Your Questions Answered about Awareness-Based Leadership (AL)

By August 6, 2015Article

In our last issue, we wrote about Awareness-based Leadership (AL) and the dialog from readers has been exciting. Several readers queried us with specific questions, which we have organized and edited for brevity. SyNet’s APAC director Delf Ornelas provides the following answers.

  1. AL sounds like it requires a new psychology, or leaders to investigate their own psychological being in more depth than they may have before. Do leaders need expert coaches to do this?

AL does not require a new psychology; it does, however, require what Maureen O’Hara calls ‘psychological literacy’: the capacity to reflect on one’s experience and action at a psychological level even whilst in the midst of it. Our default psychological protection against fear and anxiety is a neurotic defense—a way of dealing with complexity by withdrawal from contact with the world and so we end up not dealing with it at all. As leaders develop self-awareness, they penetrate this first protection of denial as a default response to overwhelm – and thus clear the pathway to learning, development and growth. While we agree that it is high time to address the ‘overwhelmed employee’, we disagree that this can be done effectively by ‘redesigning and simplifying the workplace’ (see Bersin/Deloitte Report: Predictions for 2015). Instead we suggest developing awareness not only of oneself but also of one’s cultural context. AL-qualified and experienced coaches can certainly help.

  1. Your article about AL talks about abandoning the past and ‘leaning’ into the future. Why does the past no longer matter? Isn’t the historical context of your work and your people still important?

Albert Einstein is often quoted saying, “The mind that created the problem in the first place cannot be part of the solution.” A quantum leap is required. As MIT’s Otto Scharmer in his milestone publication Theory U puts it, “What we do is often based on habitual patterns of action and thought. A familiar stimulus triggers a familiar response. [Leaning into ] a future possibility requires us to become aware of—and abandon—the dominant mode of downloading that causes us to continuously reproduce patterns of the past.” Awareness-based Leadership practices support leaders to identify those crucial moments when the default habit of ‘downloading the past’ needs to be switched off so possibilities wanting to emerge take center stage.

  1. How exactly does one develop the self-awareness of AL?

We all ‘know’ something of what there is to know; and some also ‘know what they don’t know (and need to learn),’ but few are able to enter the space described as ‘Don’t know what I don’t know’—the space where true innovation (and often disruption) springs from. Mindful self-awareness in context, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally, is key to the development of Awareness-based Leadership. It allows practitioners over time to develop greater intimacy with their own minds and to tap into and access deeper interior resources to enter the ‘Don’t know what I don’t know’ space.

  1. AL requires empathy for others, to look at others and use their best talents. Does this mean, for example, that you cannot challenge i.e. give critical performance reviews of people?

Empathy, in essence, is the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes. You recognize and appreciate the feelings of others, which does not mean you have to be ‘nice.’ Being empathic means being able to ‘emotionally read’ other people and show interest in and concern for them. This does not require you to agree with their view necessarily; just fully understand where they are coming from. Putting that understanding into words solidifies your relationship with that other person, and shifts it from an adversarial into a collaborative relationship. Empathy is a critical skill when addressing performance issues and conducting performance reviews. It is essential that the underperforming person feels understood, even if in your view their behavior differs wildly from your expectations, in order to offset any degree of tension and to forge a strong bond to co-create solutions for improvement going forward.

  1. Your article says the third component of AL is making sense of context. You wrote: “Aware leaders have a readiness to move between head and heart, logic and intuition, inductive and deductive reasoning, left and right brain, all while playing the game.”  This is very difficult to learn to do. How can you learn this if you don’t have these talents as a leader?

Sense-making in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world is the key competence for leaders of tomorrow. You are right, it is not the easiest of AL competencies to master, but it can (and will) be done as it is a learnable skill, not a talent or gift that some have and others lack. How exactly does it work? Some of our colleagues liken sense-making to cartography, finding the best map—and preferably also a compass—of the territory you can. AL practitioners also become familiar with a wide range of specific tools and thinking techniques, which have the common characteristic of encouraging a more expansive view of any situation. These include, for example, Systems, Integrative and Transformational Thinking disciplines, Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences approach, as well as tools and techniques from recent Creativity and Innovation research (which by the way are the foundation of our SyNet InnovationLabs).

However, assuming that a focus on and application of these techniques will be enough to become a skilled AL practitioner is missing the point. For AL practitioners, the utilization and experimentation of the above techniques is driven by a desire to expand their awareness, to explore more of the ‘don’t know what I don’t know’ territory to adopt a broader perspective, one that recognizes the humanity in any context and system. They develop the capacity to accurately perceive the part without losing the whole, grasping and living in the unfolding situation as fully as they can.

  1. How long is the training by SyNet to develop AL leadership in a company? How do you go about it and how long does it last?

Integrating and practicing AL technologies depends on the level of commitment individuals and organizations can muster to learn to link the intelligences and capabilities of head, heart, and hand. Our AL journeys are built around the four pillars of learning (see also West Point Academy and UNESCO Jacques Delors Commission on education for the 21st century):

  • Psychological Literacy BEING – Leader Identity and Being with Others
  • Emotional Literacy FEELING – Reconnecting Reason and Emotion
  • Leadership Literacy KNOWING – Core Curriculum of what Leaders of Tomorrow need to know
  • Cultural Literacy DOING – Immersive Experience, Creativity and Innovation

Together these pillars constitute an interconnected, customized learning journey that enables those participating to activate, develop and strengthen their capacity to be a Leader of Tomorrow. This is not done overnight or by ‘memorizing a manual;’ each is truly a journey on its own, challenging and rewarding in equal measures, an investment in the inner health and outer success for any individual and organization thriving in the whirlwind of today’s and tomorrow’s business environment.

Please contact us for suggestions, views and comments on the specific design of your individual and/or organizational Awareness-based Leadership learning journey.

Click here to read or re-read the previous issue article about AL.