By Alexandra Montenegro
When we offer relative distinctions to the exercise of leadership, very few times we ponder what Sitting Back actually means. We mention it, occasionally we illustrate it, and we show its benefits in two or three examples with Sunday afternoon flavor, but almost never explore what that is and that it actually benefits us to sit back. The first obstacle that appears to us is a kind of rejection. We disqualify sitting back as if it were the esoteric relative, something weird in the family of key concepts to internalize, versus bright and stimulating distinctions like mobilizing, seeking allies, intervene, identify features, recognize losses, among others, that appear to us much more seductive and more urgent to be able to generate learning and changes. We see idleness and stillness almost as the antithesis of what our common sense tells us is required to exercise leadership. This is normal. Sitting back in our world is easily associated with laziness, negligence, lack of application and neglect. “There is no way being successful while sitting back,” screams part of our consciousness, pushing us into a frenzy of doing and doing more. And if this is so, why is it then that leadership invites us – and warns tenaciously – of the importance of taking one or two steps back and just let it be? To answer this question, perhaps the first thing we must do is challenge sitting back as meaningless downtime. Because although sometimes to sit back means to stand still and quiet – especially when we are not aware enough of our actions and our words – more than anything it refers to seek internal stillness that some, with lots of practice, even manage to sustain without having to talk or being involved in any actions. Because it is crucial in this space to take account of what is going on with our mind, being attentive to the environment as well as thoughts that flow within us. It is to look and watch at us with the single intention of recognizing our mind dye. It is to observe our operating system and reveal how it is working: under what assumptions, habits and judgments; it is identifying what emotional and mental states we get caught and dragged into; we meet with our body and dwell in it to listen to what it says. It is, ultimately, connecting us with the so much advertised “here and now,” with the soft sway of our abdomen to breathe and look “in what we are in,” then release and allow the silence to replace our discourse. This is why it is not idle nonsense, it’s a let-go of doing that reveals and invites you to discover and generate new spaces of being and perceiving.
Why is it so hard for us to sit back?
It has something frantic. We see it as risky. Even boring. Many label it as useless. We are so captivated and seduced by our discourses and actions that we forget to nurture and sustain these spaces of stillness, relegating them to a place of waiting that often remains the same.
It is this state that often initiates something new, that we leave the vicious and “more of the same” to which we as both individuals and groups condemn ourselves. Although perhaps many of us recognize that stillness and silence belong to the few spaces where creativity, innovation and consolidation of new forms, and funds may appear, sadly we also know that we barely visit them. On the other hand, all the time we try to do more in less time, falling often into meaningless in the process.
This is exactly what stops us, and sitting back means to take the time to be still. It does not occur while we answer emails, do homework with the children, spend time in meetings, designing a strategy, nor when we walk the dog.
It occurs – above all when we haven’t done it for a long time – when, as mentioned, we stop and pay attention to our body, our breath, when we are able to turn off the internal “radio” receiver of distractions. It is not only not to talk, but, more than anything, to not let us get tied down with the discursive chain of our thoughts, almost always repetitive and not original.
It is this silence that allows that what has to happen; that new ways appear and everything seeks and finds a new order. Some will say that this insight or discovery space also is accessed through contact with nature, sport, reading, art… and it may be so. However, these instances are somewhat difficult to visit when we are in the office or in meetings trying to exercise leadership.
Why sit back when we exercise leadership?
We know that to exercise leadership we need to mobilize, touch fibers, shake the comfort zone we are inhabiting. Whether it’s a direct coworker, our boss, our team or ourselves, it’s sometimes necessary to deal with issues that we deem difficult, that tighten our stomach and make us want to look away.
And we also understand that generating the learning that brings growth and evolution requires art and being present and mindful of the future, of what is going to happen. It is in the moments in which we have “done” enough to make “something” happen, that it is important to sit back and release to give space to the forces that are acting but have not had opportunity to manifest themselves. It is in these moments that our practicing of sitting back and being mindful is required.
It is not to dissociate or “fly away” and mentally go elsewhere. On the contrary, we are more attentive and more present than ever before, but we are in stillness, we are in peace offering great contention and not “sticking” to any result or expectation. Nor is it to step onto the balcony, a crucial skill in the exercise of leadership that allows us to systemically understand what is happening and where, if we deal with our analytical, integrative and intuitive capacity.
When this stillness happens, if it happens, usually “something happens,” something is released and opens a crack in which new possibilities grow. Sometimes what appears is a large imbalance that opens the floodgates for the search of new forms that are still needed for the evolution of the system. But because we are not naive, stillness and silence do not always bring harmony and balance; on the contrary, most often they are a prelude to a concert of unsuspected, unexpected and uncomfortable voices.
It is not easy to sit back, it’s not easy to not let ourselves be carried away by our assumptions, expectations, fears, and beliefs. However, doing so is crucial to understand what’s really “happening,” what are the present forces, and what one wants to manifest. Therefore the practice of Adaptive Leadership contains some art and sublimity, because by requiring that through practices like this we learn to be more independent of ourselves and of what “is” happening, allows us to promote social systems to move and seek a new state of evolution.
When we develop the rare ability to avoid falling prisoner to what happens both outside and within ourselves, we are allowing the interdependent world that surrounds us to move with more fluidity, grace and purpose showing different faces and nuances, testing the reality and advancing – sometimes with pain and discomfort- towards new balances that are there waiting for us.