Developing Whole-Mind Leadership

Since Rene Descartes developed Rationalism back in the early 1600s, we in the Western world have put the logical, analyzing mind on a pedestal. According to Descartes, “reason alone determined knowledge, and that this could be done independently of the senses.” He also argued that the mind is separate from the body.

Today we see the effects of Descartes’ left-brain worship. Organizations are fragmented into departmental boxes and org charts. The healthcare profession is fragmented and specialized, rarely treating individuals as a whole. Schools teach subjects in isolation from one another, teaching kids from an early age that compartments are king.

But is this how we really work? Humans, organizations and societies are complex systems with feelings and vulnerabilities… interconnected wholes that cannot be reduced into pieces and parts. The consequences of the rationalist approach can be seen everywhere, but let’s stick with the ones for business:

  • sterile and soul-killing cultures, which kill employee loyalty
  • fragmented customer experiences, which kill customer loyalty
  • proliferating and competing strategies, which kill efficiencies and forward momentum
  • businesses rewarded for measurable short-term gains at the expense of the broader society and environment in which they operate

becoming whole humans

The outer world is fragmented because we’ve chopped ourselves up on the inside. Individuals who aren’t comfortable in their bodies retreat to the perceived safety of the brain; those who are comfortable in the realm of body, emotion and intuition reject the structure of the analytical mind. We’ve cut ourselves into two, with perilous consequences.

Insanity is, of course, doing the same things over and over again while expecting a different result. It’s time for a new approach: one that works with our humanity and the laws of nature instead of against them… one that embraces our whole selves and all the modes of intelligence that reside within.

The Whole Mind model recognizes that what we call “the mind” does not reside solely in our brains. Did you know that we have 100 million neurons in our guts? We have a felt wisdom in our bodies that has evolved over millennia. Logic and planning was the last to emerge, and must work in harmony with our other intelligences for us to be fully, humanly complete.

The model includes two brain-based modes (analyzing and connecting), two body-based modes (feeling and sensing), and a fifth that I call Orchestration: a meta-mode that knows when and how to use the other four.

If you have strength in….

  • Analyzing: You’re comfortable with structure, compartments and processes, and tend to make dramatic improvements in efficiencies. Structured thinking is also an effective way to gain clarity, solve problems, and prioritize actions and investments.  
  • Connecting: Thanks to pattern-matching and divergent thinking, you can see things that Analyzing can’t: the gestalt, the “third way” beyond binary options, and innovative approaches borrowed from other sectors and contexts. This is the source of rapid intuition based on prior experience.
  • Sensing: You fully inhabit your body. You have a grounded energy and can feel “yes” and “no” intuitive responses; this inner barometer is rarely wrong. You likely have a strong presence that others can feel when you walk into a room.
  • Feeling: You’re deeply in touch with their own emotional world, and more likely to be empathetic in their work and personal lives. You can be more responsive rather than reactive: a powerful trait for a leader.
  • Orchestrating: You have all the mind modes in their toolbox, and know when and how to apply them based on the context.

I stumbled into this model unintentionally. My brain is naturally wired for Connecting: lateral, emergent thinking. I can see patterns, the gestalt, and how everything is connected. But when I went to work at a management consulting firm, Connecting was beaten out of me in favor of a linear, logical approach that fit the PowerPoint factory process. I learned the Analyzing mode.

But I was a brain on a stick: all my energy was in my head, having disconnected myself from uncomfortable emotions in the body caused by trauma. I had no idea how to work with emotions, and the concept of somatics — body-based wisdom — was utterly foreign to me. Fast forward through a lot of coaching, therapy, 15 years of meditation, what finally did the trick were simple exercises that I now use in my own coaching practice.

  • Learning how to listen to my inner wisdom: what yes and no feel like in my body
  • Learning how to recognize and label emotions that arise
  • Following what lights me up and brings me joy
  • Stepping off the endless stress of the corporate hamster wheel to forge my own path that’s true to who I am.

I’ve developed all four mind modes, plus the ability to Orchestrate: in other words, to recognize which mode is needed given the context. This is a bit like having more tools in the toolbox and knowing how to wield each one. The most effective business and life strategies use all four Modes, which I’ll talk about further in a separate piece.

Leadership redefined

This model is highly relevant for leaders who want to bring more humanity into the workplace, improving culture and boosting loyalty of employees and customers. These are leaders who I call rebels with a cause: rejecting “business as usual” in favor of a new approach that creates the ripple effects of change well outside the bounds of their teams and companies… and unlocks the freedom to be our whole selves at work, which is how we thrive together.

Experience it for yourself.

I’m launching an experiential group coaching program called Groundbreaking Leadership with my colleague Johnnie Moore. It’s designed for leaders who want a safe space to practice being more authentic and vulnerable, dropping into body-based wisdom and communicating from the heart. We only have 6 spaces available.

If these concepts are totally new to you, you may benefit from some 1:1 coaching first. Why don’t we have a no-obligation conversation? You can access my calendar here.

“Within weeks, Jennifer was able to walk me through a door I never knew existed. The process she uses is hardly difficult, but I certainly didn’t expect the seismic shifts in my thinking, my body or heart. My confidence is growing. My health is improving. My attitude at work has transformed. And I can hear my own voice without the clutter of shame, should’s, and habitual negative self-talk.”

Krystal, co-founder and sales VP

The missing ingredient in how we define success

Much is being written today about empathy and soft skills being essential leadership traits. Researchers from DDI identified empathy as a critical driver for overall performance, yet found that only 4 out of every 10 leaders are any good at it. Chances are, the memorable leaders throughout your career revealed their hearts, not just their smarts.

Empathy is, of course, only one aspect of our humanity. It’s time to explore what truly makes us human — the qualities that can’t be replicated by robots and artificial intelligence anytime soon — and get real about why they are so elusive in today’s workplaces.

Chances are, the memorable leaders throughout your career revealed their hearts, not just their smarts.

The balance between left-brain logic and our less quantifiable sides — intuition, emotions, authenticity — is rarely rewarded in most organizations. The obsession with data, digital, business models and winning tends to relegate these dimensions to the sacrificial altar… leading to burnout and dissatisfaction.

I speak from experience. Years ago I was humiliated in front of my team for my more intuitive approach to strategy, getting it gradually beaten out of me in favor of the “right” way. I’ve provided emotional support for clients who were ostracized for not fitting the mold and playing the game. I’ve worked with leaders who want customers and employees to love their brand without the necessity of loving them first.

Several of you have shared that you’re feeling guilty about enjoying the lockdown created by coronavirus. You’re able to spend more time deepening their connections with friends, family, and most importantly, yourselves. You might be feeling reluctant to return to a sterile workplace setting where humanity is set aside in favor of hard-charging performance.

The missing ingredient is within each of us

So many of us would like for work to be a safe space where success isn’t defined solely by the numbers. So why isn’t it happening? My friend Julie provided a clue when she told me last week:

“Being true at work scared or intimidated people. They didn’t know what to do with honesty and authenticity. Some days I played the game to make them more comfortable.”

During my recent 2-year sabbatical from the corporate environment, I gave myself the permission to let go of my left-brain crutch and drop into full self-acceptance… and now I can see that company performance and culture are simply mirrors reflecting the level of empathy and love we’ve learned to direct inwardly.

We can’t honor other people — including customers, partners and employees — until we know how to honor ourselves. That means taking time for self-care, listening to our needs, accepting emotions, and setting healthy boundaries. Knowing and acknowledging what we’re feeling, instead of pushing emotions away, is the ultimate demonstration of self-kindness and self-respect… and it’s impossible to show it to others until it’s cultivated in our inner worlds.

When we can give ourselves permission to drop into our hearts and lead from that grounded place, we become stronger, more confident, more at ease. Ironically, vulnerability is the source of power… it’s deeply connecting, and we’re all so much stronger together. Bringing our whole selves — mind, body, heart and soul — to work sounds overly sentimental, but it’s precisely what creates success in every sense of the word.

Love, Jen