The Heart and Soul of Leadership
This week’s article features Jonathan Reams, Director at the Center for Transformative Leadership and the European Center for Leadership Practice. His interview is a part of the International Leadership Association Series. These interviews feature guests from the 2021 Annual Conference that was held in Geneva, Switzerland in October of 2021. The article is a companion to his interview on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future titled Getting Lost in the Language of Leadership that aired on Tuesday, April 5th, 2022.
|Here is a short clip from Jonathan’s interview:||Here is a link to the entire interview:|
Leadership is a phenomenon well studied, yet in short supply. There is a gap between knowing and doing.
While there are many good ideas about what leadership is, how to develop and practice it, the gap remains. To close this gap, I want to look beyond ideas, to the heart and soul of leadership.
To get there, I frame the topic in terms of two conceptualizations of leadership, then look at the heart and its role in these concepts. Finally, I offer a fundamental reframing to get to the soul of leadership.
In my Ph.D., I conceptualized leadership as opening space. Opening space brings images of creating something more, making room to maneuver, taking time to think things through. All of these can be leadership. They help us make progress on challenges and achieve goals.
Another conceptualization comes from a friend who defined leadership as self-deployed in circumstance. How we show up and act in each situation shapes the possibilities for making progress or reaching a goal. It is how we open space.
One powerful lens for understanding the self comes from research on adult development. This research shows how more mature structures and expressions of self can enable more effective leadership.
This self-development shows in how we deploy ourselves, which is essentially an act of communication. What we say makes an impact. Yet we are also aware that the content of our words is only 7% of what we are communicating. A famous study showed that 38% of what we communicate is in how we communicate, in our tone of voice, pointing to the importance of attitude, emotion and the underlying energy we speak from.
The study went even further, saying that 55% of what we communicate is through our body language. We are giving off signals all the time, powerful clues to others on what we expect. These expectations shape the space we create. If what we are communicating at this fundamental embodied level is closing the space, then we are not leading, but widening the gap between knowing and doing.
Let’s take a step back to explore further.
Recent research in neuroscience shows us a new picture of how our brains work. It gives a more holistic conception, where we see that thinking and feeling are inseparable and further, hardwired into our body. Our nervous system is constantly anticipating, actively using our senses to probe for signals of danger (read change) to keep our body surviving.
Within this field, the more specialized study of neurocardiology focuses on the brain in our heart. This cluster of neurons has a powerful impact on the body and brain, or our psychophysiological system. The HeartMath Institute has been doing pioneering research in this field for decades. Central to this is their understanding of several distinct psychophysiological states related to different patterns of heart rate variability (HRV).
Their research shows that emotions such as frustration and anger create a state they characterize as incoherence. This state leads to a host of problematic symptoms, such as depletion of energy, lack of emotional regulation and lowered cognitive functioning. In contrast, emotions of love and appreciation create a state of coherence.
Coherence has far-reaching implications. It positively supports vagal nerve functioning, improves cognitive performance and enables heart-brain synchronization. The rising popularity of tracking HRV as a biofeedback measure is one way of cultivating coherence.
Yet this impressive list of the benefits of coherence is not, in my view, its most important aspect. Research has also shown that the heart generates electrical voltage 60 times stronger than the brain. The magnetic component of this is 5000 times stronger and can be measured several feet from the body. This electromagnetic field can help us understand how the 55% of communication coming from our body language is creating space. Our hearts are sensors for this field. We sense others’ fields and experience it as self-being deployed in circumstances.
This takes us upstream from our usual focus on language and behaviors. It gives us clues about closing the gap between knowing and doing, by shifting attention to the impact of our being.
Cultivating our quality of being has the highest leverage impact on our leadership.
I propose two simple ways to cultivate our quality of being.
The first is something we have easily in reach, a combination of behavioral and attitudinal interventions. Two things contribute the most to generating the psychophysiological state of coherence; holding an emotion of love or appreciation combined with deep breathing. So, remember to breathe – 5 seconds in, 5 seconds out, and hold a heart full of love and appreciation.
The second is to take a step back and reconceptualize being.
Being is commonly associated with the self. Yet our sense of a separate self is actually a mental construct of the psychophysiological system. This has inherent limitations and creates a blind spot in being. Reality is more than our minds conceive.
What we need is a space to regulate the self, our emotions, thoughts and actions; a balcony that is not part of the psychophysiological system.
For this, I propose a simple reconceptualization of being from self to soul. When we talk about heart and soul, we are implying an essence greater than mental constructs like self. In line with the phrase attributed to Teilhard de Chardin, we are spiritual beings having human experiences. We are soul, and have a mind, emotions and body.
What do I mean by soul? I describe it as a creative unit of pure awareness, where awareness is the experiential realization of the virtuality of self. What do I mean by the virtuality of self? We can still experience the self as real; we just don’t take that experience to be all there is. We keep it in context. We open a space to be more.
Closing the gap between what we know about leadership and what we do involves more than just ideas and words. It requires realizing the essence of our being as soul, to open space for how we deploy self in circumstances. We create coherence between soul and self-in-the-world, our conceptions, psychophysiological state and the space we create.
Leading with heart and soul, we close the gap between knowing and doing.
To become a more innovative leader, you can begin by taking our free leadership assessments and then enrolling in our online leadership development program.
Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify, Amazon Music, Audible, iHeartRADIO, and NPR One. Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.
About the Author
Jonathan practices the cultivation of leadership through awareness-based consulting, coaching and action research on leadership development program design and delivery in a variety of settings. He has a position at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), serves as Editor-in Chief of Integral Review, and is a co-founder of the Center for Transformative Leadership and of the European Center for Leadership Practice. He brings awareness-based leadership development practices to his work, focusing on how the inner workings of human nature can develop leadership capacities for today’s complex challenges.
Books to look out for: Maturing Leadership: How Adult Development Impacts Leadership
You can learn more about Jonathan at www.jonathanreams.com
Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash