There are leaders that divide. And there are leaders that unite. What is being played out in the world stage with Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a dramatic projection of our every day experience of leaders. Leaders’ choices matter and have vast implications because we live in an interconnected world.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine created a large divide, Russia against much of the rest of the world. It has had domino effect implications: geopolitical (the strengthening of NATO is one), economic (sanctions against Russian oil and gas are exacerbating inflationary pressure), and even long-term climate and sustainability (Europe is speeding innovation to close the large energy gap left by the sanctions). On the other hand, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has galvanized, united and inspired much of the world to come to his help. By all accounts, this is peak performance in any leadership context.
What has created this incredible flow of support toward a leader barely known outside his country until a few weeks ago? What can we all learn about peak performance leadership as it plays out on the world stage?
I sat down with Nicholas Janni to talk about his new book Leader As Healer. We spoke about the essential role of leaders to heal the divides within ourselves, within our communities and society as a whole.
Henna Inam: Right at the beginning of the book, you share “this is a book about the highest levels of presence and peak performance leadership, and the cultures that ensue from them, in which wellbeing, results and contribution to the world are naturally interwoven”. From your work with leaders, how is presence connected to peak performance? How do you define presence?
Nicholas Janni: I define presence as “I am here, and I am available.” I am here with all of me – my mind, my heart, my body, my intuition and my deeper self that resides in stillness. And I am available: to listen to you, and to feel you, to attune to scenarios with all of my capacities, to listen to deeper whispers of what is trying to emerge, and to hold space for my teams to show up with all of their capacities.
This is the ground of peak performance.
Inam: Your thesis is that there is something that is critically needed for leading in times of disruption that is often missing in our leadership capacities currently. Can you share more about what is needed to “come online” as you call it?
Janni: I believe that to face the scope and threats of 21st-century challenges, today’s leaders must possess potent powers for logic, reason, discernment and strategic forecasting. Yet, they must also be empathic and therefore embodied; grounded and therefore intuitive. They must be skilled in mindfulness and deep listening; present and receptive to higher levels of insight and innovation; able to inspire authentic engagement and collaboration; and possess a clear and wholehearted sense of service, mission and purpose.
This is Leader as Healer.
We have to recognize how much we have normalized a very limited way of functioning and perceiving, living in what I call cultures of ‘absence’ and disconnection, dominated by rational thinking.
To ‘come online’ means re-connecting with all the parts of us that effectively went offline through our cultural conditioning and schooling, and our individual family and intergenerational energy field.
This is a call to break from the chronically imbalanced ways of thinking and functioning that have become the norm in so many corporate cultures, where doing eclipses being, and hyper-rational, analytical thinking relegates feeling, sensing, intuiting and the transpersonal to the outer fringes of life.
Inam: How do each of us reading this know whether these capacities are online or offline within us?
Janni: We know through the ‘symptoms’ of our lives – how we show up, our capacity for real relating, intimacy and listening, to ourselves, each other and life, how inspired and inspiring we are, the quality of our presence, our levels of fatigue or energy flow, our availability for moments of breakthrough insight, the freshness or staleness we experience in our lives and work.
Inam: What are the costs to us individually and collectively if we do not grow these capacities within us?
Janni: I believe that the failure to correct the disconnections is severely detrimental not only to individual and organizational performance, but to our capacity for creating healthy, thriving futures.
I agree with Professor Iain McGilchrist (author of “The Master and his Emissary”) that the subjugation of the right brain by the left brain is the single biggest threat to the survival of our civilization.
Inam: What are the mindsets that we need to let go of to step into these new ways of leading?
Janni: These are just a few of the mindsets we need to let go of:
· That left-brain thinking is our most important function above all others
· That there are positive and negative emotions
· That ‘not knowing’ is a sign of weakness and to be avoided
· That so-called ‘soft skills’ are something we only have time for when things are going well
· That listening and real relating take up far too much time
· That deep reflection and contemplation take up far too much time
· That ‘I’ am the progenitor of new ideas
· That vulnerability has no place in the work environment
Inam: In your client work, would you share some stories of the real impact of growing new capacities on the the client, their teams, and the culture of the organization, and perhaps even the ecosystem within which the organization lives?
Janni: Here is a selection from many CEO client memos to me:
“I always considered myself very good at reading the room — figuring out where people are coming from. Now, I recognize how my approach was a strictly mental or cognitive process, and therefore incomplete. Since that revelation, I’ve learned how to sense more deeply what people need instead of consciously analyzing to figure them out.
Sometimes the signals I get about what’s going on or what’s needed in a situation don’t actually make sense to me. But as I follow them through, I find out — perhaps a day or two later — that my approach was precisely what was needed, even if I wasn’t clear on the reasons at the time. As a result, I have an easier time connecting with people, sensing what they need, and intuiting how best to move forward so we can create a co-led journey as an organization.”
“There have been many transformational benefits in myself and my team. One of the most palpable is how much more embodied I feel throughout the day. It may sound strange, but this has literally given me a new inner home, one in which I have so much more energy, and even more importantly, a far wider perceptual capacity. I’m quite sure that my strategic thinking mind is functioning at a higher level now that it has become a part of me, rather than the center of who I am or thought I was. Why wasn’t I taught this at the beginning of my career?!”
“Since you worked with us, we now start all important meetings with five minutes of silence, eyes closed. At first it felt slightly awkward but very quickly became essential, because the results are so clear. When we take this short time to settle, to connect with ourselves and to the presence of the group, the quality of our thinking, as well as our sense of mutual connectedness, has dramatically transformed. Fascinating to realize that one year ago, it would have been unthinkable to do this.”
Inam: What are tools that help us as leaders grow these capacities?
Janni: Committed multi-level development work – mental, emotional, physical, meditative.
Inam: Given the commitment required for growing these capacities what causes leaders to have the “aha” moment to really commit to this?
Janni: Usually when they really connect with their bodies and/or their emotions. There is a huge release of tension, a deep settling inside, and a quite new quality of perception and connection, to themselves and to the world around.
With enough of these experiences, and a guiding framework that makes coherent sense of them, it becomes clear how much absence we live in and why presence is so obviously highly desirable.
Inam: Share with us your own journey of purpose that led to the creation of this book and your work.
Janni: At 16, my life radically changed direction.
At school in London, I was fully immersed in the teenage counterculture of the times — sex, drugs and rock-and-roll — to which academic study became a tedious interference. But as one school holiday approached, I was invited to accompany a friend on a visit to his grandmother in Scotland. She lived as a nun at Samye Ling, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery near Lockerbie. Although it is now one of the biggest such communities in Europe, Samye Ling was then just one house, founded by the famous Tibetan lama, Chögyam Trungpa.
I spent the first few days there amused and fascinated by the exotic nature of the place: the lavishly decorated meditation hall filled with Tibetan monks performing prayers, prostrations, chants, and seemingly endless meditation. I had never seen anything like it.
One day someone lent me a classic Buddhist text, which I sat down one afternoon to read. It suggested that we each live inside a small, tightly conditioned experience of self and the world, one that conceals something much deeper and vastly more real. Suddenly — I cannot know how or why — it was as if an enormous curtain had been torn open, exposing this truer, vaster reality to me.
I had never thought about such things, yet immediately understood in my bones the truth of what I was reading. It irrevocably altered the course of my life. Ever since, the drive to explore the deeper Self and the more expanded sense of reality that ancient text pointed towards has been the central focus of my life.
After studying Drama at University, I subsequently spent twenty years in the theatre devoted to researching with actors the practices that enabled them to enter with consistency high levels of the ‘flow state’. I had my own company and taught at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
In 1997 a small group of us were invited to work at The Cranfield School of Management in the UK. We spent several years developing a brilliant methodology called ‘Mythodrama’, using Shakespeare stories as leadership case studies. By 2001 our work was in such demand that we decide to leave the theatre and to commit full-time to leadership consultancy by creating ‘Olivier Mythodrama Associates’.
In 2013 I left OMA to focus more exclusively on Presence work, and Leader as Healer is a natural deepening of that territory.
Along the way I have of course studied and practiced many different disciplines. Most recently, 2013-18, I studied intensively for five years with contemporary mystic Thomas Hubl. Through this, I integrated many parts of my previous paths, and in particular, understood and practiced a new integration of meditative practice and deep trauma work. In the pre-Covid years 2017-19, I led ongoing groups in U.K., U.S., Israel and Palestine to address personal, intergenerational and collective trauma work, and those topics are often a key component of my work with leaders, particularly in the 1:1 coaching.
To learn more about Nicholas Janni’s work and subscribe to his thought-provoking newsletter go here: https://www.nicholasjanni.com/
A version of this post first appeared in my Forbes leadership blog.