I was afraid. It was at dusk, and I was out on Lake Zurich in a one person rowing boat, a good few months after a knee surgery. My teacher had told us not to bother with life vests, and so I rowed with the vest stored somewhere in the boat, because I did not want to stand out.
However, my body confidence had taken a hit in a skiing accident where I had torn my cruciate ligaments and my meniscus. After the surgery, I had felt out of balance – not just physically, but also emotionally: My leg felt as if you could rip it apart with a little twist of the knee – just as easily as you could tear apart a chicken leg.
Now, on Lake Zurich, bigger boats pass by every so often, and the waves in their wake can rock a little rowing boat quite strongly. That evening, I was afraid that the boat could tip over and that I could land in the water. What then? Would my leg be strong enough to swim back to the shore? Or would I drown?
When a leader introduces change, something similar happens: Change rocks the boat. That in turn gets everyone in the boat out of balance. And like myself that early evening on Lake Zurich, people react with fear. The leader’s benign intentions might make little difference to those who struggle with the change.
Leadership happens in relationship, and resistance gets in the way. To pull the relationship back from a reactive to a creative state, so as to be able to enrol others in change requires a leader to be grounded.
Grounded Visionaries are what we call transformative leaders who have a vision for a better world, leaders who are grounded in their experience of the very system they seek to transform. And the word “grounded” has a double meaning for us: Transformative leaders need to be grounded in their leader within. The most important work for any leader is therefore their inner work.
When you are conscious of your own fears and triggers and able to address your automatic reactive behaviours, then you can meet the fear of the good people around you with acceptance, love and compassion. When you have come to terms with your own patterns of resistance you can meet others‘ resistance with calm and understanding. Coming to terms does not mean overcoming your triggers. In fact, they will always be there, but rather than letting yourself be hijacked by your habitual self-protection programming, you can stay present to the triggers as they arise in you. This consciousness gives you choice: the choice to laser focus your energy on the change you want to bring about in your world.
In practice this could look like this: Someone rejects an idea you have put forward. Depending on your personality and life experience, you will be triggered in different ways. Let’s say you are a people pleaser. In that case you are afraid of losing relationship. Your habitual reaction to that perceived threat is to discard or sugar coat your idea so as to please others. As you become aware that your pattern of self-protection is avoiding to lose relationship, you still consciously notice the threat you feel when someone does oppose you. However, if you have done the inner work of pausing before reacting, you have learnt that you do not need to compulsively act on your emotions. Instead, you are free to choose to stay with your idea without being defensive or passive while also staying in relationship with that person. All it takes is this moment of awareness to recover from self-protection to curiosity about the other and what has them be reactive.
When you practice tuning in to what triggers you, you become faster and faster in recovering from being reactive. And in the heat of a moment that distinguishes a grounded leader from an untethered one.
While I was not able to control the waves in my rowing boat, I did indeed have choice that night: I could have put on the life vest. That would have enabled me to stay calm in the face of the shaking boat.
You are at choice too: While you cannot control how your message is received by others, you can do the inner work that enables you to stay calm when others react in unproductive ways to the change you want to enrol them in. It’s like putting on a life vest and rowing into the evening with the confidence that you are safe.
Get in touch with us if you want to do the inner work to become a grounded leader.