The cultures in which toxic leaders hold the greatest power are those that uphold the outmoded belief that traits like empathy, vulnerability and connection equate to weakness…Executors endorse these biases, while Healers dismantle them. The Leader as Healer understands that unless we acknowledge our grief, we cannot feel our joy; unless we embrace our fear, we cannot know true strength; unless we learn to embrace emotions unconditionally, we limit our access to higher levels of intelligence and insight.
– Nicholas Janni (Leader as Healer, p. 21)
Embodiment of Presence
In this inspiring book, somatic intelligence (the wisdom of the body) is also among embrace of emotion, clarification of purpose, and mindfulness and meditation as the keys to Janni’s paradigm of Leader as Healer. For Janni, the journey to becoming a healing leader begins with the leader’s shift from “I as thinker” to “I as Presence who thinks, feels and senses” (p. 38). As a result, the way the leader shows up is an integration of doing and being: what she is doing arises from who she is being. The message to those around her is I am here, and I am available (pp. 46-47).
The scientific and spiritual dimensions of embodied leadership
Janni argues that one of healing leadership’s primary effects is the “restoration of unity [his emphasis], bringing those parts of us and the systems within which we work that are fragmented and/or exiled back into a coherent whole.” Characterized by the “awakening of transpersonal levels of consciousness” (i.e., non-egoic or transcendent states), it’s noteworthy that Janni’s Leader as Healer concept is explicitly spiritual (p. 16). That said, he also makes the neurobiological case for using meditation and mindfulness to support the flow states needed to promote the kind of relaxed attention necessary for being a healing leader, as well as the case for fostering right-brain activity to counter-balance our Western culture’s “left-brain takeover” which Janni persuasively describes as “dangerously fragmented and mechanistic” (pp. 49-50).
In another scientific example, Janni also discusses the latest epigenetic research on intergenerational trauma and suffering. He describes how it is through the gateways of body-based emotional and nonrational awareness that we can release old patterns in order to access fresh creativity:
[I]f we are to thrive in an increasingly complex and uncertain world, we must bring all of ourselves to the problem-solving table. To do that, we must represent an embodied, coherent whole. The rational mind alone is no longer enough; we have forgotten the deep wisdom of the body, and it is now time to resurrect it. SOMETIMES THIS IS SIMPLE AND IMMEDIATELY TRANSFORMATIONAL. [Author’s emphasis, p. 110]
This is, Janni argues, a cornerstone of the Leader as Healer’s own practice, which grounds her healing presence so that others are able to do the same.
Life purpose, and the call
Janni uses the chapter on life purpose to link the somatic work in Chapter 3 to the mindfulness and meditation work in Chapter 5. Drawing on psychology (Carl Jung), poetry (David Whyte) and physics (Alfred Einstein), Janni asserts that “purpose arises from the deepest essence of who we are” (p. 134). Among a number of excellent pragmatic coaching questions, physical exercises, attention-building and mindfulness practices that Janni emphasizes throughout the book, one of the most intensely valuable moments in the entire volume is when he synthesizes leadership, purpose and spirit in the brilliant list of prompts he offers on page 142. Several of them are versions of my own favorite go-to coaching questions for exploring this territory, such as: “What do I really stand for and against?” How do I welcome and navigate the sense of unknowing?” and “What happens when I open up to what I have always excluded?”
I agree with Janni’s conclusion in the final chapter of Leader as Healer, entitled “The Call,” that the “gravity of this moment is an unprecedented evolutionary opportunity: the choice to integrate timeless contemplative wisdom with the advances of modern science and psychology” (p. 189). We start by collectively deciding to face this moment squarely, and accepting What Is, then choosing action. Making this choice is really all that’s left to humanity of we are to have a chance at preventing the planet from tipping over the precipice to which our over-rationality and profiteering have brought it.
What other resources might “pair” well with it?
Don’t miss the “Postscript” to Leader as Healer, in which Janni tells the story of his extraordinary (i.e. adventuresome, multi-disciplinary, generative) career path into leadership development work: he is a truly fascinating guy. Otherwise, I recommend many of the references Janni relies upon for the structure and elocution of his ideas; you can find them littered throughout the Leadership Library: Brene Brown, David Whyte, Otto Scharmer, Robert Kegan and Joseph Jaworski.
To be Present in the way Janni describes, to meet the world just as it is, necessitates a certain fierceness which we can also approach gently. One of my favorite meditation teachers who embodies this thoroughly, Rev. angel Kyodo williams, offers a 4-minute guided “Fierce Meditation” you can try. (The same article hyperlinked here includes mindfulness meditations by two other teachers whose work I love, Tara Brach and especially Sharon Salzberg.)
One final recommendation. As I publish this post, we’re entering the last few weeks of summer in the northern hemisphere: in these turbulent and perplexing times, be sure to HAVE FUN as part of building your “Presence muscles”! Articles at the Greater Good Science Center explain how humor and play can improve your work life, contribute to creative group flow and team success, and benefit your partner relationship. It’s noteworthy that play is “a radical and liberatory activity for Black children.” Connect that thought to this Elements of Play chart from the National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y.