Leadership from the Inside Out
It’s Wednesday again. Which means the nervousness will start right after lunch. As the afternoon wears on I will grow distracted, answering texts a little too fast and checking Facebook compulsively. My gut will begin to churn shortly after 4pm. By 6pm I will have tried on and changed my outfit at least three times. Despite my weekly resolution, I will still leave my house 10 minutes late, my feet cement, loath to exit my warm loft for the cold walk to my car.
I work as as a connection facilitator. For the past six years I have lead some version of communication games events across multiple cities in a variety of evolving formats. Currently in Port Townsend, WA, I lead a two-hour connection games evening every Wednesday night.
I love what I do. Almost daily my clients and group participants express gratitude for feeling more nourished and empowered in their relationships through my one-on-one and community services.
Yet this encouragement means little to the nerves that continue to quiver in me on Wednesdays before I greet the circle of participants who assemble by 6:30pm at the nearby mind-body institute for my connection night.
I often hear that my participants think I find it easy to take off my defensive masks, set aside my social armor and effortlessly reveal myself to the room. They are wrong. Just because I choose to do it regularly does not mean it comes easily to me.
Without fail, leading up to that moment when I stride into the yoga studio to begin the evening, my skin feels like it’s being melted down and stretched like putty over my bones. All I can really do is breathe and hope I don’t break into bubbles across my face.
If it was just a matter of reading a script, it might be simpler (albeit a lot more boring). But from week to week, I don’t know what is going to happen. Sure I create an outline to guide my facilitation, complete with a flow for the games I will lead during our two-hour event. But it’s not my outline that is the boss. It’s what shows up in the room.
I have chosen to lead these days by being led myself by the people who attend, by the mood they are in individually and collectively, by the emotional climate created by the sum of things I can point to and things I can’t name and by how all of that impacts me and my own moving internal parts in the moment.
I often hear that my participants think I find it easy to take off my defensive masks, set aside my social armor and effortlessly reveal myself to the room. They are wrong.
Tuning into and facilitating in response to the unknown and ever changing weather pattern of a group is so different from leading as the expert. My nerves would appreciate if I would just come in and lay the law down every so often.
But I did that for years.
After getting my PhD in Clinical Psychology, I worked as a staff psychologist at the VA where my clients insisted on calling me “Doctor”. Since leaving the VA to go into private practice in 2012, my clients call me by my first name.
Because I choose not to hide, it means I’m going to feel very vulnerable every time I walk into a room of people looking to me to offer leadership. Vulnerable is not a word that fits into the credentials, “P, ‘h” or “D”, at least how I was taught.
Because of my years of professional training, I am practiced at making it look good on the outside. Making it be real is something I am still learning to do. Each week with my insides rumbling, I show up, open up and listen in. There’s no predicting what will happen. And it’s the “not knowing” that is the hardest part.
This to me is what it means to lead authentically.
To surrender my will to what arises in the workshop week after week. To co-create in partnership with the unknown. To be willing to change my course on the fly. To give space for and beckon other emerging leaders to meet me in our pursuit of truth and authentic expression. To be me, the most unarmed version, with you, whoever you are.
So much easier to wax about poetically. So much harder to do, or rather, not do, in the live moment.
Since 2015 I have been leading my signature brand of connection games nights which I call “SpeakUP”, modeled after the popular Authentic Relating games but with twists I bring as a therapist, embodiment educator and sexuality coach.
And as I tell my participants, I get worked every time.
In this mostly uncharted exploration of leading vulnerably, I have looked at leadership with new eyes and a deeper hunger to understand what’s not working. I have been asking in particular, what makes it so hard for those of us in the healing professions to be vulnerable? By design aren’t I as a therapist creating the conditions for my clients to put down their turtle shells and let their soft underbellies come out? So why would my own humanity seem so out of reach?
This to me is what it means to lead authentically…To be me, the most unarmed version, with you, whoever you are.
As I’ve looked back on my educational models, I’ve realized that across all of my systems of training has been a common thread of dis-integrity, something out of agreement with itself. A story that goes something like, “Do for your clients but do not do for you”.
This model we could call, “healing as a transfer of information”.
For example in graduate school it sounded like:
I give you therapy by telling you, my client, the latest evidence-based information about restructuring your thoughts to reduce anxiety. I myself do not apply those tools. In truth, I probably should be wrestling you out of the client’s chair and plopping myself down because graduate school has been giving me panic attacks, oy, you think you have it bad.
Thus, “dis-integrity”. Feeling one thing but saying another. The precise opposite of vulnerability.
Over my years in academia I was taught to prioritize my mind and completely override my body in order to help others. I was taught to contradict myself. This is the epitome of hiding. It is how we are training psychologists in this country. It is how I was trained.
In my Intimacy & Desire Coaching program, the certification that I sought after leaving the VA, there was a different contradiction. This one stemmed from the coaching being convoluted by the profit motives of the company’s sales branch. It began well, with the premise: Teach our clients how to relax into the present moment and connect as sexual beings without the pressure of needing to be or do for someone else. (This is a profoundly healing principle when done with integrity).
But I was also taught to use my coaching clients to make sales for the company.
While I worked for OneTaste, the company that also empowered me with extraordinary coaching tools, I was again reinforced to teach one thing but embody another. I went very numb during that phase. My body literally shut down in the face of the intense deception.
As I’ve looked back on my educational models, I’ve realized that across all of my systems of training has been a common thread of dis-integrity, something out of agreement with itself.
Fast forward five years. I am now regularly attempting to break all of the rules of my training. I am attempting to unlearn the signal jamming that I was taught to enact, and instead, let a signal that originates inside my body makes its way all the way out through how I express myself in the world.
If the models I have been taught were about a transfer of disembodied information, I am now attempting to practice a new model, “healing as an embodied transmission”.
By embodied transmission I mean that by becoming integrated in my intention, feelings, words and actions, a much deeper communication becomes possible between me and others. A resonance, an agreement, a congruence, a yes.
Just as bones out of alignment will restore health when aligned, emotional alignment — the agreement between my insides and my outsides — will bring health to my emotional body. Through getting a living taste of authenticity, my clients and participants get permission to be themselves. It’s not a “head” thing. It’s a “body” thing. A relaxation that happens when I admit I’m hurting or nervous or turned on or whatever is actually true in that very moment. And then suddenly everyone is allowed to just be themselves. Which has yielded the most powerful change I have yet seen in my twenty years studying and practicing in the therapeutic arts.
There are a horrifying number of accounts of exploitation in the spiritual and healing professions emerging almost daily. As the stories multiply of leaders who hid addiction, sexual exploitation and corruption, I have begun to think that our models for healing are at fault, not exclusively a growing number of immoral monsters.
And that it’s time to redesign leadership in the healing arts.
Just as bones out of alignment will restore health when aligned, emotional alignment — the agreement between my insides and my outsides — will bring health to my emotional body.
Instead of continuing to endorse leaders who lead from a false model of perfection and hide their humanity in the shadows, it is time to engage in a dialogue about leadership from the inside out. From the truth of our vulnerability, outward. To reward brave leaders who are stepping forward, doing the painstaking and often frightening work of healing the fissure created by our training and stitching back together our outsides to our insides.
It’s not for the faint of heart, this pathway. I’ve been practicing integrity in leadership going on six years now . And I’m still running 10 minutes late to set up for my weekly connection games nights. There’s so much resistance that still lives in my body, so much fear of the unknown that dumps into my nervous system every Wednesday before I step into that room to lead.
But when I take a step back and realize how many generations of doctors who came before me were taught to open wounds in ourselves in the service of closing wounds in others, I realize I have taken on a radical act of repair. A healing-of-the-healers level of magnitude. I realize being vulnerable, authentic and integrated as a leader in the healing arts is a revolutionary step.
And, like any good revolution, that revolution can incite so much more change.
As I get more vulnerable while holding the most power in the room, lines begin to blur between teacher and student, leader and follower, the one in charge and the ones less in charge. Through this model, power naturally distributes. In the space left by my acknowledging more of my human experience, others may arise, begin to trust their power and start having an impact. This in my estimation is the fullest expression of this revolution. More and more of us recognizing our power to lead. Put another way, if I want to concentrate the power in a few, it’s very effective to make leadership look unattainable, a role occupied only by the perfect. When the masks are dropped and the truth is revealed — that leaders are in fact human — then the humans will become leaders too.
This is a big road ahead. I say yes to walking it. And I’m still such a novice. I genuinely struggle getting my truth out when I’m in leadership in a way that is neither reactive nor engineered. I practice, often. And even though I may still be lagging behind schedule by a full 10 minutes at this point, recognizing the enormity of the internal conditioning I am attempting to counter, I can say to myself with compassion, “You, Doctor Jessica, are coming right along”.