hanging on and has maxed out their ability to make refinements that deliver. Not only that, but a study at the Kings College of Psychiatry in London showed that when people multitasked, their effective IQ dropped 10 points! These are the same leaders who think their performance is not affected at all.

The "Aha" Moment
Have you ever had a stroke of brilliance, where you suddenly realize the answer you've been puzzling over in one immediate flash? Then you've already experienced a flip in consciousness. It is immediate and goes from this to that. It is a quantum leap without steps or process, which are both inwardly profound and outwardly physical. As Ginny Whitelaw states in The Zen Leader, "Not only will you find YOUR energy transformed by these flips, but the tools of leadership are transformed as well: how you set vision and strategy, create the future, develop and inspire others, and optimize had choices."

The very first "flip" that The Zen Leader walks you through takes you from coping to transforming. Coping mode immobilizes us. It keeps us stuck in the present situation. "Accepting 'it is what it is,' the Zen Leader in us flips from defensiveness to curiosity, from resistance to creative engagement. What can we learn from it? How do we fix the damage, change the game, or leverage larger forces at work," asks The Zen Leader. In this mindset, we allow the flip to happen.

Look at things upside down
In art, when we are starting an experimental painting, it is important to put it on an easel and turn it in 90 degree rotations to look at it from every angle. Quite often, we choose to finish it from a very different angle than the one we started with. Why? Because we are pleasantly surprised by how things look when turned sideways or upside down. It can become more dramatic and less expected. The focal point can change. Shapes take on an entirely different look. This is what the flip from coping to transforming allows you to do. It changes your perspective, widens your field of view and gives you more alternatives to consider in your leadership.

The Zen Leader walks you through 10 flips in consciousness to help you become a better leader, but this first one is the foundation for all the rest. If you'd like to read this first chapter, From Coping to Transforming, a free download is available here.

Enjoy your journey!


Topics: zen leader, awareness, coping to transforming, the zen leader, flips, leadership development, Ginny Whitelaw

Leadership advice - When things don't go as you want them to

Posted by Diane Chencharick

Dec 11, 2012 9:47:00 AM

leadership disappointment Change is hard. It never happens as easily or as quickly as you want it to, especially when you are the one leading the charge. You put all the systems in place… you keep everybody in the loop on your progress… you might even hear little signs of encouragement along the way that lead you to the false conclusion that this important initiative will be a piece of cake. Then it all goes to pot and you ask yourself, "What the heck happened?"

If this sounds all too familiar, I empathize. Welcome to my present world. But this time, I am not taking it personally. I've developed a certain level of awareness over the past few years that is not letting this situation get its hooks in me. Because its NOT about me. So often we forget this and let emotions rule our follow up actions.

The Zen Leader talks a lot about this "flip" in consciousness in Chapter 9, From Local Self to Whole Self. It's a concept that can be difficult to understand, but when you make that flip, it's easy to see that there are a lot more factors in play than you may have initially realized. Here's the basic process:

WHO - Become aware of all the players
Become aware of the many people that are playing into the current situation. Make a mental note of each one, or even write them down. Who are all the immediate players in the situation? Who might be considered secondary players? I encourage you to expand your thinking to future people who may be impacted by this change.

WHAT - Consider the needs and fears
There is a reason, usually more than one, why people are resisting this change - and the reasons can vary widely by individual. Go back to your list of the players and do some role playing. What factor might be swaying them in another direction? What are they fearful of? What need is not being met by this change? This exercise allows you to "become the other person," as Ginny Whitelaw states in The Zen Leader. It might benefit you to write these down as well.

Now, look over your list. Get a sense of the WHOLE picture, not just your own perspective on this change. "The whole-self answers son't necessarily contradict those of the local self so much as add new dimensions, or broaden the approach. They may even reveal a better way to state the goal, or an overarching issue that has to be dealt with first," continues Ginny.

This has been a valuable exercise for me, and I hope can add benefit to you, too. If you would like a more detailed look at this flip, along with some good real-life examples, I encourage you to download the guide: Implementing Change - Understanding All The Players.


Topics: instituting change, managing change, awareness, leadership advice, leaders, the zen leader, leadership, change management, whole leadership. whole leadership development

Welcome to the Zen Leader Blog

A blog that transforms:

This blog is dedicated to the concepts described in the book The Zen Leader by Ginny Whitelaw.  In this blog we discuss how these concepts are applied to a variety of current situations and applications, helping us all unleash the Zen Leader within us!

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