We sat down with embodied leadership coach and THNK facilitator Bettina Rothe to find out what it means to stand your ground in the face of the stress typical to leadership.
You introduce people to the practice of being repeatably calm, cool, and collected, citing this as the nature of successful leaders. It’s an obvious concept, but one that’s tough to master. What makes level-headedness so challenging but so elemental to creativity?
In western culture we think we can solve everything with the mind, but if we put ourselves into situations that have a lot of information coming at us, our nervous system takes us for a run. Faced with stress, the body always wins. Evolution has blessed us with the physiological fight or flight instinct, which has kept us alive, but it gets us into trouble again and again in the modern world. It doesn’t matter how many skills you have or what you’ve learned. Under stress—unless you’re self-aware—it all flies out the window.
I think most of us know this, but we have a hard time hard-wiring this into our brains in a way that transcends our instincts. Are there shortcuts within the embodied leadership practice to make common sense as instinctual as fight or flight?
If leaders are going to face challenges with any sort of grace and vitality, they need to be able to reliably access the neocortex for big picture thinking and creativity—unfortunately, this is the part of our brain that shuts down when we’re under pressure.
We’d all rather have our nervous system respond on our own conscious terms, of course, and not just flip out and react—but this is a system wired so deeply that the spark lights faster than conscious awareness. We’re not four year-olds having a tantrum, so we do have some degree of self-control. But we’re still habituated to react a certain way, and the result is just as detrimental as the way that a tantrum can ruin a day for a kid. People around us pick up on our unsettled energy, and everything goes off-track.
Integration of this kind of awareness is a big deal. We don’t want our workshops to be just another something that someone experiences and then says, “That was cool, but what now?” We create practices in the training that people can take home. They start their day with intention, remembering their declaration of why they’re here. With practice, leaders are aware of when they’re not operating at their best. When they notice that they’re off-centre, they can go through a sequence to regroup, and to avoid friction next time. Practicing anything has a cumulative effect.
How does an embodied practice benefit those who may not have any obvious stress issues, but who just want to be better than they are?
It’s true that people already in entrepreneurial or decision-making roles tend to be confident and pretty accustomed to the expectations of leadership. But we all have episodes of falling out of what athletes call their zone or flow state, and in business, those episodes can be costly. Extroverts or introverts can have anger patterns, or may space out or feel threatened during feedback, or may not know how to bring their emotional side to work. In order to be at our best, we’ve got to have a real blend of cognitive, emotional, and belly intelligence. We’ve got to be prepared for those natural moments when one of them is tested.
An executive signed up for my workshops because she struggled massively with anxiety and counter-productive stress responses—patterns that were activated as soon as she was asked to step up in front of a group in that way that’s singular to leadership. Knowing a presentation was imminent, her sleep and diet would crash in anticipation for many days, and her performance would suffer. By taking a bit of a time-out to recognize and respond better to high-level triggers, she continued to elevate in the company, and then went on to launch her own business. She now presents on emotional intelligence and authenticity to other big corporate clients. Her physiology is no longer blocking her, and her awareness is her gateway to overcoming the tensions and pressures inherent to her success. She not only solved an ongoing issue, but she took leaps ahead in her career.
How does taking responsibility for our energetic state change our relationships at work and elsewhere?
People have personality traits and patterns that they’ve been trying to cover up their whole lives—with EL tools, they integrate it all as a part of their humanity. They bring a level of transparency and authenticity to the workplace. For teams who have done this work together, the level of trust increases. The capacity for mutual growth and collaboration opens up, and the same is true in every other venue of life.
What’s the mindset of people who find you to begin a practice of embodied leadership? What are they seeking?
I’ve heard so many angles on the same sentiment—I know there’s more to me. I’m not working at my best. They say: ‘I’m stuck in a cycle I can’t seem to get out of. I’m constantly triggered or frustrated. I’m dominated by my inner critic. I know I’m not being confident, calm, compassionate, inclusive.’
Or they may say: ‘I want to show up as a more effective colleague. I want to crack the patterns that I know hold me back and affect the productivity of my team. I want to bring more presence to everything I do, from my relationships to how I show up at work and in my community.’ They say, ‘I want to bring fresh intention to my goals, and focus well rather than getting fixated on internal struggles or distracted from what matters most.’
For some, it’s not only about excelling but being able to better compartmentalize work and life. They may say, ‘I want to not over-engage with a client or project—I want to come home after work and feel invigorated, not drained. I want to be able to reconnect with the other facets of my life more easily. I want to protect what’s important to me.’
The connection between brain science and workplace performance makes me wonder how many leadership practices that we think of as ‘nice-to-have’ are actually critical need-to-haves.
Right. Janet Crawford lectures on neuroscience, and she studies this exactly. She writes about how we talk about work-life balance, but have no real idea how to accomplish it. We perpetuate work environments that favour bullying and narcissism, and as falsely believe that we can think our way out of biological overwhelm. She sees brain-friendly work environments and embodied awareness as imperative to our success as leaders:
If we commit ourselves to the task of cultivating environments which optimize the human operating system, much of the rest will take care of itself. People will be excited and motivated. They will think clearly and efficiently. Creativity and focus will abound. Collaboration and commitment become possible.
It’s not only work environments that we need to optimize. Leaders need to start by re-engineering their own operating system first, as a flight attendant instructs us to put on our own oxygen mask before assisting someone else in the case of an emergency. This is how to retain the best of ourselves no matter what, and move forward with more momentum. It’s all in how you stand in-place, consciously.
Join us for Embodied Leadership Level I: Aligning Body, Heart, and Knowledge for Impact at THNK Vancouver on April 9-10, 2016. Register here.
Bettina Rothe is a somatic leadership coach and THNK facilitator. Rothe’s work is grounded in holistic, body based modalities, mindfulness practices and embodied leadership principles. She works closely with Wendy Palmer’s organization Leadership Embodiment. As a licensed 5Rhythms movement teacher, Rothe has facilitated workshops internationally since 1998.