React or Respond

October 17, 2011

To react or respond, that is the question! If you are reading these reflections, you share my curiosity about leaders. I’m guessing that when you observe leaders you look for signs of their reactivity, that is, their automatic reactions, their triggered emotions of flight or fight, their voice becoming high-pitched and insistent. And this you can assume, there is a huge knot in their stomachs. We are animals. Yes, we are animals who have evolved by learning survival reactions.

But we are human animals. We possess an amazing capacity to watch ourselves. Has it ever struck you as odd that you can step back and observe yourself like seeing a movie? I find that remarkable. For instance, you can “see” yourself: where you were, what you were doing and what you were feeling yesterday at, say, 10:00 am. Or, you can imagine (put yourself there) where you will likely be at 10:00 tomorrow.

This capacity to self-observe goes by different names, like, “inner observer,” “witnessing presence,” getting to the “balcony.” And—this is my point—this capacity allows us to respond, not react. It’s crucial for a leader to learn to respond, seeing options, and not react automatically with behavior rising from past wounds and present fears. I see two dimensions to this capacity: one, with the mind; the other, with the heart.

First, the mind. “Getting to the balcony” is a favorite metaphor of Ronald Heifetz. He asserts that leaders spend too much time on the “dance floor” caught up in immediate interactions and not enough time getting to the balcony to see the big picture—observing the patterns and possibilities that are not clear while “dancing.” You know the benefit of stepping back and reviewing the “dance floor,” physically getting to the “balcony” of a day away, or an extended retreat, or a couple of hours a week, or an hour at the beginning or end of the day. All the better when we do this kind of reflection with colleagues.

Sometimes, in the midst of the “dance,” let’s say in a heated committee meeting, we can learn the capacity to step back internally and ask, “What’s going on here?” Plus, we can even observe ourselves interacting. We do self-talk while watching ourselves with a running commentary, like “Mahan, you handled that question really well,” or “Mahan, that question caught you off guard. Sure pushed your buttons!”

I am assuming that developing this capacity to step back, disengage, and activate our “inner observer” gives us options. We are more likely to respond, not automatically react, thereby leading from a more intentional place. This is a mind sort of thing.

In the next reflection I want to address the topic of leading from the heart. According to most sacred traditions the “heart” is not the center of our affections, as we see it in our culture. It is the organ of alignment with divine movement. Let’s explore that angle.