Paying attention to the centre in leadership

Paying attention to the centre in leadership
24th May 2016 Tim Malnick

Web of Life work very much pays attention to what is at the centre – the essence, central organising principle, or purpose of a system. The first of the nine Web of Life principles describes the vital importance for any system of what is at the centre. Everything physical, social or emotional can be considered as radiating out from and expressing the essential qualities of some core, central principle. Thus a fruit contains a seed at its centre which in some way contains the essence of the whole fruit, as well as the possibilities of future plants, and future fruits (and so on) across time. A social group also has a central principle – a shared interest or ideology – which again determines to a large extent the activities, rules and expressions in the group.

Applying this idea to leadership focuses us immediately on the importance of leading with purpose or heart. The word ‘heart’ could be problematic for some people or in some organizations and of course you don’t have to use that language. The same idea is conveyed by words such as ‘centre’, ‘essence’, even ‘purpose’ or ‘point’. But actually people do naturally talk about ‘the heart of the matter’ or ‘putting your heart into it’ or alternatively being ‘half hearted.’ So the idea that the heart – literally or metaphorically – does indeed represent some core, central, energising principle for us, is very much already in our day-to-day language.


Leadership as trusting your own heart:

The first implication of paying attention to the central principle in leadership means really coming to know and trust with ever deeper confidence what is in your own heart as a leader. Leadership development here pays attention to discovering and respecting that place in me as a leader – my deepest visions, aspirations and the qualities I wish to bring into the world. It may take some time and discipline to locate or rediscover that. Amidst the constant busyness of the day to day and the need to satisfy so many external demands and pressures, it is not necessarily an easy thing to stay in contact with one’s own essential principles and visions. In so far as I do manage to, it may be then be a continual challenge to trust it enough to voice and act from that place in complex and challenging environments. After all, the language of the heart and the wisdom of our centre is often not the language of the spreadsheet or the boardroom presentation.

Leadership as trusting your own heart also means accepting that unless and until you are acting in ways that connect to your own core or heart, you aren’t really being a leader at all, you are being a manager. You are managing more or less effectively, but not yet taking action from a place of essential, core qualities and beliefs.


Leadership as acknowledging the hearts of others:

Once a leader begins to identify that place in themselves, which is not necessarily a simple or quick process, the next question becomes how to lead change or action in the world with others. A leader is constantly coming into contact with other people, groups or organisations, stakeholders, who of course each have their own unique heart wishes and intentions.

This brings to mind another English expression – of having a ‘heart to heart’. How can our leadership, communication and action become an expression of that which is most central and core in us, while simultaneously making space for that which is most central or core in others? Once we gain confidence and clarity in how meaningful leadership begins in our own heart we must then consider how to relate skillfully to that same essential, central aspect in others. This does not imply disowning our authority or responsibility, nor adopting some sort of pseudo consultative or collective approach. In Web of Life terms it simply means that if we do not recognize that every person we deal with is also expressing some essential, heart centred aspect, we are likely to miss a great deal of richness, energy and possibility and run into problems of misunderstanding and conflict.


Relating to the centre of different groups and sub systems:

The same idea also applies at different system levels. Just as individual people express essential, central principles, so too each team, department and organization can be considered in the same way. Navigating the complexities of leadership means finding ways to align or healthily connect one’s own essential principles, with those of others, and in healthy relationship to the central principles of teams, departments and organizations. Perhaps this starts to sound a little abstract at this point? If so consider that many common interventions with names like team building, conflict resolution, shared visioning and strategy exercises can all be understood as attempts to in some way align different individual or group centres, with one another and / or around a meaningful shared central goal, vision or identity.


Leadership, Courage and the Heart:

None of this is easy. In many ways it is much easier to avoid the depths of one’s own centre, and the heart of others and just get on and do stuff. Questions of the heart, or the centre, can be messy, intangible and do not readily adhere to a traditional business logic. None of this means however that it is not immensely worthwhile work.

It’s worth remembering also that the word ‘courage’ itself comes from the French word coeur meaning ‘heart’. There is a challenge for leaders to develop the courage to connect with and act from their own, and in relation to other people’s, hearts. This is no mean feat. Not much in our contemporary work culture encourages us to do that. And it does take real courage and commitment. The 9 Web of Life principles help leaders to build a useful language, a deep understanding and a set of practices to develop the courage to act from heart.