Trouble in the system

“Uh oh, here comes trouble! That’s NOT what he is supposed to be doing!”

I am passionate about the practice of Conscious Leadership, I think it is essential in these times, we are surrounded by so much chaos and pain and simultaneously so much opportunity to make a real difference for the greater good by bringing great leadership to the systems we are part of. The chaos and uncertainty we face easily triggers our brains to react defensively, to react for survival, in those moments we go unconscious and we cannot access our wisdom, creativity and sense of connection to other human beings. We cannot lead effectively.

This is a personal and true leadership experience that reveals the kind of trouble we create in our relationship systems when we get triggered out of presence and 3 sneaky sources of those triggers. At the end of the story I will share 3 great tools to bring ourselves back to presence and how vulnerability is a leadership superpower.

As you read see if you can recognise any of these elements at play in your own experience.

It’s a 50 degree C on an August day in the Sahara Desert and I am leading a conversation with 55 senior project leaders from 7 different organisations and at least 4 very different cultures. We are here to set a strong foundation of commitment to what seems, for many, like an unachievably ambitious vision for the project; to keep every person safe for every day of the project and to have it be on time.  History making. It’s day two of the workshop and the atmosphere is buzzing; people are bouncing in their seats and eager to share their ideas. I am about to take them through a series of carefully crafted questions that have a VERY particular design and flow and a big transformational reveal at the end, the biggest moment of the whole two-day workshop. I set the first question and invite each group to start a discussion at their tables working with a flipchart to capture their answers.  As expected, given the already high energy in the room, it looks and sounds like all the groups are working hard on the topic of the question (I can’t follow all of what is being said as many are speaking in Arabic). Although am feeling pretty good about how it’s going, in the back of my mind I have the niggling concern that I absolutely HAVE to get to the big reveal before sending everyone off for lunch.

The pressure builds

I call time on the discussion and ask each table to give a quick debrief of what they have on their flipchart and to share about how their conversation went. Table after table do this, they take a little longer than I had anticipated and I feel my chest getting a bit tight and my breathing shallower, and I am thinking “argh!  I am starting to run late”. There is one more table left, a very enthusiastic guy jumps up with his flipchart and says, “ well….we started to answer the question you asked but in the end I wanted to share with the table my solution to this whole problem (he points to a very detailed flip chart)”.  I think to myself “Uh oh, here comes trouble! That’s NOT what he is supposed to be doing, we are nowhere near ready for problem solving and solutions conversation – it’s total chaos.” My chest and head feel really tight.  I have gone unconscious; I have lost presence. In that moment it is my survival based perception was that I had only two options; a) let him speak and delay whole group going to break, allowing the conversation to go in an unplanned direction or b) find a way to ‘gracefully and nicely’ stop him from sharing.

I went with what felt like the easier path – I stopped him, asking if he could hold on to his solution until a later part of the session. He nodded and smiled I could see that many in the room also nodded and smiled in agreement.  It looked like it was handled.

Coming off the rails

We come back from the break and get to work on the next critical question in the flow. Come the debrief it all goes smoothly until the same guy stands up again and says, “We didn’t answer the question, we preferred to continue discussing my plan”. In that moment a huge smile broke out on my face and I chuckled. I just loved his determination to be heard and I recognised the resilience of his voice in the system. With this connection to him as human being rather than ‘trouble’ I woke up and came back to presence and conscious leadership. I recognised that this was the price tag for my listening to the little stressed voice in my head and not doing the more uncomfortable thing of giving space and surrendering to listen to this particular voice of the system when it first emerged. The suppressed voice will always find a way to have an impact and it usually won’t the one you are looking for as a leader - it’s a recipe for trouble in your relationship system.

Trouble into gold

From presence I am able to see a great opportunity to take the trouble and disruption and turn it into an opportunity to work with the system as it is right now. I take a deep breath and apologise to the guy for not having allowed him the space to share the first time he asked to. I then reveal to the 55 leaders with maximum vulnerability, exactly where I had made my mistakes during the session and what had led me to making them. I also pointed to the damage; one whole table in the workshop didn’t get to have the full experience and impact of the two conversations as designed. The whole group is sitting up in their chairs with their eyes wide open, looking at each other nodding and it feels like something has popped. I give them a few minutes to discuss how this very situation shows up day to day on the project. I then offer the group the opportunity to negotiate between themselves within the following parameter; having the full hour for lunch or taking some time out of their lunch to listen to our friends’ solution.  The group chose to have their full lunch and got the true alignment to put their full attention on and listen to our friends’ solution in the afternoon planning session. 

The whole process of noticing revealing to  the  group the inner workings of the disruption, provided new and shockingly vivid information into their relationship system, showing them exactly what was already happening every day on the project, both in big obvious ways and smaller under the radar ways, all the ways that not listening deeply to people and really giving space to ideas and points of view causes resistance and delay. In their table discussions they shared many stories where they could see the big impact on performance and what they could now see was possible.

The day worked out in the end and we still got to the big transformational reveal, just a little later in the session than I had planned. A year later and that project had become the highest performing globally for the client, with a phenomenal culture for leadership, communication and alignment, a project famous for the quality of their listening. I like to think that that that moment of alchemy which came from working with going in and out of presence, in and out of conscious leadership was one of the moments that contributed to their success.

Sneaky Sources of Trouble

The common theme of the following sources and how they played in my story is that they all took me out of being present. I call them sneaky as they operate covertly in our blind spots. Presence is the foundation for conscious leadership performance and can be especially challenging to cultivate in in a relationship system. See if you can spot where in my story each of these show up and then notice where these tend to sneak up on you.

1: Ignoring the signals of trouble from my body
Our body is a brilliant resource for information. Our emotions show up in their purest form as body sensations without story or drama (it is our mind that loves to add that)– our body signals that there is an emotion to pay attention to whether it be joy or fear, they each have a message to share, a message that invites action. The level of sensation in our bodies can be very uncomfortable and so we often seek to either, ignore and dissipate it or stoke the intensity with stories and interpretations to try and wrangle it into sense. Both strategies leave the emotions to fester and grow in the shadows, leaving them to hijack you and take you out of control as the pressure builds. We are taken out of presence.

2: Running Assumptions
Our brains interpret, make judgements and generate stories that we assume are accurate and true, these are our assumptions and they often sound like, if (I or they) …… (do, say, feel) then……..(xyz thing will happen).  These tend to be triggered by past painful experiences and often don’t have anything to do with what is happening in this moment in this context. This is how our assumptions create interference, invisible barriers to us taking effective action in the now. We are taken out of presence.

3. Listening to the inner dialogue
Have you noticed the loquacious voice in your head? It has a lot to say, a running commentary on all that is happening or might happen, full of ifs and buts and that’s right or wrong. It can be a useful source of information, as we have seen, it’s where our assumptions are revealed.  However, it’s our level of relationship to it that defines our ability to be present. Do we have it or does it have us? When someone else is speaking, to what extent is our attention on them or is it on little voice in our head? How much are we missing out on? Imagine how much gold has passed us by and the cost of our disconnection. We are not in presence.

Presencing Tools:

The following tools have two elements that I suggest to come from in using them.

  1. They all start with taking a breath. Why? A consciously taken breath creates space. For a reset, for a moment in which to choose how to respond rather than being in reaction. It creates a space of response – ability.
  2. Seeing vulnerability as a leadership superpower. My personal philosophy is that whoever is vulnerable first wins. Wins what? Well, it’s actually a win-win of connection, trust and belonging and all that comes from those. In a relationship system such as teams and organisations my experience tells me that it is vulnerable leadership that opens doors for all the brilliance and wisdom of the system to feel safe enough to express itself.

So, with breath and vulnerability as places to come from, the following tools will support you.

1. Notice your body sensations
Take a breath

a. Scan your body and notice what you can sense: pressure, temperature, movement, speed, texture
b. Describe to yourself what you can sense using words in those categories e.g.; compression, hot, downward, slow swirling
c. Take a deep breath
d. Ask yourself; “what is this sensation signalling to me?”, “what do I need to take care of?”

Follow those steps and you will feel more present and grounded and then able to use the following tools more easily.

2. Notice and challenge your assumptions
Take a breath

a. What are your fears about what might happen?
b. What is your perception of the group and of yourself?
c. What is your interpretation of the situation?
d. What is the cost of keeping this assumption?
e. Could the assumptions be inaccurate?  How can you test them?
f. What can you let go of?

3: Listening
Take a breath

a. Acknowledge where your attention is
b. Choose to put it out and with focus on what others are saying and not saying
c. Listen to their choice of words
d. Listen to their body language and tone of voice
e. Listen to what your intuitions tells you about their emotions
f. Listen to what clues they are giving you about what they really care about
g. Ask simple, open, curious questions that give you the opportunity to listen even more

In this article I have mentioned relationship systems several times. A foundation for this is an approach to seeing any group of people, whether your whole organisation or simply one of your teams as a relationship system and is based on ORSC TM methodology called RSI TM. If you would like to know more about how working with these principals and developing teams with relationship systems intelligence for increased sustainable high performance and how this would work in your context, we would be delighted to start a conversation.

Isabelle Courtney Guy
Isabelle Courtney Guy