Are you disturbed?

Photo credit: Creative commons license

Photo credit: Creative commons license

If you’re not, maybe you should be. While events around the world continue to be disturbing, that’s not what I’m talking about here.

Robert Greenleaf, who first brought Servant Leadership into popular awareness puts it this way. “Awareness is a disturber and an awakener. Able leaders are usually sharply awake and reasonably disturbed.“

Awareness is disturbing. So why bother?

As leaders in these difficult times, we need this “disturbing” awareness to fully meet the complexity and uncertainty the world brings us. All of us have habitual ways of thinking that limit us.  (In the story that follows, you’ll see my habit of thinking that I need to “fix the problem.”) Each time we bring a habit of thinking, perceiving or doing into our awareness, we create the potential to be a more “able leader” as Greenleaf puts it. More able to respond appropriately to challenges, authentically connect with others, and influence others.

Here’s a story from my own experience, followed by some practices to help you build your awareness.

My mom is 91 and has Parkinson’s disease and dementia; I’m her guardian. Sometimes her part of our conversations seems disconnected from reality as I experience it. At other times, she’s coherent and needs to tell me about all the problems in her life. My tendency (aka – unaware habit) has been to try to find solutions to those problems. I’m responsible for her, right?

Then I began to notice that there aren’t any solutions to most of what really troubles her. I became aware of feeling powerless to help and inadequate. That awareness was very disturbing – who wants to feel that way? In Greenleaf’s terms, I was now “sharply awake and reasonably disturbed.”

Soon, that more awake state helped me open to a new way of being with her. It allowed me to set aside my need to “fix it” and listen with compassion to the feelings behind the complaints. I began to notice my feelings of helplessness as they arose, then tune back into my love and compassion for my mom. The conversations changed for the better.

Whenever we bring new aspects of our ways of seeing, being, or doing into our awareness, new possibilities emerge. Thanks to Doug Silsbee for the formulation of this trio of meta-competencies. It’s the most powerful leadership development we can do. Developing new external behaviors isn’t enough in these complex times; we’ve got to do the inner work. None of us are “beyond this” – we’re all on the journey. Having brought this one bit of my assumptions into my awareness doesn’t mean I’m done; it means I’m learning to see my seeing, being and doing one bit at a time. I’m learning to disturb myself!

Simple (but not necessarily easy) practices for building your awareness

1. “How might I be wrong?”

Allow your mind to get quiet for a moment and then ask yourself, “How might I be wrong?” Do this frequently – when you find yourself in a disagreement with a co-worker or friend, when you think you know why someone did what they did, even when you think you know why you are doing what you are doing. It’s a disturbing question. Repeated reflection on this question will bring new things into your awareness.

2. Embodied awareness

Many of us live mostly “in our heads.” Bringing attention to your embodied experience can generate new awareness. Here are instructions for a 3 minute, 5 minute and 10 minute body scan. Developing your ability to do a quick body scan can help you bring your attention into the present moment and build your capacity for awareness.