Grounded Leadership in an Agitated World
Our world today is shaped by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – in short: VUCA. In this world, agility is seen as key to effective leadership. Rightly so. But the truth is also that volatility,uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity do not automatically lead to agility. Instead, they often produce some of these four: denial (“there is no crisis”!), knee jerk reactions, oversimplification, a reinforcement of traditional command and control leadership – none of which leads to better outcomes. Complexity leads to perplexity.
Agile Leadership by itself therefore does not provide the solutions in this agitated world. It needs to be supported by something that might sound as it opposite: Grounded Leadership.
What does it mean to be grounded, and why does it matter? Let me explain with my own experience – not in business leadership, but in martial arts and dance. In these arts, I had to learn to be grounded -grounded in the present moment, in my body, and physically feeling my connection with the floor. In both martial arts and dance, deep present groundedness is needed to have impact – artistically or in combat, to be seen, and to move others – physically or emotionally. And it is needed in particular in the specific moments when we go out of balance, in which we have to perform movements that stretch our capabilities, or have to respond to sudden changes.
Grounded leadership: The worst leaders that I have encountered were the ones who lacked focus and self-control, or worse, deliberately used volatile behaviours to “get their way”. I am thinking of some political leaders – of the past and of our time, and of those volatile or autocratic managers I have encountered during my career, who destabilized their teams and thereby undermined not only people’s wellbeing but ultimately business performance. The best leaders I have encountered all showed the qualities of groundedness that I described above, in a holistic way. They were grounded in themselves and their values, having a solid sense of who they were and being at ease with themselves. This translated into greater resilience and an independence from other people’s approval and from their own status, successes and failures. This made them the ones others trusted, and followed. They were fully present in their interactions with people. They stayed steady when others got nervous and responded effectively to difficult situations, sudden events, and change. They had the simple, calm courage to address difficult situations and to be clear and firm with people who behaved in difficult ways. They were good at taking decisions, even under pressure and ambiguity. And maybe most importantly, they all created a sense of confidence and safety for their people, which inspired followership, and ultimately performance.
Developing grounded leadership: in my coaching and in leadership trainings I often hear people say that these features depend on “personality” and cannot be changed. I have experienced the opposite -in my own development as a human being and leader, and with my clients. Certainly, personal disposition, childhood experiences, training, and leadership role models influence our ideas about leadership and our skillfulness in applying certain leadership qualities, including how we can be grounded in our life and leadership. Yet, as other leadership qualities, grounded leadership can be developed, at any moment of our lives and career. And it is much worthwhile – in terms of both leadership performance and personal wellbeing.
My approach to developing grounded leadership is simple – it is about having and building solid foundations in the three domains of our existence: the mind, the emotions, and the body.
Developing our leadership in and through these three domains is a lifetime journey, and there are many “schools” and tools to help us on the way. But in essence, I believe that it is about a few things: 1) being grounded through understanding your purpose and values; 2) being aware and at choice about your emotions; and 3) being at ease and grounded in your body, and able to use your body as instrument to ground yourself when needed.
1. The Mind: to know our values and purpose – both the BIG ones that guide our main life and professional choices, and the smaller ones, for instance the values and purpose we pursue with a specific project, meeting, or a difficult conversation. Your values and purpose give you a firm ground to stand on, and make you more resilient when going through stressful times (because you know why you’re doing it), more independent from the opinion or pressure from others, and at the same time more at ease with gracefully giving in when something is not“ your battle”.
2. The Emotions: To feel, understand and regulate our emotions: it is a myth that emotions should be kept out from the professional world. Whether we want them “in” or “out”, they are always present. When we are not aware of them or try to hide them, others perceive them nevertheless, but mostly not in the way we’d like or that is most helpful. When we feel and understand them, e.g. “I feel threatened because we made a mistake in the contract”, we can start to assess how realistic the signals are that our emotions are trying to give us – such as“ how big and imminent is the threat”, and we can make better choices about the most appropriate action or way of communicating.
3. The Body: to be at home, relaxed and comfortable in your body. In our Western world, we tend to neglect our body, just as much as we worship the idea of some perfect and eternally youthful body. The trut his that we live in our bodies, and we need it for our wellbeing – both the physical and the emotional and mental wellbeing: Mensa sana incorpore sano. But not only: our bodies are also an instrument to both understand and influence our emotions and mental state.
How does this work?
Let’s start with how the body reflects our emotions: When you “feel” an emotion, what you really feel is a physical sensation in your body, which your brain interprets as a specific emotion. This means that when you put attention to these physical sensations (such as a tightness in your stomach or chest), you learn to detect your emotions as they arise in you. When you become aware of them more easily and more precisely, you can define and understand them more clearly, and hence you can make better choice what to do with them.
At the same time, our body is the perfect tool to ease and to regulate our emotional and mental state, and you can use your body to ground yourself. There are many techniques for doing so – some want to be practiced over time, such as mindfulness meditation, while others are great “here and now” tools. Here is the most basic yet really effective one I know: simply put attention to your feet and feel their connection to the floor – it is a simple way to literally ground you.
Another, simple and at the same time powerful technique is “Square Breathing” (also called “Box Breathing”) – a yogi technique that has been integrated into clinical relaxation routines and adopted by the US Navy SEALs because of its effectiveness for grounding. It’s a great technique, so I want to close this article with it as practical take-away:
- Sit calmly, and place your feet on the floor. Close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose while counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs.
- Hold your breath inside while counting slowly to four. Stay open, avoiding to clench your mouth or nose. Simply do not inhale or exhale for 4 seconds.
- Slowly exhale for 4 seconds.
- Stay «empty», without breathing in or out, for four seconds.
Repeat at least three times, or for a few minutes, until you feel becoming calm and grounded.