Women Don’t Ask

Last week I had lunch with a friend whom I have known since grammar school.  Her daughter, who will graduate from college next month, joined us after swim practice.  During lunch, we talked about her new job, which is supposed to start the day after graduation.  She had just met with her boss who informed her that she wouldn’t be on salary as they had previously agreed, but on commission.  She told us that she had said, “Okay,” and had left the meeting feeling confused and undervalued.

You might think, “This is a young woman talking to the boss of her very first job out of college. Of course she has to agree.”  But the conversation made me think about the negotiation and leadership workshops I have been giving for women (five in this past month alone). I have heard versions of this story again and again even from women who are highly accomplished in their fields.

I polled one group of tenured professors to find out what they felt when entering into a negotiation. I heard: “I’m afraid that I’m going to be seen as too pushy”; “I just know I won’t get what I want”; “I’m ashamed to ask for something I need”; “I’m always surprised that there is a negotiation”; “I wasn’t aware that I could ask for more.” Why is this?

One answer I can give is a broad generalization. The author of The Female Brain, Dr. Louanne Brizendine, says it has to do with women’s brain chemistry.*  She writes about how essential it was for women in our early cultures to be focused solely on relationships.  This was the only way to insure the survival of offspring.

We can see this today in the gender differences of childhood play.  When little girls play together, being liked is often the most important issue. Friendships suffer at the slightest hurt.  Playtime may end in tears and long-term break-ups.  This is quite different from little boys, who after a rough and tumble fight, go home arm in arm for hot chocolate.

This hyper-concern about being liked can prevent women from asking for what they want. Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever did a landmark study in 2002.**  One of their findings was that men typically ask for $4000 more during their very first salary negotiations.  This isn’t a great deal of money, but after a career’s worth of cost of living increases, raises, and job changes, it translates into nearly $1,000,000 dollars. The women they interviewed often stated that they were so happy to be liked enough to get a job they didn’t even think of asking for more.

Sadly, though, there is some truth in the fear that women who negotiate may be perceived as too pushy or aggressive, while men who negotiate are called enterprising or dynamic.  Hannah Riley Bowles of Harvard’s Kennedy School has been researching how women fare when they ask for something in the corporate or academic setting.***  Her work shows that women need to be careful in how they ask or they run the risk of being denied or characterized as difficult.

Riley Bowles has found that a change in language can change the outcome of a negotiation for women.  If a female executive asks for something for herself, even if she deserves it, it may not work.  However, if she frames her negotiation for the good of the organization, it will be easier for her to succeed.  Also, if she includes others in the request, either those who are supporting her or those who will also benefit, she’ll be perceived as a part of the team.  Riley Bowles’ results are somewhat disheartening in 2015, but her advice is useful.

I’ve discovered that prioritizing relationships also prevents women from preparing for the normal give and take of a typical negotiation.  The solution is to create a package of alternatives prior to negotiating.  If you know what your bottom line is, and ask for more, then you have options if you are denied.  Make a list: what must I have?  what can I live without? what can I ask for instead? at what point am I going to walk away?  It’s just like buying a car. You are not going to spell this all out at once, but piece by piece as the game plays out.

I couldn’t help myself at lunch.  I had to speak frankly to my friend’s daughter.  I reminded her of all the successful negotiations she has taken on in her tenure as swim team captain.   I suggested that she ask for another meeting with her boss.  I told her that she needed a clear purpose: to be paid the agreed upon salary.  I offered her ideas about what else she could ask for if he said no. I gave her language to frame her need for the good of the organization. We improvised what the give and take might sound like.

She is going to be well positioned to win.  She might even gain her boss’ respect; she will show him that she’s got the mettle to make it.  As I was speaking, I was wishing that someone had given me this kind of advice early in my career.

*Brizendine, Louanne, M.D., The Female Brain (New York: Three Rivers Press/Random House,    2006).  Special thanks to Liza Dickinson for giving me this book.

** Babcock, Linda and Sara Laschever, Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2003).

***Bowles, Hannah Riley, and Kathleen L. McGinn. 2008. “Gender in Job Negotiations:  A Two-Level Game.” Negotiation Journal (October): 393 – 410.

Dunsinane: Language and Leadership

Last month, on a very short trip to Washington, D.C., I saw Dunsinane by David Greig at the Shakespeare Theater Company.  The production and performance values were exceptional, but what thrilled me most was hearing an intellectually stimulating, highly entertaining and politically provocative new script.

The play, in this co-production of the National Theater of Scotland and the Royal Shakespeare Company, explores the relationship between language and leadership.  The plot begins where Shakespeare’s Macbeth ends: Malcolm, son of murdered King Duncan, claims the throne of Scotland.  He is a puppet of the English, whose troops are led by Siward, Earl of Northumbria. They invade Scotland and hope to bring peace after conquering Macbeth’s stronghold at Dunsinane.

Greig’s reframing turns the Macbeth myth on its head. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a villain and his death restores order.  In this play, he has ruled Scotland peaceably for years and when he is killed, chaos ensues. Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth is a childless virago who goes mad and dies.  Here, called Gruach, she is not a witch, but a powerful seductress with a lively sense of humor. Of royal lineage herself, she has ruled by her husband’s side. Her son from a previous marriage is next in line for the crown. And Malcolm isn’t of kingly stock; he seems to be a weak manipulator of words and people.

The ongoing troubled relationship between Scotland and England is woven into the plot. (Greig was one of the forty-five percent of Scottish people hoping to sever ties with Great Britain in the recent referendum.) The English invaders are unwilling to learn the Gaelic language spoken by the Scots. They disdainfully describe the local soldiers and their uniforms, the people, the politics, the food, the weather, the landscape. Misunderstandings increase, even when trying to speak a universal language of love. The Scots bring the invasion to stalemate with political maneuvers and guerrilla tactics.

As I watched and listened, I became aware that Grieg was writing about more than eleventh century Scotland or current Scottish/English antagonisms. He was writing about the failure of leadership in the coalition of western armies that invaded Iraq and Afghanistan.

The costuming, music and movement heighten this parallel.  The British troops wear the red cross of the crusades on their war torn uniforms.  I saw in these costumes the legacy of western invasions of the Middle East.  Malcolm wears a long white gown and soft slippers, clothing that could be worn by a sheik. Gruach’s serving maids wear black head coverings that look like the traditional hijab. The onstage combo plays a score with reverberations of Middle Eastern music.  The women dance with circular hand gestures that could be a part of either culture.

And then there’s the language. Grieg examines the ways language both determines and is an expression of how we see the world.  Gruach points out to Siward the simplicity of his language: “Your English is a woodworkers tool, Siward,” she says. “Hello, goodbye, that tree is green…. Always trying to describe. Throw words at the tree and eventually you’ll force me to see the tree just as you see it. We long since gave up believing in descriptions. Our language is the forest.”*

In Siward’s semantics, something either is or isn’t. Malcolm challenges this view:  “Usually the way we manage this sort of thing in Scotland is…to be very very careful about the way we hear and understand words – so for example – if a person in Scotland says ‘it seems a person has died’ we tend to hear that word ‘seems’ – ‘seems’ – and of course that word makes a difference. …it means that every discussion is fraught and people have to pussyfoot around….”*

After a crash course in clan loyalties, Siward travels through the countryside to find out where the Scottish lords stand on who should rule. Malcolm later takes him to task for not hearing what’s being said: “There are friends who say they’re friends but work against us and others who say they’re enemies but quietly help us…. And into that very delicate filigree you are putting your fist.”*

Understanding what’s at stake for each faction is an essential part of effective leadership. But if one doesn’t try to comprehend the semantic implications of the factions’ language, how can one understand the factions? Siward is surprised when events do not follow his binary thinking, just as we have been during our military and political efforts in the Middle East.

The effective leader must also know himself.  Siward is sure that he is a good and rational commander.  Again and again he insists that he is in Scotland to insure peace.  Even as he speaks these words, he orders ever more disturbing atrocities in the name of that goal.  To him, that is logic. This linguistic absolutism is at the heart of his failure.

Malcolm, however, describes his own role in the context of seems: “Do you ever ask yourself Siward if it’s possible that I might in fact  want to create the appearance of wallowing in venality? … The chiefs – they think – this king is easy – he won’t cause trouble for us – all he wants is to be left alone to enjoy his wine and his women – let him be king … better him than someone strong…. My weakness is my strength.”*

At the end of play, Siward is at loss. “What would you do – if you were me?” he asks Gruach.  She replies, “If I were you I would not be here…. I would be at home guarding my own land. Not fighting on behalf of some other man’s land. A man too weak and corrupt to hold his own land himself.”   Siward cannot let go of the word peace. “It’s in England’s interest to have peace in Scotland,” he continues. “We had peace,” Gruach replies, “until you came along…. Go home.  Don’t waste any more of your english lives here. Go home before you’re driven home…. Go.”*

David Grieg began writing Dunsinane as Saddam Hussein’s regime toppled.  He poses important questions to us now. Have we learned from our disastrous engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan how to listen?  Do we understand the semantics of what we hear?  Can we open our minds to another way of thinking? Can we shift from our either/or framework to one that encompasses the complexities of seems?

As Israel’s Netanyahu speaks to Congress, President Obama negotiates with Iran, and the loyalties in Syria become more and more difficult to parse, I hope so. Perhaps it will help us re-examine the language that drives us to spend lives and money in fruitless enterprise.

* Special thanks to Laura Henry Buda of the Shakespeare Theater Company for a copy of the script of Dunsinane by David Grieg.

Art As Political Act

On Jan. 7, 2015, four artists were gunned down by terrorists for expressing their political views through their drawings. Eight others were killed that day and four hostages during the week. What the terrorists pointed out by their heinous act is that art can challenge the status quo. Three artists whose work I have seen recently say that art must challenge the status quo.

IMG_2136Keith Haring was a street artist who painted throughout New York in the 1980s. When I walked into San Francisco’s de Young Museum, I anticipated seeing the barking dogs and radiant babies that had made him so popular. Keith Haring: The Political Line revealed a deeper vision.

This exhibit showcased his responses to challenges of his day: nuclear proliferation, racial inequality, the excesses of capitalism, environmental degradation, electronic dominance, the AIDS crisis. Art, according to Haring, “should be something that provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further.” The role of the artist, he said, is to combat injustice and inequality.

Haring’s simple lines and bright colors contrasted with the complexity and darkness of the problems he tackled. His images, painted on huge canvases, on stretched tarps, on subway billboards, on statuary and urns, were part cartoon, part nightmare. Multi-limbed figures had televisions for heads and telephones for hands. Humanoids dangled from giant mouths. Figures morphed into dogs and dogs to monsters as they hounded black men in chains. Although painted thirty years ago, these works were a vivid reminder that we are facing the same issues today.

25_89Keith Haring died of complications from AIDS in 1990. He was thirty-one years old. The last painting in the gallery showed a group of figures with their arms raised in defiance. Was it celebration? Was it anger? The purple drops seemed like tears. I left the museum thinking about what Haring accomplished in his short, prolific, and articulate life.

“The misconception of totalitarianism is that freedom can be imprisoned. This is not the case. When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill,” says Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, who was incarcerated in 2011 for speaking out against his government. Since then, he hasn’t been allowed to leave China. He developed the pieces for @Large: Ai Wei Wei on Alcatraz in his studio in Beijing; eighty volunteers assembled them on Alcatraz.

I took the boat from San Francisco to the former maximum security prison on a brisk winter day. The island is strange place with a with a long history: a Civil War fort, a jail for Southern sympathizers, a place where Native Americans who refused to attend “Normal Schools” were detained, a federal penitentiary holding some of the worst criminals in recent history, the site of Native American protest, and now, a National Park with gardens and spectacular views.

ai-with-wind-1-710x355After climbing the perimeter steps, I entered the building where convicts had been put to work. A Chinese dragon kite looks directly out of the entrance towards freedom, its body trapped by the industrial structure. Its scales are covered with quotes from people around the world who have challenged their governments with words. Bird kites beat their wings against the barred windows.

IMG_2176In the next room, brightly colored images cover the floor. Each image is the face of someone who currently is in prison for speaking out. The carpets are made of thousands of lego pieces. A printed guide tells who each person is and what their words have done.

The third installation can only be seen through the small cracked window panes of the gun gallery where guards maintained control over the prison dining area. It is a large winged creature made of Tibetan reflective cooking panels and metal tea pots. Compressed inside this space, it is seemingly wounded, unable to raise its head. Ai Wei Wei says, “If my art has nothing to do with people’s pain and sorrow, what is ‘art’ for?”

I visited the High Art Museum in Atlanta not knowing what I would get to see. Fortunately, Gordon Parks: Segregation Story was the premier exhibit.

1415915696272_wps_2_MUST_LINK_BACK_TO_SITE_htIn 1956, Life Magazine published Gordon Parks’ landmark photo essay called The Restraints: Open and Hidden. Parks, the first African American photographer hired by Life, followed three families near Mobile, Alabama as they went about their daily lives. He wanted to show images most of the country wasn’t seeing: real people facing the damaging effects of racial discrimination. Some of the pieces in the museum were from that essay; others had been discovered only after Parks’ death at ninety-three in 2006.

1415915696285_wps_4_MUST_LINK_BACK_TO_SITE_ht1415915696325_wps_10_MUST_LINK_BACK_TO_SITE_htEach large color photograph captured a prosaic event: a grandma window shops with a child, a mom takes her young daughter out, a dad buys an ice cream cone. The image is rendered in beautiful color and exquisite composition. But the seeming sweetness of the moment is set within the horrors of segregation. This juxtaposition made the exhibit deeply disturbing and powerful.

I watched a young father looking at these photographs with his three little boys. They asked him question after question about what they were seeing. I wondered what, as a black man, he was saying to his children. How would he explain our country’s history to them? I was acutely aware of my whiteness. I felt shame for our country then and shame for the people whocontinue to define worth by skin color.

Gordon Parks said, ”You know, the camera is not meant just to show misery. You can show things that you like about the universe, things that you hate about the universe. It’s capable of doing both.” This exhibit did both.

What is leadership? The ability to raise the heat on issues that need to change and the willingness to put yourself on the line to change them. Anyone from any stratum of society can lead. Artists, too, can lead, not just provide visual entertainment. In fact, artists may be the only ones who can freely shine a light on our country’s ill and the world’s oppressors.

The acts of terror in Paris last month show us the danger. It is a rare artist who has the vision and talent and courage to do this. Most of us haven’t a clue where to begin, but it may be our responsibility to learn. As Ai Wei Wei said, “Freedom is a pretty strange thing. Once you’ve experienced it, it remains in your heart, and no one can take it away. Then, as an individual, you can be more powerful than a whole country.”

Art Matters

Since leaving Harvard last spring, I’ve been presenting workshops throughout the U.S. helping folks communicate, negotiate or lead more effectively. As a result, I’ve been able to see art all over the country.

In the past four months, I’ve taken in Jeff Koon’s self-conscious creations at the Whitney Museum in New York and Andrew Wyeth’s meditations on windows at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. I happened in on René Magritte’s mysterious surrealism at the Art institute of Chicago and Andy Warhol’s rhythmic Shadows at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. I was introduced to a group of abstract artists at West Hollywood’s Louis Stern Gallery and revisited some old favorites at Indianapolis’ Eiteljorg Museum of Western Art.

Three exhibits haunt me — Keith Haring: The Political Line at The De Young Museum in San Francisco, @Large: Ai Wei Wei on Alcatraz also in San Francisco, and Gordon Parks: Segregation Story at The High Art Museum in Atlanta. I will write about these exhibits in my next blog post: Art as Political Act.

Every artist has a reason for creating their work. Karl Benjamin, the mid-20th century California artist whose work was showing at Louis Stern Gallery, says, “I think all of us are confronted with the problem of feeling whole. When you make a painting, you’re so closely identified with it that it is you, and when it’s done and it feels whole, then you feel whole as well. Otherwise, why would artists spend their entire lives painting?” His art is about his own experience, not the viewer’s. There is joy in his expression; his delight in vibrant colors and shapes was passed on to me as I viewed his work.

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Andrew Wyeth is more interested in the relationship between artist and audience. “I think most people get to my work through the backdoor,” he said. “They’re attracted by the realism and sense the emotion and the abstraction — and eventually, I hope, they get their own powerful emotion.” As I studied his paintings, I was in awe of how his watercolors dissolved into abstract brushstrokes as I drew near and then, as I stepped back, returned to interior or exterior images of windows. I felt sad, yet entranced by the austere beauty of Wyeth’s loneliness.


René Magritte denies any meaning to his art: “My painting is visible images which conceal nothing… when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question ‘What does that mean’? It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either.” He is challenging the viewer to experience a dreamscape without analysis or interpretation, to see seeing in a new way. However, he is still investigating the relationship between artist and audience. It was an interesting, fun exhibit of trompe l’oeil paintings, surprising, sometimes disturbing, all meticulously painted with a graphic designer’s skill. The installation itself was the masterpiece; as I wandered through the velvety black rooms with light pinpointed only on the paintings, it seemed as if the images were arising from my own dream world.


Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons are more cynical about their reasons for making art. Warhol said, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” Koons builds on this with, “I love the gallery, the arena of representation. It’s a commercial world, and morality is based generally around economics, and that’s taking place in the art gallery.”

However, Warhol’s exhibit Shadows at MOCA in Los Angeles is more than a commentary on pop commercialism. This installation, made up of one hundred and two paintings, is unique in his body of work because it isn’t marketable. It had never been shown in its entirety before. His repetition of a large silk screened calligraphic image under-painted and overlaid with vibrant colors was oddly moving. One curator referred to it as “visual music.” I lingered in the galleries overwhelmed by the scale, mesmerized by the rhythm and seduced by the individual panels.


The Jeff Koons’ retrospective at the Whitney was more difficult to become involved in. I felt like I was looking at the work of trickster whose success depended on the craftspeople in his factory. I questioned his insistence, heard over the recorded tour, that his intention is to get people to see everyday objects in a new way. As art critic Jed Perl wrote in the September 25, 2014 issue of The New York Review of Books, “The Whitney’s overwhelmingly middle-class audience is being told that Koons presents a sly critique of middle-class values. Of course everybody can also see that he is having his way with commercial culture — and with us.” Yet, good for him. This exhibit provoked some necessary questions: “Is this art?” “Why is this art?” and most importantly, “What IS art?”


The Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis has a different take on everyday objects as art. Instead of being blown up in size or re-made in different media, cookware, clothing, weapons, jewelry, and religious icons of the original peoples of North America are seen as they are. The Eiteljorg doesn’t exhibit these pieces as historical or cultural artifacts, but as art. Tribal areas from Alaska to Mexico, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, are represented in individual galleries.

The name of the artist is sometimes unknown, but his or her hand is clearly in evidence as the maker. The curators describe the influences on the artist as well as various methods of creating each piece. The museum is careful to note that they have partnered with artists and tribal communities to provide visitors with a sensitive perspective. I was overwhelmed by the number and beauty of the pieces on display. I loved considering that an individual artist made each one and, whether a secular or sacred object, imbued it with his or her personal touch.


All art matters. So make a New Year’s resolution to make art. Make art that makes you feel whole. Make art that makes others feel whole. Make art that gets us to see in new ways and question our seeing. Make art daily and make it for daily use. Make art that makes money or make art that doesn’t. Make art in any way you can: paint, sing, dance, tell a story, write a poem, design a cake, plant a garden. Making art makes us all better human beings.

Next Month: Art As Political Act

Why Stories Work

A few weeks ago I met with a group who had been getting together once a month for the past year to study leadership. My topic — storytelling. After a dinner filled with richly detailed and delightfully funny stories, the evening session began. I heard these nervous comments: “I’m not a good story teller.” “I don’t have any stories.” “I never tell stories.”

We have been telling stories ever since our beginnings around the camp fire. Someone might tell a story about how the hunt went or where to gather food. Stories kept traditions alive and helped make sense of the natural world.

Today we are overwhelmed with stories from news, sports, business and entertainment. Facebook is an endlessly fascinating forum of mini-stories. We tell and re-tell the stories of movies and plays.

I’m curious about why stories work. Every time we hear a story or share a story, the gap that separates us from each other seems to lessen. Why is this so? What is it that diminishes the distance between your self and my self?

One theory of how people receive information divides our mental processing into three areas: ear, eye, body. For example, the musician who hears a piece of music in order to play it is using the aural center. The musician who reads music is processing the notes though the visual center. The musician who feels her fingers on the keys is focused on the kinaesthetic experience.

A story wakes up all three modes. The sound of the words activates the aural receptors. Visual processing comes alive when a storyteller paints a picture with images. When a speaker uses gesture, the listener experiences the story physically.

This happens because our mirror neurons are firing. Mirror neurons are the brain synapses that help us feel what others are feeling. They do this by mimicking movement that the eyes sees. Sometime your body actually moves, sometime the movement is only in your brain. You have experienced this at the theater. You know you are sitting in a seat. If the actors are doing their jobs well, you soon forget that. You begin to experience the action of the play as if you were on stage yourself. A story is literally felt by the listener in the same way.

Neuroscientists are also now discovering that we have other brains, not just the ones in our heads. Our other brains, the ones in our guts and hearts, are directly affected by hearing a powerful story. We feel where the story touches us before calling upon our head brains to make sense of it. When television journalist Bill Moyers asked the renowned scholar Joseph Campbell, “Why does it seem that these stories tell me what I know inside is true,” Campbell replied, “You’ve got the same body, with the same organs and energies, that Cro-Magnon man had thirty thousand years ago…. The brain is one of the organs.”*

If the purpose of leadership is to help people work together in times of uncertainty, stories are essential. By revealing ourselves through a story, we let our listeners know that we have experienced what they are going through. “In a sense, all of us walk around with a text from which to teach, the text of our own lives,” writes Marshall Ganz of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

We might feel vulnerable or exposed when we share a personal story. Yet when we speak specifically and personally, our listeners respond with embodied cognition, a physical and emotional understanding of our common human experience. We aren’t stuck in the left-brain’s analytical abstraction. “A story communicates fear, hope, and anxiety, and because we can feel it, we get the moral not just as a concept, but as a teaching of our hearts,” continues Ganz.**

Back to the leadership group. I asked the person who seemed most terrified to come to the front of the room to share her story. She was shaking. She clutched her hands in front her. Her eyes, which were filling with tears, avoided the audience. I asked her to look directly into others’ eyes. I helped her release her hands so she could use gestures. I encouraged her to play with the voice and words of the characters. She began to re-experience the details of the story. As the story filled her, she filled the room.

This is an excerpt of the e-mail I received from her a few days later:

I started my presentation out away from the podium and my comfort zone, hands at my side, making eye contact.  And I shared a story (complete with gestures and voices) about my family that related to the topic I was presenting.  I made a connection – it was a topic that is normally hard to get people to connect with and I was able to do it because I brought it down to simple life terms – using a story.
And throughout the presentation, I talked in stories instead of my usual method of talking about processes and technical jargon.  At one point I shared a little anecdote from my ride up there that related to a point I was trying to make, and the entire room laughed out loud!!  That has never happened!

As I talked with people after my presentation here’s what I heard: “You’re my kind of people – I really appreciate how you helped me understand the issue by relating it to your family and kids.” Nancy, this cannot be ME they are describing.  ME?  The awful storyteller?

The connection that storytelling makes is not just one of words, ideas or facts. It’s a deeper connection, one that works on both the storyteller and the listener. It awakens our senses, our bodies, and our hearts. No matter who we are, or what we do for a living, we long for that kind of engagement. We want to experience, to feel, to laugh, to cry, and perhaps even be inspired to change our behaviors, manage our losses, or see the world through a different lens.

*Campbell, Joseph, with Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1988. 37 – 39.

**Ganz, Marshall. “Why Stories Matter: The Art and Craft of Social Change.” Sojourners: 2008. www.sojo.net.

Change Your Language — Change Your Life

A friend of mine, who is in his early seventies, rides his bicycle hundreds of miles a week. He kayaks in the Atlantic Ocean and snowshoes in the mountains of New Hampshire. He has a twinkle in his eye. And he published his latest book last year.

He sent me an article from the New York Times about the work of Ellen Langer, the Harvard psychology professor whose experiments on the power of the mind to affect health and performance have been shaking up many preconceived notions.*

In an early experiment, she sequestered a group of senior citizens in a monastery. There were no mirrors, nor comparisons to young people. The stories they told were to be only about their younger selves. At the end of the week, the subjects “were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller… their sight improved. Independent judges said they looked younger.” Langer told the interviewer that they “put their minds in an earlier time,” and their bodies went along for the ride.**

The writer outlines a number of other Langer experiments. In one, she discovered that nursing-home residents showing early stages of memory loss did better on memory tests when they were given a reason to remember. What had been considered mental deterioration was actually indifference. In another, office workers complied with a nonsensical interdepartmental memo because it looked like an official memo. Habitual mind patterns got in the way of actual observation. In a third, subjects were fooled into thinking they had more or less sleep than they actually did. Short-term memory and reaction time varied depending on what the subjects thought, regardless of how long they had actually slept.

Langer’s experiments with self-perception are even more compelling. Hotel maids reported that they didn’t get enough exercise in a typical week. The researchers told the experimental group that cleaning rooms was significant exercise. With this change in mind set, those maids lost weight. The control group didn’t. The only difference was the change in how they perceived themselves in their work. She posited in another trial that diabetics’ blood-glucose levels would spike and dip according to the subjects’ expectations, exactly what her data proved. Does that mean there might be a different approach to diabetes?

Langer says, “You change a word here or there, and you get vastly different results.”** In other words, if the mind can make things better, it might also have the power to make things worse. In an unpublished study from 2010 she discovered that breast-cancer survivors who used the words in remission to describe themselves were less functional, less healthy and in more pain than those who used the word cured. She is currently engaged in a longer study to examine and possibly reverse the effects of negative language on Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer patients.

I have experienced Langer’s theories working in my own life in both mundane and profound ways. The weekend before my first appearance in my first play as a first year acting student at the American Conservatory Theater (I was playing Madge in Picnic directed by Danny Davis), I was so anxious I couldn’t sleep. My heart was skipping beats and I felt as if I was jumping out of my skin. My panic was so great I didn’t know if I could even step on stage. Someone recommended taking hot baths. A friend gave me a Valium to calm me down. But the solution that worked was given to me by another actor. “Nancy,” he said, “change your language. Let go of the words ‘I don’t know IF I can do this.’ Think instead ‘HOW do I BEST do this.’” That advice has been with me ever since.

Five years ago, my husband was admitted to the hospital for an emergency quadruple coronary bypass. That first night when I saw him attached by tubes to a heart-lung machine in the ICU, a million fearful thoughts overwhelmed me. I was paralyzed. I knew I had to manage my mind-set. I would have been debilitated for what was to come when I needed to be fully present.

I happened, coincidentally, to be reading a book called The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles by Dr. Bruce H. Lipton.*** Lipton researches how cells receive and process information. His results imply that cells may be controlled not only by DNA but also by the energetic messages emanating from our positive and negative thoughts. He believes, as does Langer, that our bodies can be changed as we retrain our thinking. As I sat by Al in the ICU for hours and hours, I focused my mind on seeing his cells healing. And Al was doing the same from inside his fog of physical trauma and pain medication. He told me later that he was thinking, “I could just let go right now. It would be easy. But I’m not going to. I don’t want to make Nancy a widow.”

I’ve discovered that ANY positive thought can supplant a cycle of negative thinking. Try it right now. Think of a wonderful moment in your life. See and smell and taste and feel and touch the details in your mind. Does your face open in a smile? Does your heart rate slow down? Can you feel a big breath fill your body? If you notice a swarm of automatic negative thoughts (ANTS) beginning to overtake your mind, stop. Replace them with this wonderful moment. Your metabolism will change; your energy will shift.

The days, week, and months that followed Al’s surgery were not without challenge. But underlying every moment was a solid belief that he would fully recover. Which he did. Each day, the sentence wasn’t, “I don’t know if I can do this.” It was “HOW do we BEST do this.”

Langer is well aware that people might blame themselves if a change in language fails to change their lives. Of course, things happen. Time passes; people have emergency surgery; careers change. But, Griersonoct writes, “Langer imagines a day when blame isn’t the first thing people reach for when things go awry. Instead, we will simply bring to bear the power of our own minds — which she believes will turn out to be far greater than we imagined.”**

So I thought I’d try a small experiment of my own this week. Lately, when I’ve been going to the gym to work out, I’ve been watching the cross-fit athletes training in an adjacent room. I realized that I’d been thinking things like, “I’m not in shape. I could never do that. I’m not getting enough exercise. I’m losing my fitness, etc.” I had forgotten that essential sports psychology adage: if the mind can conceive it, the body can achieve it. Today, I said to myself, “Change your language, Nancy.” My new words were, “I’m in fantastic shape. I get plenty of exercise.” I automatically increased distance, heart rate, and level on the recumbent bicycle and added weight and reps on all the machines. I was both surprised and not surprised.

It made me think about the subtle, and sometimes bold, negative words that can invade our minds every day. Notice them. Then change them. Ask, “HOW do I BEST do this?” See healing. Think of your favorite moments. Carry these new thoughts with you. Try this in the little moments, so that you are ready for the big ones. Change your language; change your life.


*Her books are the following:
Langer, Ellen J. Mindfulness. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1989.
Langer, Ellen J. The Power of Mindful Learning. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1997.
Langer, Ellen J. On Becoming an Artist. New York: Ballantine Books, 2005.
Langer, Ellen J. Counter Clockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. New York: Ballantine Books, 2009.

**Griersonoct, Bruce. “What if Age Is Nothing but a Mind-Set?” New York Times Magazine/The Health Issue 22 Oct. 2014. Print & online.

***Lipton, Bruce H. The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles. 2nd ed. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc., 2011.

Of the People, By the People, For the People

The Center on Budget & Policy Priorities is an unusual organization. Located in Washington, D.C., the group researches and analyzes how government decisions will affect the poor and deeply poor. Its goal is to shape the debate on fiscal and tax policies that touch the lives of people in the U.S. who are struggling to survive.

The D.C. Center coordinates the State Priorities Partnership, a group of forty one state-level organizations working to promote broad prosperity across the nation. The Partnership member in Boston is the Massachusetts Budget & Policy Center which focuses on data specific to the people of my former home state.

I have been working with the Washington and Boston centers for nearly a decade to help their analysts speak more confidently and convincingly. Not only do they present to legislators, but also to the media, to board members, to local activists, to religious organizations, and to groups of young people interested in government.

Early this September, I met with new staff from the state groups who were in Washington, D.C. for a week of training. I followed that up with a workshop for the team in Boston. Every time I work with these two groups, I learn shocking details about what is happening to the people on the lowest economic rungs of our country. I also learn shocking details about how the 1% continues to gain dominance of the economic picture.

I was coaching a young man from Louisiana, one of five states that has no minimum wage law. He had the requisite PowerPoint slides showing the timeline of the federal minimum wage, a comparison to other states’ minimum wage requirements, the economic growth indicators of states with higher minimum wage requirements, the population breakdown of who is most likely to be earning minimum wage.

Of course, the numbers are important. For example, in Louisiana the greatest percentage of minimum wage earners are women of color, typically raising children as single parents. But how does that become real for the audience? What is it like to work forty hours a week at the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour; to feed, clothe and send kids to school on $290 a week (what some people pay to get a hair cut); to work a full time job and still be at the federal poverty level of $15,000 year? I asked him to put a face to the numbers. Create a person with a name and an age and her kids with names and ages and all of them with hopes and dreams. Let us feel what it’s like for this woman to work as hard as she can and still need public assistance.

In Massachusetts, there is no law protecting a worker who needs to take time off because he or she is too sick to work or because it is necessary take care of a sick child or parent. One in three workers do not have access to “earned paid sick time” and could be fired for missing work to get well or to care for a family member. A newly hired analyst was preparing to speak on this topic to the board of the Massachusetts Budget & Policy Center. It would be her first introduction to a team of community leaders, academics, and former elected officials. Despite her education and polish, she was exceptionally nervous.

So out came the PowerPoint slides comparing various factors of economic growth in states that do have this kind of protection for workers to states that don’t. The comparative costs to the health care system when workers use emergency room services because they cannot make a workday appointment with a clinic or a doctor. She got more and more nervous as more and more slides came up, losing track of what she really wanted to say. Great data, but….

I asked her if she knew anyone who had been in this kind of situation. She paused. Her eyes got wide and she took a few big gulps of air. Then she told the story of her own mother, a Cuban immigrant to Boston, a single parent, who worked three jobs in order to provide for her daughter. She told of how her mom was too scared to take a day off for fear she’d lose her job. She told of how she would have to go to school when she was sick because there was no one to take care of her. Her voice grew strong and her confidence bloomed as she was telling this story. The data became an afterthought; she had lived this. We got it.

Another woman was preparing to speak on a panel at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank dedicated to the principles of free enterprise, limited government, and individual freedom. The topic of discussion was “corporate inversion.” She was an expert on this. She knew the regulations inside and out. She was ready to debate the four other panel members, who were all male, ultra-conservative pro-corporate speakers. After she practiced her opening remarks outlining the regulations, I reminded her that, other than the four panel members, the rest of the audience members wouldn’t be experts in the field. Why not turn “corporate inversion” into a story.

Which she did: the story of the pharmaceutical company Pfizer. It purchases a small company in London. It merges with that company so that headquarters can now be located in the UK. It then outsources all of its income to offshore tax havens, which is legal under UK law. Pfizer’s worldwide tax rate drops to to zero. Yet Pfizer employs tens of thousands of people in the United States, working in research, manufacturing and distribution. The corporation uses the roads, schools, police, firefighters, clean air, clean water, and all the other government infrastructure that our taxes fund. Yet it pays no taxes at all to the United States. I could now understand the issue, as could the bigger audience she was trying to reach.

Finding the right story, whether a hypothetical example, a personal journey, or a corporate history, is an essential part of persuasive speaking. But there is more to this story than that. On my last day at the Boston center, a presenter was speaking about state taxes. Although many people call Massachusetts “Tax-achusetts,” it actually ranks near the middle of all the states for combined state and local taxes. My new home state of Oregon, which has no sales tax, ranks lower.

I said, “This is causing them real problems in funding basic services.” A member of the team said, “You mean causing us real problems.” I replied, “I meant the government.” He smiled at me and said, “We are the government.”

I got it. He wasn’t talking about the data analysts at the center. He was talking about each of us. We are the government.

I know that it feels hopeless when decisions made in Washington seem so out-of-touch with the reality of life. Or when we are so busy making ends meet ourselves that time to focus on policy change appears impossible. But there are things that we can do. You don’t have to use official channels. You can help someone to present more clearly and persuasively about things that matter politically. You can seal envelopes for or donate money to an organization. You can speak up in a school board meeting. You can make sure that you are informed. You can read and study and listen. Engage in conversation. Join. Canvas. Vote.

Remember, we are government for the people, by the people and OF the people.

Find Your Real Voice

Last week I watched the film In a World…. It’s a gem of a movie that my colleagues, friends and former students have been insisting I see for months. Lake Bell, writer, director and star of the comedy, captures a segment of Los Angeles film production that the characters take very seriously: the competitive world of recording movie trailer voice-overs.

Ms. Bell plays a struggling vocal coach, Carol Solomon, who ultimately wins a major contract to voice the trailers for an upcoming film series called The Amazon Games. It was interesting to hear her vocal change for the trailer voice-over audition. She released her jaw, dropped the back of her tongue, and created a more resonant space inside her mouth in an imitation of the male voices, her father’s in particular, that dominate the genre.

And even more interesting to me was the through-line of Carol’s vocal coaching business. In the final scene of the film, Carol is holding a class for women who wish to deepen their voices. After one woman reveals in a squeaky high-pitched voice that she is a corporate lawyer, Carol compares her vocal production to that of a “sexy baby.”

Philosophically, I believe that all voices are valuable and beautiful. But it is often necessary to code switch from one kind of voice to another to fit into a a culture different from our own. (If most people spoke with a “sexy baby” voice, we might be longing to sound that way ourselves.) We unconsciously change our pitch, tone and placement, as well as vocabulary and pronunciation, based on who we are talking to and what we want to accomplish. Vocal training helps give options to ask and answer, “What kind of voice is best to fulfill the task at hand?”

The “sexy baby” voice has three distinct components: a continuing rise at end end of each phrase, glottal fry (the crackly sound made when air flow is restricted) on elongated vowels, and placement that cuts off the lower frequencies, in other words, a tight voice. If you wish to change your voice, or help someone change theirs, the following are some ideas of how to do that.

The continuing rise, “uptick” as it is currently called, is an upward inflection at the end of a phrase. We need the upward inflection in American English to indicate that we aren’t finished speaking a series of words or ideas. We use another kind of upward inflection to let people know that we are asking a question. When a thought is complete, we use a downward inflection or “end-stop.” When the continuing rise is used at the end of every phrase, it becomes difficult to know if a sentence has ended.

This vocal pattern is somewhat gendered and somewhat generational, in other words, used by primarily by young women. The questioning quality of the “uptick” creates a sense of uncertainty, or a quality of asking permission to continue. But it’s not only young American-born females who use this pattern. Other languages have a continuing rise embedded in their inflection. For example, Scandinavian speakers of English sound like they are asking questions because of the inflection of their native languages, a pattern that has influenced the regional dialects of the Upper Heartland (Upstate New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas.)

The melodic pattern of how American English is spoken in the dominant culture is just like the toss of a tennis ball. The ball starts upward in its arc and then lands solidly in the receiver’s hands. You can physicalize the melody of a sentence with a game of catch, first with just an elongated “ahhh,” then your name, then a sentence. I suggested to a young Pakistani woman who was preparing to defend her PhD that she practice her presentation throwing a tennis ball against a wall for each sentence. She did. Her research didn’t change. What did change was how the team of professors heard her.

Glottal fry is a little more difficult to alter. If you limit your breath to a tiny stream and make the back of your throat tight, you can create a crackly voice on the vowels of each word. Essentially, the vocal folds are hitting each other rather than vibrating smoothly. Communication seems to be restricted. I have heard any number of exceptionally intelligent Harvard undergraduate women use this vocal pattern, not even aware that they are restricting their voices in this way. Even Lake Bell, as she is speaking in Carol’s non-recording voice, has a strong glottal fry.

Why is this production problematic? It has to do with mirror neurons, I believe. Mirror neurons are the synapses in the brain that allow us to feel what others are feeling by internally and unconsciously mimicking their outward physical action and therefore their inner emotional content. When we are in the presence of someone who is restricting their breath, we do the same. We then experience the holding back of communication that the glottal fry engenders. We subtly feel a lack of connection.

How to change this? I start with what I call “hot potato breath.” Imagine that you have just eaten a potato that is too hot. It’s resting on your tongue and you must cool it with your breath. Then slowly add in vowel sounds. Gradually build up to actually throwing your vowels across the room with a gesture — again, the tennis ball trajectory can describe the journey of your voice. Lengthen the vowel so it continues until it lands at some distance. Then it’s time to practice phrases and sentences landing them further and further away from you.

The third aspect of the “sexy baby” voice is not just its pitch, but how tight it is. You can see the facial tension in the taut smile of the corporate lawyer in In A World…. I can hear the tension in the back of her tongue and tightness in the soft palate. All of these contribute to her high pitch. She is using a tiny space for resonance that doesn’t allow any of the lower frequencies in.

Why do we respond so strongly? I think it’s not only an audio response, but a physical one as well. When someone speaks in a truly relaxed resonant voice we actually feel the vibrations on our skin and in our bones. I’ll never forget sitting in a small wood-floored room at the American Conservatory Theater years ago listening to James Earl Jones speak. It wasn’t his words or his presence that made it memorable. It was feeling his voice through the soles of my feet.

In a delightful sequence earlier in the movie, the three competitors for The Amazon Games trailer voice-over job are getting ready. They are stretching their tongues, blowing through their lips, and shaking their faces. Of course, as a voice professional, I’m both laughing at and delighted with this preparation. This segment of the film is a course in how to get the voice to relax. And this relaxation offers more space inside the mouth, more breath, and therefore more resonance.

The point is not that women need to sound like men. The point is that we need to claim our space with our voices. I’d like to use Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren as an example. Her voice is light, slightly breathy, and somewhat high-pitched, what one might characterize as a typically feminine voice. Yet when she speaks, she is powerful because of her openness, intent and clarity.

We, too, can can do this. Use a strong downward inflection when you need to make a point. Send your energy forward and land what you want to communicate. And then speak with the relaxed resonance that gives your communication both freedom and the power to touch others.

Self and Role

Thursday, July 31, 2014, was the last official day of my Harvard contract. My e-mail address no longer has “harvard.edu” attached to it. I no longer have an office at the Loeb Drama Center. I have passed along my syllabi and schedules to my successor. My office computer, from which I have cleared all vestiges of my existence, has been turned in.

If I am not the Head of Voice & Speech at the American Repertory Theater/Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University, who am I? If I equate myself with that role, I’m in for big trouble.

Let me tell you the story of this past week. Monday morning, I met with the person who was hired, after an arduous national search, to replace me. She wanted to know as much as she could about what I had done in the classroom, how I had organized the programs I headed, and how best to navigate the political complexities of the theater organization. I found myself speaking in the present tense: “I teach this; I do that; I approach it this way.” I had to correct myself: “I taught this; I did that; I approached it this way.” As we parted, the nascent tears in my eyes took me aback.

I wanted to take a quick look at my former office. There was an odd padlock on the door, but my key still worked. I entered. The bookshelves I had cleared for my successor were gone, as were the collected works of Shakespeare I had left as a gift. The computer speakers I had purchased for dialects class were nowhere in sight. The file cabinet with supplies I had organized for her was missing. No folded mats. No Physio balls. Even the the space heaters, essential, as anyone who has spent a winter at 64 Brattle Street knows, had disappeared. Instead, the room was jammed with makeup tables and mirrors, costume racks, extra chairs, three paper mache rhinoceros heads, and the leftover food and detritus from an undergraduate production of an Ionesco play.

This space had been my safe little hideaway since 1997. It was no longer. It had seen good voice work, deep conversations, not a few tears, many meals, naps on those folded voice mats when the days became too long, and hours of creative research. I had to speak harshly to myself: “Nancy, it’s just stuff. If it’s gone, it’s gone. It is NOT who you are. It is not your self.”

No wonder I dreamed that night I was still performing the role of Josie Hogan in Eugene O’Neill’s Moon for the Misbegotten, a play with one of the most agonizing farewells in modern theater. (During the twenty years before I was hired by Harvard I had been an actor, and Josie had been my life for the better part of one of them.) In this disturbing dream, I was back in the dressing rooms of San Francisco’s Magic Theater giving a competitor all the details of how to replace me, even though I wasn’t finished with the role.

The Adaptive Leadership model (Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky’s radical approach to leading change) speaks about how dangerous it is to equate who you are with the role that you are playing when exercising leadership. Actors know this trap well. If you are actively creating the given circumstances of a play eight hours a day for weeks of rehearsal and months of performance, it’s hard to shake the characteristics and relationships delineated in the script. If the characters are at odds, the actors become at odds, too. Sometimes, actors fall in love if they are in love in the play. When the show closes, they sadly find out that they were in love with each other’s role, not the real person.

It’s also difficult for an actor to separate self from role when the reviews come out. An actor must work to remind herself that the theater critic is seeing the performance of a play, not evaluating ordinary daily life. Every actor has experienced how emotionally devastating it is to feel that a reviewer’s negative words are a personal attack. Or if an actor believes that a critic’s praise is a true assessment of her being, the distortion of self can be troubling. Keeping self distinct from role helps with understanding that the reviewer is voicing an opinion about the actor’s performance of a role with a director within a script within the production as a whole.

The actor’s life is a never-ending, sometimes frustrating, experience of how mutable our roles are. Commitment to a role might last one day or one year. Although every actor dreams of a huge success, when a play performs for many seasons, the hunger to move on to the next project begins to rumble. “I’m getting stale; I need to do something different,” an actor might say to describe the feeling of becoming too identified with a particular role.

How does this apply to leadership? I see it two ways. First, the exhilaration of being in the throes of action is intoxicating. The hard work, the partnerships, the strategies, the risks, all contribute to a sense of meaning. It’s easy to get sucked into thinking that the persona you are creating is YOU. But it’s not. It’s just something that you are doing right now. When you accomplish your goal in helping to facilitate change, you are done.

The second is a healthy defense against taking things personally. If you can see that people are responding to the role that you are playing, not to you, you can strengthen your sense of self. You might meet with resistance, perhaps vehement or even cruel, to the ideas you are proposing. Know that the resistance isn’t against YOU, it’s against the function you are inhabiting. Conversely, you might receive inordinate praise for your work. It’s seductive to believe that this praise is about you, when it’s actually about how successfully you are fulfilling people’s needs in the role you are playing.

As my last week at Harvard progressed, I observed how my relationships were changing. I had a glass of wine with an astrophysicist I had coached; we could now be friends. I had lunch with a department chair; we could enjoy ourselves in a new way. I coached an architect; I had a new status as a free-lance consultant. And sadly, I experienced a former graduate student no longer acknowledging me. I could feel the fetters of my old role drop away, some comfortably, some not.

On my last day on campus I returned to the theater to drop off my empty computer. At first the conversation with my former colleagues was a little stilted. They didn’t quite know what role I was in anymore. I didn’t quite know either. But then something shifted and we were talking in a new way — less formal, less guarded, more available.

I took a slow walk through Harvard Yard. I noticed the shiny good luck toe of John Harvard’s statue and the unchanging stone steps of Widener Library. I saw new bright colored chairs dotting the shaded lawns and crowds of young people taking smart phone photos. When I arrived at my host’s home, I stood on the back deck under an ancient spreading tree and raised my arms to the sky. “I did it!” I shouted. “I’m back to being me.”

Breathing In Summer

Stop. Right now. Drop your shoulders. Drop them again — they will let go even more.  Lengthen the back of your neck. Let your jaw release and your mouth hang open. Uncross your legs. Let your belly release.  Let your body sink into your chair. Let your lungs fill with air.  What do you feel? What do you hear? What do you sense?

Even on my most relaxed summer days, I find it easy to stay braced against the world.  My mind is whirling with things to do, ideas to examine, words, words, words.  Do I stop to breathe the world in?  Can I see and hear and smell and taste and touch the beauty of each day?  Can I experience my non-words self? Can I fully experience others?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the essence of theater training and how to incorporate it into helping people exercise leadership. Theater training for leadership usually centers around creating charismatic speakers. It’s a mistake, however, to imagine that charisma can provide the depth and facility that true leadership demands.  

A good actor hopes to listen with all senses open. This isn’t a simple task. The multiple times an actor says the same words and responds to the same lines can cause her brain to go on automatic pilot. Interchanges become mechanical repetitions, neither person hearing the other’s words. If the actor is unsure of her lines, her only concern may be calling up the words, cutting off any ability to hear what’s coming in.  The actor’s mind may be also distracted by questions, concerns, fears, mistakes, self-judgments, or irrelevant observations so that it cannot stay focused on anything else. What do actors do to bring listening back to a lively and present state?

Stop.  Drop your shoulders.  Release your belly.  Let your jaw go.  Allow a big breath to expand your ribcage.

In life, we are often too busy judging the content of what someone is saying, or framing a fantastic response, to really hear what’s being said. We might even be holding our breath to better focus on our own thinking, which keeps the body defended against really hearing.

A full breath expands our sensory awareness.  Listening the actor’s way gives us a chance to hear “the song beneath the words,” allowing the sub-text (the intent or emotion behind the words) to be perceived. We can learn to listen more fully by learning to breathe more fully. We are literally breathing each other in by taking in the air around us.

But then a problem arises. Actors are taught to respond spontaneously with their instinctual selves. If an actor pauses to reflect, she may be told, “Don’t decide how to say the line, just say the line.” This unfiltered response may be a liability in exercising leadership.  

A full breath can access a trustworthy physical response. We must learn to recognize that impulsive reaction, mentally investigate the loyalties that prompted it, negotiate with those loyalties, and then choose the most appropriate words and tone.  Most of us err on the side of the actor, causing us to speak words that we might later regret. 

How do we train to be both present with others and available to ourselves?  How do we learn to listen fully, investigate our reactions, and then choose the text and manner of delivery that will move our leadership work forward? Breathing is the first step. Taking at least one deep breath between reaction and action gives us that essential moment of contemplation.

Again, drop your shoulders.  Let your hands be soft.  Let go of your belly.  Soften your lips and your brow.  Soften your eyes.  Let your jaw drop and allow the air to fill your back.  What do you sense behind you?

Performing in a play is like a long moving meditation, where the mind is focused on the immediate present. Worrying about what’s next or lingering on what just happened is a distraction. Actors bring their performance energy to this one task:  existing moment-to-moment within the confines of their role. This mindful presence is a wonderful skill and breathing is at its center.

Unlike a performer, however, in the exercise of leadership one must try to see as much of the picture as possible. If an actor thinks in this way, she may be accused of having a director’s mind. The successful stage director quickly, easily and frequently traverses the gap between action and observation, moving from intimate conversation with each actor to seeing a broad view of the production. 

Leadership action needs to combine both actors’ and directors’ skills: to be focused and present, yet able to see behind the scenes.  She can then perceive what factions are in play, what’s at stake for each faction, and who is allied with whom. Director Robert Woodruff calls this kind of mindfulness “having soft eyes.”  Breathing in the world around us is the core.

Do it now.  Breathe.  Feel the back of your neck open.  Feel your feet on the floor. Breathe.  Can  you feel your awareness expand as your body expands?

Revealing oneself in public night after night is a high-risk activity. Every actor has a personal ritual of transformation prior to performance to manage this risk.  Some do a physical or vocal warm-up. Others may listen to music or review the text as they slowly change into costume.  Some do a set of push-ups or joke around with the crew.  A small sacred space separates the concerns of daily life from the events to come onstage. 

In leadership, this bulwark is often missing. We run from one meeting to another, prepare a talk on the fly, react to events without thinking, letting the stress of leading take a toll on both body and mind. This is where the nitty-gritty of actor training can really assist in act of leading: the body can be prepared, the mind cleared, and the focus reset on the tasks to come.  And it all comes down to taking time to breathe.

I don’t need to be in the hurly-burly of my professional life to do this.  I don’t need to be teaching or leading or performing.  I can practice this daily.  It’s not hard.

I can stop.  Notice my tensions.  Let them go. Watch my mind’s distractions disappear as I come back to the present.  See the world around me. Breathe it in.  Experience me.  Experience the sky and the wind and my husband. 

Be in the garden.