By Katharina C. Sell for Enlivening Edge Magazine
Agility seems to be the buzz word of our decade and many organizations I work with feel drawn to more empowering, agile and purpose-driven processes. However, in implementing these tools and processes, leaders soon tend to bump up against deeply-rooted collective mindsets and assumptions: How can we be accountable if we haven’t got things “under control”? What value do I add if I don’t know the answer?
 Leadership here is to be understood as an attitude, not a position. Leaders in this sense are people who wish to make an impact and are ready to “show up” in a system.
Fact is, in the complexity and ambiguity of our today’s world, clear-cut answers have become a rarity (Obolensky, 2014). Yet it is extremely challenging for most leaders to genuinely come to terms with not having things under control in the way they used to. It is obvious that there can be no sustainable change if we have the tools but not the underlying assumptions (Kegan & Lahey 2009) or stage of consciousness that allows and invites us to see things in a more holistic way.
How can we let go of control and dare to “not know”?
If we want to facilitate these deep mindset-shifts in organizations and society, one important question we need to address is: How can we truly embrace “not knowing” and come to understand in new ways? This was, in fact, a question that had been nagging me personally for quite a while. I realized that digging deeper into it was something that life called me to do. After a deep personal journey (Sell, 2017), I embarked on an executive doctorate program and initiated an action research project, which explores inspired moments of inner knowing, and embodied practices that help us tap into it.
Over several years, our action research group inquired into moments where in the midst of potentially overwhelming complexity, we tap into a space where we suddenly sense the way forward, where we feel an inexplicable sense of certainty, calmness, or confidence.
We experimented with accessing these states through embodied practices and looked at how they might turn complex leadership challenges into opportunities for personal growth. Going through cycles of inquiry in action (Torbert & Cook-Greuter, 2004) greatly enriched both our insights and practices.
How can embodied knowing be a resource in leadership and organisational change?
Our research suggests that tapping into inner knowing can be a powerful resource in moments where the challenges are too complex and overwhelming to find a rational-analytic answer in time.
If we manage to interrupt the automatic “downloading of mental models” (Scharmer, 2016), slow down our thinking and become present, our body/mind/soul might reveal surprisingly clear feelings, insights or revelations that point in a certain direction.
Specific practices range from simple grounding and breathing exercises to dynamic sculpture work and other forms of collective presencing (Scharmer & Kaufer, 2013). A quality that is required in all these practices is that of deep listening—a willingness to suspend all thoughts, judgments or expectations, and to welcome whatever wants to emerge.
What helps us access and trust ways of inner knowing in complex situations?
Quite often, when leaders talk about intuitive decision-making, they are, in fact, talking about automated, subconscious repetitions of patterns. We all have and need these patterns, but they are not the means to address adaptive challenges (Heifetz, 1998)—challenges that can’t be dealt with in the former way. So how can we recognize deeper forms of inner knowing? It appears that types of inner knowing that have deeper meaning for us tend to come with a sudden sensation of stillness, expansion, and peace.
One image that has been used often is the moment after a thunderstorm, when suddenly the clouds open up and we are surrounded by endless clear sky. If we understand these experiences from a Teal perspective, it makes sense that sensations of expansion and peace point towards our tapping into wholeness and purpose.
What kind of learning process can help actualizing the potential of inner knowing in the business context?
We live in times of substantial change where transformative and adaptive learning have become essential. By transformative learning I mean a process that is not (just) inspired by new insights and capabilities but that has changed our entire way of making sense and defining ourselves. These deep personal and collective shifts are, I believe, the essence of the required organizational learning processes: Our time asks us
- to overcome the separation between mind–body and soul, and instead to act from an integrated place of presence,
- to embrace the realisation that we as human beings are interconnected with each other in more ways that we assumed, and to use this interconnection to the benefit of all,
- to inquire into why we are here as leaders and as a company, what legacy we want to leave behind, and what our purpose is that inspires and fulfils us.
All the aspects may sound very universal and philosophical but the experience of applying them in practice suggests that they hold very relevant keys to navigating the VUCA environment that we have. If we embrace our wholeness and act from a place of connectedness with ourselves and others, we are able to come up with solutions that surprise even ourselves whilst embodying and radiating our purpose and vision.
How can we support leaders to implement practices of embodied knowing in their organization?
Many leaders who have experienced the power of inner knowing feel inspired to implement these practices in their organizations. It is important to take into account the normative power of the system—it requires a lot of willpower and discipline to develop a counter-cultural pattern or practice. Therefore is crucial to create safe spaces and set up a strong support system in the early stages. These can be peer coaching sessions, case clinics, or similar peer-supportive formats within or across organizations.
These support systems can, eventually, catalyse a transformative process in the organization, where making an impact in the system comes about by acting from a place of presence, by creating spaces for people to deeply connect with themselves and others.
Navigating Complexity with Embodied Knowing with Katharina Sell at IEC2018
Heifetz, R. (1998). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Kegan, R. & Lahey. L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock the potential in yourself and your organization. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.
Obolensky, N. (2014). Complex adaptive leadership: Embracing paradox and uncertainty. (2nd ed.). Farnham: Gower.
Torbert, W. R. & Cook-Greuter, S. R. (2004). Action inquiry: The secret of timely and transforming leadership. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.
Scharmer, C. O. (2016). Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges. (2nd ed.). Oakland: Berrett-Koehler.
Scharmer, C. O. & Kaufer, K. (2013). Leading from the emerging future: From ego-system to eco-system economies. Oakland: Berrett-Koehler.
Sell, K. C. (2017). Navigating with inner knowing and awakened presence: An approach to leading in a complex world. Action Learning: Research and Practice, 14(3), 243-13.
Katharina C. Sell is a transformation consultant & executive coach and managing
director of Create Impact Consulting in London, UK. Her work focuses on catalyzing
organizational transformation in the context of the volatility, uncertainty, complexity
and ambiguity of today’s world, using those challenges as a platform to expand
personal and collective leadership potential. By enabling her clients to recognize and
question the limitations of established mindsets and exploring alternative ways to
deal with challenge, Katharina prepares the ground for deep personal and
organizational transformation that is grounded in wholeness and purpose.
Featured Image ©Katharina C. Sell, used with permission