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Leading with the Wise Mind

Posted Jan 29, 2013 08:35 AM
The word sustainability is everywhere. If you think of yourself as a system to sustain, how can you maintain your viability as a nonprofit leader when you consider that a top challenge for many leaders is knowing which fire to put out first? Guest blogger Amy Erickson shares some insights on sustainable leadership.
Leading with the Wise Mind

Photo by Alan Cleaver

Sustainable Leadership Series

Part 1: Leading with the wise mind

Amy Erickson, coach, consultant, and Resource Directory member, is contributing a series of blog posts on sustainable leadership.

“It felt like someone had their hands around my neck…”

“Heat was coming up through my chest and neck; the next thing I knew my face felt like it was on fire.”

“My stomach felt like it had been excavated by a blow torch…”

These are sensations shared by people reflecting on unexpected emotional reactions that derailed them, causing them to do or say something they regretted. Even though they could recall the sensations later, each person said they ignored them in the moment.

Think about the last time the demands of a deadline or the impact of bad financial news triggered something inside you. Did you notice your breathing or other bodily sensations? Or did you dive into your reaction?

How you adapt to the stress caused by emotionally-charged events can determine how well you sustain yourself as a leader.

Pressures impacting sustainable leadership

The word sustainability is everywhere–usually in reference to the environment, energy, and business. Here is a definition for sustainability: pertaining to a system that maintains its own viability by using techniques that allow for continual reuse.

If you think of yourself as a system to sustain, how can you maintain your viability as a nonprofit leader when you consider that a top challenge for many leaders is knowing which fire to put out first according to a report by Bridgespan? The stress of facing constant fires is alone enough to wear a person down.

In the Daring to Lead 2011 study, many executive directors said they felt efficient in leading themselves, but the negative impact caused by the economy was another story.  Sixty-five percent (65%) of executives reported significant levels of recession-related anxiety. As one leader shared:

“I don’t know if I’d call it burnout but more panic. The 3:00 a.m. stuff for me is, my gosh, how are we going to find the money? And the feeling that it’s very personal, that it will reflect on my leadership, but also that it will affect people who are doing really amazing work—people who I don’t want to let down. More important than my own ego is that I think what I am really talking about is fear.”

YOU are the resource to sustain!

A self-sustaining organizational system has strong, organizational adaptive capacity, which includes having resources that are sustainable, adaptable and flexible, according to TCC’s sustainability formula for organizational effectiveness. Adaptive capacity is defined as “the ability of a nonprofit organization to monitor, assess, and respond to internal and external changes.”

As you come up against things that drain your energy and endurance, your capacity to adapt can feel evasive.

“In the context of a threat, real or imagined, our emotional state can rapidly shift to fear or anxiety, said Philippe Goldin. “This shift in emotional reactivity occurs in our limbic system, or our emotion brain.” We need to call on our wise mind to help sustain us as leaders. Wise mind is where adaptive capacity for leaders lives. It’s the place where reasonable mind and emotion mind overlap, where we "grasp the whole picture when only parts were understood."

Going back to the executive above, when stress, anxiety and fear take over, our rational mind tries to kick in. We think we need to leave emotions out so that we can make wise decisions. Right? Not exactly. We need both emotion and logic to make balanced decisions. Yet, wisdom can be hard to find in these moments unless we prepare ourselves to access it. The real challenge is how to develop a theory of being based on finding your wise mind so that you can sustain yourself as a leader.

Leadership Capacity

Source: Adapted from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy: Core Mindfulness Skills/Wise Mind/Experiencing Integration and Intuition, Linehan, M. 1993

How do we reach wise mind to sustain our leadership? Here’s my suggestion:

“Intentionally finding and practicing the habits and rituals that give life to our vital self, and keep us engaged with our enduring leadership vision.”

Next two installments:

Part 2: Using intention and attention to help you adapt and lead

Part 3: Becoming an emotionally intelligent leader through mindfulness.

Looking for more ways to enhance your leadership? Share resources and tips with your fellow executive directors at the February 22 ED Forum.


Amy Erickson, Capacity4Good Consulting, LLC. Amy works with people and organizations to help them achieve greater effectiveness. She is a certified Emotional Intelligence coach and consultant, specializing in building adaptive capacity. Learn more at