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Why “Head Only” Leadership Just Won’t Cut It Anymore

Updated: Jan 23, 2022

"As leaders, we've been taught to operate within a very narrow band of awareness. On any given day, most of who we are is largely absent from our work. We bring our minds, but nothing else. With the complexity we're facing now, that approach to leadership simply won't work anymore." — Nicholas Janni

Recently I listened to a high-level leader in a biotech firm tell a beautiful story about something incredible she did at a recent all-staff meeting.

Aware that many of her people had suffered significant loss over the past two years of the pandemic, she did something she’d never done before at an all-staff meeting. She placed a large tub of water at the front of the room, and next to it, a large pile of smooth stones.

Once everyone arrived (about 200 people), she said, “Before we get into the business items today, I want us to take a few moments, and simply acknowledge the cost these past two years have exacted on us all. In particular, I know that many of us have experienced some significant loss over the last 24 months, and before we charge ahead into the new challenges we’re facing this week, I thought it would be meaningful for us all to stop and take a collective breath together as a staff, and simply recognize and honor the hits we’ve each taken and the losses we’ve experienced.

“So if you are one of those among us who has experienced a loss or taken a big hit of some kind over these last two years, I’d like you to simply come up here, take a stone from the pile, and place it in the water in honor of your loss. The rest of us will show our solidarity by standing with you in silence as you do this.”

With great reverence, they all stood, and those who wanted to honor a loss came forward. The leader knew of at least 10 or 12 people whom she thought would add a stone to the basin. But by the time they finished, more than 75 percent of the staff had come forward. Once the sharing was complete, the leader promised they would use the water in the basin to water the plants all around the office, as an act of hope that new life would emerge from these losses.

The whole experience took about 15 minutes. But it meaningfully relieved the pressure that had been building for more than two years.

Corporate culture in the western world places a strong emphasis on the strategic mind. Leaders are conditioned—both overtly and covertly—to shelve their emotions and lead with their analytical intelligence alone. We’re told in numerous ways from a multiplicity of sources that there is no room at the C-suite table for feelings, or gut-level “knowings,” and what you feel in your body has absolutely nothing to do with effective team leadership. It’s all rational, hard, calculating, and clever.

But it’s also a profoundly limiting way to lead. And, with all the complexity we’re facing in today’s world, it’s just not working anymore.

Intelligence is more than just rational analysis. You also carry within you an emotional intelligence—a way to sense and interpret the reality around you in frequencies your rational mind cannot detect. More than that, your body carries its own kind of wisdom, and picks up from the environment, and from your own internal experience, information that your feelings and your thoughts most often miss.

Leading “from your head” might have worked in the 20th Century (though I doubt it worked well even then), but it definitely does not work here in the 21st Century. The world has become flooded with far too much VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity) for “head only” leadership to cut it anymore.

We need more from our leaders. Really, we need more of our leaders—literally. We need more than just your strategic mind (as powerful and needed as that is). We also need your emotional intelligence, your instinctive intuition, your body wisdom. Most of all, we need more of your Presence.

Why presence? Because the more present you are, the more information becomes available to you.

Consider the difference between the leader who rushes through the office from meeting to meeting, and the leader who intentionally builds in space throughout her day so she doesn’t have to rush. She is able to amble through the halls, applying the whole of her intelligence to the simple act of noticing, of paying attention, of being here and now.

At the end of the day, which of these two leaders could tell you more about the true state of their company?

It took the skill of presence for that biotech leader to notice the loss and grief that pervaded her staff—loss and grief that was no doubt impacting their ability to focus, to be creative, and to produce their best work. And it required more than just her rational mind to design a way to lead her people so they could meaningfully process their losses together, and thereby not only share the weight of that loss, but deepen their bonds as a team and a community of human beings walking through life together.

Leaders, your people need more than just your strategic mind. They need your heart intelligence. They need your body wisdom. Most of all, they need your full presence—all of you, right here, right now, and available.

What's one way you can start bringing more of yourself and more of your presence to your leadership this week?

P.S. — If you want to discover how you can bring more of yourself to your leadership presence, consider signing up for my Enneagram for Leaders Deep Dive Program. It’s a powerful tool for opening up your access to your full capacity as a leader.

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