From Leader as ‘Executor’ to Leader as ‘Healer’
The COVID-19 crisis has become what I think of as a "leadership litmus test." Some leaders, for example, Angela Merkel in Germany, Moon Jae-in in South Korea, and Jacinda Adhern in New Zealand have stepped up magnificently. They acted swiftly and mobilized their nations to respond effectively to the crisis, while at the same time projecting compassion and offering needed reassurance. Their people have, by and large, trusted them.
Other leaders have responded in utterly dysfunctional ways. They are unable or unwilling to act decisively, fracturing their nations in the face of the threat, operating out of overt or covert self-interest, and thus offering no "secure base" to help their people weather the emotional and economic shocks.
In these vastly divergent responses, I see two models of leadership at play – I call them the leader-as-executor and the leader-as-healer.
In recent decades, as the world drove for growth and efficiency above all else, the leader-as-executor became the dominant global business model. "Great" leaders are drivers of action and agents of discipline; their goals primarily are instrumental – maximize profit and shareholder returns – and their relationships transactional. Their power rests in the wielding of the metaphorical sword as they go to do battle on the battle field of ceaseless business competition.
These leaders operate from what I call a ‘narrow bandwidth,’ characterized by the primacy of the rational, strategic mind, and a disconnection from their emotional and physical selves. They function almost constantly in a “Doing” modality with little or no access to “Being.” So, action becomes an end in itself.
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed this model for what it is: a wholly inadequate way to meet what has previously been called the VUCA environment, (volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous) and now includes the challenges facing a world in which pandemics and climate emergencies have become the “new abnormal.” The rational, linear mind seeks to reduce everything to details that can be known and predicted. Complexity does not and never will yield to such an approach. Higher levels of innovative thinking, which require deep levels of receptivity and openness, will also remain closed.
That execution-oriented leaders still are regarded as ‘successful’ is a testament to how far our culture has descended into deeply imbalanced and self-defeating patterns of behavior. Such leaders are no longer fit for purpose; they are a danger to the people they lead. Because they are primarily self-oriented, and at worst, pathologically narcissistic, they are also a threat to the long-term health of our societies.
Leaders who cannot embrace complexity, grapple with ambiguity, and feel true empathy, cannot care for the world. That's not because they are bad people, but because they lack the necessary wisdom and emotional capacity, and because our culture does not provide them with a context for genuine inner development. They will never be able to create cultures of real engagement, in which people give the best of themselves.
An emerging model - The Leader as Healer
In the context of leadership, the word 'healing' does not refer to physical healing but rather:
1) The restoring of unity - the bringing of the parts of us that are fragmented back into coherence. 2) The rebalancing of our thinking, emotional, and physical 'bodies’.
3) The transformation of stagnant energy, leading to more vitality, more connection, and more intelligence/wisdom.
4) The precise excision of that which is unhealthy and dangerous.
Healers are leaders who have highly developed rational minds but also have invested in developing their emotional selves and restoring an embodied presence. They have explored and integrated wounded parts of themselves and developed higher levels of consciousness and innovative capacity, abilities that all cultures have described for thousands of years. So, they bring their thinking, emotional and embodied selves to the figurative leadership table together.
The Leader as Healer sees the world, its problems, and potential solutions in very different ways than the leader-as- executor.
The Healer can analyze and strategize every bit as well as the Executor. But they know what it means to connect with themselves and others, to integrate Being and Doing, pro-activity and receptivity, rationality, and intuition.
The Healer understands and embodies a coherent Presence that transmits: "I'm here, and I'm available." They know that one minute of quality attention a leader gives a colleague or employee is priceless because of the connection it creates.
Where the Executor builds cultures of ‘Absence’ on a foundation of disconnection, the Healer builds cultures of ‘Presence’ on a foundation of connectedness.
Critically, the leader-as-healer is powerful in very different ways that the leader-as-executor. In place of the sword, their chosen instrument is the scalpel. They understand that feeling and empathy are essential but not always sufficient. Sometimes it is required decisively to excise the moral and spiritual equivalents of tumors from the bodies of organizations and nations. Even in doing this, however, Healers – like all good surgeons – seek to preserve that which remains healthy to the greatest extent possible.
Re-writing our relationship to emotion
One foundation of becoming a leader-as-healer is understanding that a lack of connection to emotion is often where energy gets most stuck and stagnant.
Virtually all of the leaders I work with intuitively know that they are leading in an unbalanced and unsustainable world. They know it because of how stressed they get. They know it because of the lack of meaning, sometimes the despair that they feel.
But they haven't ever really been taught a different possibility. In the current field of business education, MBA courses, and business schools, there's remarkably little education about our inner development, about emotional, ethical, and spiritual maturity. There is almost nothing about what it means to develop an authentic, coherent Presence as a leader.
I have found that, without exception, the leaders with whom I have worked carry within themselves an unattended package of hurts, scars, and fears, starting in childhood and adolescence, and sometimes including intergenerational, systemic family patterns. That these are unattended is natural, because there is rarely an opportunity to safely and responsibly process them. They sit as frozen blocks of energy within us, numbing our hearts and limiting our vitality, vision, and relational capacity.
To justify not attending to these parts, we create belief systems that speak of 'positive' and 'negative' emotion, of the weakness of vulnerability, and of how fear blocks us. While Leader as Executor endorses these beliefs, Leader as Healer dismantles them and creates a very different culture. He understands, for instance, that unless we can feel grief, we cannot feel joy.
It is my repeated experience with hundreds of clients 1:1 and in groups that when we feel safe enough to allow fear or sadness to flow freely, we experience a very different result. This especially is the case when the process is guided by someone who has no motivation to 'heal' or change or interpret but instead can be present with an embodied, empathic Presence
That the flow of fear grounds us deeply in our body, opens our energy, and is altogether a very connecting emotion. That the flow of sadness or grief deeply relaxes us and melts our hearts, leaving us feeling tender, open, and compassionate towards ourselves and the world.
Moreover, it's often been my experience working with groups of leaders that once people feel secure enough to speak openly with each other about their fears, the floodgates of new ideas and solutions open. This is how energy works - when the physical tension we use to suppress emotion is relaxed, the blocked energy then naturally metabolizes into free-flowing energy.
Of course, this does not mean that the workplace becomes a place of uncontained emotional expression. It means that Healers attend first and privately to their own process of emotional fragmentation and then to opening spaces for unconditional acknowledgment of emotion – to providing a space simply to hear, without any need for fixing, changing, or drama.
Two recent examples from US CEO clients illustrate this succinctly:
1) Memo from a CEO client during the Covid-19 crisis and a board member of a major US chain:
“Just had a board meeting. Everybody was in the usual strategic planning mode. I asked the question, 'how is the leadership team feeling?'. It was a cathartic conversation, and something completely different opened up in the call..."
2) (Pre Covid-19) "On a Monday morning recently, I had to call the police into our main office because one employee had done something illegal. They came, and in front of everyone handcuffed him and marched him out. The staff naturally were shocked. I called everyone together, explained that I had no other choice, and encouraged everyone to get on with their work. For the rest of the day, and most of that week, people were in a kind of daze.
I realized that what I should have done was to call everyone together and simply say something like, ‘I’m angry at him, but I’m also shocked and upset to see that happening to a long-term colleague here in front of us, and I guess many of you may be feeling something similar.’ If I had done that, if I had simply acknowledged our emotional responses, we would almost certainly have saved hundreds of hours of below-par performance."
Only a leader who has done enough inner work of his own has the maturity to hold such a container.
The role of meditation and mindfulness
Over the last 3,000 years, small groups of people in every culture have explored the nature of our consciousness, and how we can expand and develop it. Many of these groups formed an esoteric core of established religions, often choosing to live away from the everyday world in monasteries or nature. Their explorations formed a foundational base of what we know as the great wisdom traditions.
Many of these old traditions foresaw our current period of turmoil with impressive accuracy. They predicted that this would be the time when their Teachings would be progressively more widely available and relevant.
This is reflected in the widespread upsurge of interest in the practice of Mindfulness, now used in schools, hospitals, prisons, and many organizations worldwide. This upsurge represents a crucial part of the correction of the fragmentation and disconnection I have articulated.
The Jewish mystical tradition gives us a simple and powerful metaphor - when we look at a page in a book, there are two parts to the page. One is the black letters, and one is the white page. We have, through habit, become entirely fixated on the black letters, starting from an early age in our schooling.
I have worked with hundreds of leaders who, because of our work, either deepen their existing meditation practice or begin a new practice. I have not known one single person who has not experienced great benefit from some simple exercises.
Sometimes the results lie more in the domain of greater ease and effectiveness. One of the most concrete results I hear is people saying that they get much more done, with greater efficiency, in a shorter time, and with less fatigue.
Sometimes a more profound opening occurs. An inner Silence grows stronger, and this enables a person to perceive him/herself and life in a gradually more multi-layered, multi-faceted way. One’s orientation to ‘soul’ values and deeper purpose become more natural. As this unfolds, habitual drives and distractions hold less influence over us. Connectedness and Presence become the dominant guiding principles in life and work.
When a leader knows how to guide his team into such fertile territory, they invariably find that rich streams of new ideas and insights start to emerge between them. After such highly energized meetings, it will often be difficult to say who exactly had which idea, as something of a different order of 'group intelligence' has unfolded.
A systemic change of mindset and practice by leaders urgently is needed. This starts with the recognition that achieving the highest levels of performance in pursuit of the future well-being of the planet, is possible.
The good news is all the individual leaders I coach and the majority of the leaders I meet in groups really ‘get’ this. Once this framework is named, they know that they are working within a massively imbalanced inner and outer operating system. They know that fundamental change is needed because of the many symptoms they experience in their personal and professional lives that things are not working as well as they could.
The road map for change already exists. The journey towards becoming Leader as Healer starts with these essential steps:
1) Find an experienced guide who knows both the territories of meditation/mindfulness and emotional integration.
2) Read the extensive literature about personal development, and the fast-growing body of literature about leadership development that aligns with the ideas expressed here.
3) Find a small cohort of friends/colleagues who have a similar intention and will become allies. We cannot do this alone.
“If I am not for myself, then who will be? But if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, then when?”
Hillel, 8th century
Nicholas Janni guides senior leaders and leadership teams internationally. He teaches at the IMD Business School in Switzerland and at The University of Oxford Said Business School. He also leads programmes on intergenerational and collective trauma healing in the UK, US and The Middle East