What I Don’t Say

December 2nd, 2015

She’s whispering her name, twirling the loops on her too heavy coat. No one can hear her. Why doesn’t she speak up? Let them hear your voice my daughter. It’s a smart and kind voice and the world needs to hear it. She has stopped talking now and no one can tell if she is done or if she even started. Soon after, the class begins to applaud. Oh my god, they are clapping for my children. Tears spring up from deep inside my heart. The introductions are over, they are sitting in their desk in a row, and it’s time for Brady and me to walk away. I look at the director and all I say is “mi corazon” with my hand to my heart and her eyes look teary too.

Outside our home on first day of school. Not in uniform yet, but dressed as close as possible.

Outside our home on first day of school. Not in uniform yet, but dressed as close as possible.

I am a little girl again, going to another new school. There is a sea of unfamiliar faces and I put my head down on my desk and suck my thumb. The little boy sitting across my table tells me he can see me and he knows I am sucking my thumb like a baby. I was wishing to be invisible, to disappear into the wooden table, the laminate floor, down into the dark of the earth where it’s cool and quiet.

Now I am a woman. I am delivering my children to a catholic school in a small town in Ecuador, where almost no one speaks English. They are walking bravely, following my lead; we’re all pretending to be courageous. I tap into our shared U.S. history. Young black children being marched into white schools during the days of desegregation. Old white people yelling at them to go away. Police feebly protecting them. Their innocent faces steeled against an angry community and hundreds of years of unbelievable violence and oppression. I call upon the spirit and incredible strength of those children. I see their faces and I know if they could do that, then my kids can certainly do this.

We prepared for school and I say too many things. Here is a water bottle with filtered water. Here is a baggie with baby wipes so you can clean yourself when you use the toilet. Use them on your hands too if there is no running water. Here is a dollar so you can buy a snack. If you can’t figure out how to do it, then please take this granola bar that I bought at Trader Joe’s in Oregon. Take this soccer ball and give it to your teacher as a gift. I think what you are wearing is fine; I know it’s not the uniform, but we only found out less than 24 hours ago that you could start school today. If you need to go to the bathroom, say “Puedo usar el baño” and since you don’t know any adults’ names call them “señor” and “señora”. You can always say “no entiendo” when you don’t understand something. Remember, if kids laugh, it’s because they are nervous and excited too, it doesn’t always mean they are laughing AT you. I am proud of you.

Breakfast at 6 AM on first day of Ecuadorian school.

Breakfast at 6 AM on first day of Ecuadorian school.

What I don’t say is that I couldn’t sleep last night because anxiety took up too much space in my bed. Doubt was wrestling with my sleep muscle and one is certainly more practiced performing in new environments than the other. What I don’t say is how much I had to let go of control last night, actively feeling my powerlessness and consciously surrendering to the world. I sat in the visceral awareness that I have no option but to trust that there is a plan in place that I did not write and that there is a good steward of this plan. What I don’t say is that my love for my kids is the marrow in my bones.

Children pave the way for us. They open their hearts to the world and show us how.

The school. Each building houses a classroom or two.

The school. Each building houses a classroom or two.


School Grounds

School Grounds

I Am About to Fall Off the Edge of the Earth

December 1st, 2015

I am standing in the middle of the earth and feel that I am going to fall off the edge. There’s something about walking up to the brink of an entirely uncertain situation and peering out toward the experience that makes a person weak in the knees and queasy in the gut.

The view from my bedroom window this morning

The view from my bedroom window this morning

Today we visited the school here in Mindo. We walked amongst many children in uniforms, hustling up hill toward the gated entrance to the school. After asking permission from the guard, we entered the grounds composed of concrete buildings with pictures of the pope painted on the outside walls. We were here to learn about enrolling the kids in school.

The first man we spoke with had a warm expression and tidy appearance and he welcomed us into a large and simply furnished room. We explained our situation and asked for admission for the children. He seemed surprised, though interested and willing. He then brought in a woman, who looked quite stunned and hesitant. We mentioned our Ecuadorian friend and Mindo-contact, Nelly Patiño, hoping that the ground work she had laid for us via e-mail a few months earlier may clear the way. After we explained our intention and they figured out what grades the children, we were told that indeed, the children could attend school there. Yes! We’re in!

I was asked to write the kids’ names and ages on a piece of blank paper and I handed it over. I was told to drop them off promptly by 7 and return to get them at 12:30. As we walked away from the school, one of my children was in tears and the other two had lumps in their throats. I may have floated my way out of there; floating like a rafter on swift moving water without a paddle, not floating on endorphins.

Slightly dazed, we walked to the store that would hopefully sell us the requisite uniforms, but it was closed. We asked for information from a woman who was sweeping the street in front of a building nearby. She was 5’0”, had almost no top teeth, and was wearing a t-shirt with the pope’s picture. She was genuinely happy to meet us and though we didn’t learn much about why the store was closed, we did learn that she used to live in Loja, she is scared to swim in the river here during the winter, and she thinks my kids are going to have stories of Mindo to share when they return home.  I only caught 40% of what she said, and I laughed heartily when she laughed (which was often). I think she is a wise woman and she certainly put a smile on my face.

We took a pit stop for a coke. Not eco-tourism, but instant energy.

We took a pit stop for a coke. Not eco-tourism, but instant energy.

Once there was no more task before us to occupy our minds, we had no choice but to return to the angst of tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow my children walk along the precipice between security and danger. Tomorrow they walk into a school where they know no one and don’t speak the language. The anxiety settles back in like a rock in my tummy and a leak in my heart.

I decided to take a walk and as I passed by a hostal where I had used the WiFi the previous nigh, my phone beeps. It’s a message from our friend Nelly who grew up in Mindo. She’s asking how things are going. Sweetness starts to trickle back into my bones. I share a bit of my anxiety with her and she reassures me and gives me the phone number to Molly, who lives in Mindo, speaks English, and whose daughter attends the school. I then read a What’s App message from my friend CJ, who lives as a foreigner in Switzerland. She is reminding me to keep in touch with my original intent, and to take things one day at a time. The leak in my heart is being repaired through friendship; through a sense of connection that is spanning enormous distance.

I returned home and called Molly, who was once American but has lived in Ecuador for 16 years and birthed both her daughters here. She agrees to host us at her place, a beautiful hotel called Casa Divina, and welcomes us to come for a visit around 3 PM. Her daughter, Davina, is in the same grade that Brennan will be in and I am hopeful that some connection may be ignited, that Brennan will feel slightly less alone tomorrow.

The family then heads out for a stroll through Mindo. The kids are lobbying hard to rent bicycles at the local rental shop and we’ll pay heftily for long term access, but at this point I’m willing to crack the wallet wide for their happiness.

The bicycle rental shop was closed, so instead we head toward the local pharmacy located up the street from the closed uniform shop. I want to ask for information about where to purchase uniforms. The woman working there has a round face, salt-and-pepper hair, and a playful smile. We watch her measure a girl for a skirt that looks much like a school uniform. After much pieced together Spanish, Q and A, and exploration, we leave her store with three pencils, three notebooks, three pencil sharpeners, and a plan to return tomorrow to buy each of the kids one version of the uniform that they need; grey sweat pants and a grey sweat shirt. The rock in my belly has dissolved by her helpful hand. Her genuine interest in helping us, and her patience with my Spanish and need to reiterate each point to ensure I understand, are a balm for my nervous system.

Finally, we end our afternoon by riding in the back of a pick-up truck, our taxi, up to Casa Divina to meet Molly and her family. The pick-up takes us over a surreal crystal clear river and past bamboo wider than my thigh. We motor up a gentle hill, past bamboo huts and hikers taking photos of tropical flowers. Once we arrive at the meticulously clean Casa Divina, we are welcomed and offered coffee. Molly attended the U of O and her niece is visiting from Portland. Ah, my people.

Resisting the urge to immediately log onto their WiFi, of which we are deprived of in our current living situation, we settle into the soft seating and soak in the tranquil surroundings viewed through the enormous windows in the otherwise wide-plank wooden room. Molly is a tall and centered woman, perhaps wary of entertaining travelers, yet warm and generous with information. Her adolescent daughter offers some obligatory information about the routine of school, then stays on her tablet the majority of our visit, laughing generously at funny moments of the conversation she otherwise does not seem to be paying attention to. Molly’s husband is a native-Mindo-man, a naturalist guide, and his sense of humor puts us at ease. He encourages Brennan to just bring a book with him to school, since it will be boring to listen to a lecture in a language one doesn’t understand. Molly and her family are so kind, they offer us a sense of being connected to something bigger here in Mindo. We leave feeling curious and connected; our motivation restored.

As I write this it is dark again in Mindo. The rain is coming down on the corrugated metal roof and it occurs to Brady and me that it is the perfect white noise by which to fall asleep. The thunder is rolling with a gentle might over the hills and the lightning is periodically flooding my room, reminding me that we are always connected to something bigger than our own individual lives.

Today we have walked on the edge of the world even while firmly planted on its ecuador. Though we started the day early with a sense of impending disaster, as the day progressed we were reminded of the kindness and gentleness of the world. The balm of generosity; not of material goods but of hand, heart and mind. The storm that has rolled into the hills of Mindo is but a metaphor of our day. The soothing nature of rain mixed together with the thrill and risk of thunder and lightning. Today I am almost fell off the edge of the earth, but the people of the earth offered their gifts to keep me grounded here, if just for today.

“Cock-A-Doodle-DOOOO!” And other ways to fall asleep

November 30th, 2015

You know how it’s hard to sleep in a new environment? Remember my previous post where I talked about how anxiety wants to sleep with me at night? Also, have you ever tried to sleep in a rural Latin American country? Yup, all that last night.

Our first night in Quito was fun. Our hotel room was styled in posh 80s decor and we loved it. We played a bit of soccer and tested out the pool.


Our hotel in Quito, with wooden goal posts. Hosteria Gardenia



The evacuation route out of the hotel in Quito is over the brick wall with the broken glass lining the top

We had arranged for a driver to take us on the journey from Quito to Mindo and he arrived promptly. We started the journey with a stop at a Super Mercado charging American-sized prices and that was busier than Nature’s in Portland on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. After buying some staples like rice, beans, pasta and mayo, we added some avocado flower honey, Ecuadorian coffee, and a very large papaya. Part comfort items from home, part “hey, we’re in Ecuador!”.

We arrived in Mindo after a very curvy 4,000 foot descent. After a brief driving tour of the “village” full of homes with corrugated metal roofs and partly paved, partly gravel streets, we were taken to our house and shown the inside. It’s made entirely of concrete, wide plank wood and tile. The wood-pane windows don’t have screens and there is an open air ceiling in the bathroom. The home is three stories. The third story has three bedrooms, two that are locked to us and one that is open. There is a small landing area at the top of the staircase and I’m hoping to improvise an office there. The second floor has three bedrooms, a bathroom and a small sitting area, with a long and narrow balcony overlooking the street. The first floor is all kitchen, dining room, and bathroom. A very tidy and tropical postage stamp back yard is just off the back door on the first floor.


Rubi and Jai in front of our home in Mindo

After spending a couple hours settling into our new home, we walked the equivalent of a city block to the main street that runs through Mindo. We observed what might be a typical Sunday evening on the main street of Mindo. Tourists with large backpacks sat at sidewalk tables, drinking cold beer. Ecuadorians sat on plastic chairs and play cards on top of plastic table cloths. Carts loaded with penny candies populated the sidewalks, next to slabs of meat that hang near a grill sizzling small chunks. Jai bought Chicklet gum for a nickel and a man bought a single cigarette for a quarter and lit it with a lighter tied to the cart next to the caramels.

Once darkness fell I was eager to get everyone into bed. I felt totally out of it; a combination of being hurled through space in a large metal item for 48 hours and two nights of sleep in unfamiliar surroundings. While helping the kids wash their face and brush their teeth, I pretended not to be disturbed by Brady fetching a shoe and moving furniture around in our upstairs room in an attempt to eliminate some invader in the space where we were about to sleep.

7:30 PM. We read a bit of a bed time story and tucked everyone into bed. Brady and I crawled into bed shortly thereafter. Did I mention we took the 3rd floor bedroom? Apparently we thought the stuffiest room was the best option for the adults.

We proceeded to lie in bed and listen to people talking loudly, dogs barking, music playing, engines roaring past, and enthusiastic cheering from what must be a local soccer game. I greeted my nightly guest “anxiety” and told her she is welcome to stay, since she’s so insistent, but that we’d also have to host my special guest “reassurance”. Anxiety and reassurance conversed about whether or not we’d last any length of time here, whether or not we were welcome here, whether or not this was a good idea.

9:00 PM. Foot steps up the creaky wooden spiral staircase. “Mommy, I can’t fall asleep”. Brady got up and offered a homeopathic nerve tonic. Everyone back in bed.


Looking out the window on the third floor of our home

Looking out the window on the third floor of our home

9:45 PM. I’m up. I can’t just lie in bed trying to sleep any longer. It’s loud and my room is flooded with light from the street lamps. I head down the creaky spiral stair case. Before I reach the bottom, Jai and Rubi are walking out of their room with messy hair and darting eyes. “We can’t sleep” Rubi says. “This is painful!” Jai says.

We all head downstairs and drink tea, have a dose of Kava tincture, and snack on walnuts and bananas with peanut butter. Not long after, Brennan joins us. “What are you guys doing?” he asks with a partly amused smile. “We can’t sleep so we’re eating and drinking tea”, we reply and he joins us. We watch a couple of roaches crawl in and out of my rolled up yoga mat leans up against the kitchen wall. I pretend not to care and make jokes about roaches in asana while Rubi stands on a chair.

10:30 PM. Everyone is back in bed. We should be able to sleep now. Kava ingested, bellies fed, roaches witnessed.

11:00 PM. A child climbs the stairs, announcing his ascent via the sound of wood from the first step. It’s Brennan and his amusement has melted into dismay. “I can’t fall asleep”, he utters again with a shaky voice. “I know baby, I can’t either. You can read in bed for a while” I offer. “Okay” he says and climbs back down the steps. Then I hear more children up. Jai and Rubi must be using the bathroom again.

Who am I kidding? I’m not going to fall asleep anytime soon. All the neighborhood dogs are still barking, some cats must be competing for territory somewhere, and children are still playing in the distance.

11:15 PM. I head back down the stairs. “Do you all want me to read to you?” I ask and all three kids seemed relieved at the offer. We crawl into Brennan’s bed, all four of us fitting in a double, and I proceed to read an (O.B.O.B.) book about an 11 year Sudanese refugee, fleeing the civil war in the 80s. The plight of the main character makes our situation appear comfy and privileged.

11:45 PM. Everyone back in their beds again.

12:00 AM. Jai and Rubi are back in my room. They can’t fall asleep. I offer the small bed  in our room, located next to the bed Brady and I are sharing. They eagerly take up position in that bed. Brady, who has been sleeping fairly well through all this, heads downstairs. He sends Brennan up to sleep in our room also and he takes post in a 2nd floor bedroom.

12:15 AM. All three kids and myself are snug in our warm and damp beds. A quiet is slowly lowering over the barrios outside. We lay still for a moment, anticipating sleep.

“Cock-a-doodle-doooo!” we hear. Then “cock-a-doodle-doooo!” reverberates across the small town.

A hearty laughter then swept across our warm, damp, flooded with street-lamp light bedroom and we giggle and chuckle at the impossibility of the situation.

It seems that laugh was the sleeping medicine we needed. By 12:30 AM we were all asleep.

The Power to Choose

November 28th, 2015

We made it to Houston, but that was the farthest South we travelled. This is the third time I’ve been stuck in the Houston airport; land of worker vs. traveler. Surly staff and unforgiving corridors that stretch longer than most American subdivision side streets make for a hostile environment. We made our connection in San Francisco fine, and that airport is so lovely that I thought of moving to San Fran. Then our plane sat on the tarmac for an hour, returned to the gate for repairs, and finally took off a couple hours late, causing us to miss (by 20 minutes) our connecting flight from Houston to Quito.

Stuck for 24 hours in Houston. Not a choice I’d make. This whole situation is certainly beyond our control. United put us up in an old and basic Ramada near the airport where the windows shake with each departing jet and the provided soap doesn’t quite rinse off your skin. United gave us meal vouchers and we walked to a nearby Texan cafe called Good Eats where the host patted his belly and asked us if we “pigged out on Thanksgiving”. We wearily replied with an appeasing “more or less”. The next morning we enjoyed some free breakfast of carbs in the lobby and now we have nothing but time until the 5:45 PM flight that leaves Houston for Quito. We have the power to make a hundred little choices about how to spend this time. Black Jack or Go Fish? Black coffee or with powdered creamer? Screen time or read time? How about black jack and black coffee.


Playing Black Jack at the Ramada in Houston

We had an opportunity to work out in the gym and some of us are creative about how we approach our daily exercise.

We also entertained ourselves by climbing stair wells and then locking Jai out of the hotel. Reminds me of my childhood. Who didn’t spend time locking siblings and cousins out of houses, rooms, and cars? Kids enjoy the small dose of power embedded in the choice of whether or not to allow access to the person on the other side, banging on the window and insisting “let me in!”

At first I was quite bummed about this “lost day”. We could’ve had one more day with family after the Thanksgiving holiday. We could have had one more day of the weekend in Mindo (the small town in Ecuador that we are moving to) before the town headed into the weekly routine come Monday morning. As I fell asleep I started to feel like a real traveler: that sense of not belonging, the discomfort of unfamiliar surroundings. I started to question my resolve to live in a foreign country. What it is about late-night sleeplessness that invites anxiety to lie with us in our beds?

At some point in the middle of the night, or maybe it was morning, a sense of ease and comfort came over me like removing too-tight shoes at the end of a long day. The whole idea that “all works out as it should” moved from my head into my heart. Indeed, the good night rest and shower will do us all well before moving on to the 6 hour flight that arrives in Quito at midnight.

The serenity prayer bounced around in my mind. I try to keep it close, but it seems that it leaves me at the most crucial time. It would have served me well as I sat on a plane with a hundred anxious and stressed travelers: babies crying, elderly growing too stiff, first class travelers drinking heavily, and long bathroom lines. It would have served me well to meditate on the serenity prayer as I collaborated with another traveller headed to Quito, looking at our United apps and figuring out other options to continue moving ahead. While we were still sitting on the tarmac in San Fran, she changed her flight to a red-eye with a long. middle-of-the-night lay over in Bolivia. I couldn’t decide if it was good or bad that the average traveler has as much information and power as a ticket agent at the gate in the airport.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change

The courage to change the things I can

And the wisdom to know the difference

So perhaps this missed flight and 24 hour delay is a gift. It is a reminder that all works out as it should, even if it’s not according to my plan. It is a reminder that we have a choice in how to respond to whatever stimuli the world throws our way. It is a reminder that I’m not the one in charge and the only thing I have control over is myself. I’m remembering that I want to respond with an open heart and a spirit of gratitude. I have the power to choose how I respond, and I am no longer that child choosing to lock people out. I’m choosing to swing that door wide open and holler “welcome” with a Texan- sized smile and a pat on the belly.

“I Will Not Go To School!”; Staying In The Comfort Zone

November 25th, 2015

The kids are not that excited to be moving to Ecuador for three months. While my hubby and I have done our best to hear their anxieties and share our excitement, they’ve clung steadfastly to their narrative of not wanting to go. We’re asking them to make a huge change.

We have many motivating factors for living in Ecuador. They include exposure to a different way to live life and the accompanying worldview. We want that jolt out of the daily routine and to gain perspective on our life that only major change can offer. We chose a location where few residents will speak English so that we will be forced to speak Spanish. We are intentionally stepping out of our comfort zone with the purpose of growth, fresh perspective, and learning. We have our own anxiety for sure (namely the size of the insects), but we’re saying “bring it on!”

Meanwhile, the kids are happy with status quo. They like they’re beds, bikes and buddies. They were looking forward to the Battle of the Books competitions, the field trip to OMSI, the Winter SnowBall party at school…. and of course…. Christmas! They keep saying how bummed they are that they are going to “miss Christmas”. I’ve asserted that Christmas does indeed happen in Ecuador also, albeit differently. Bah humbug.

Some days are easier than others. Some days the kids can joke about why they don’t want to go to Ecuador. Our nine year old twins, Jai and Rubi, who have a fairly good command of Spanish (thanks to their public school dual-language immersion program), will reassure our oldest, Brennan (who has zero Spanish), “don’t worry, we’ll let you know what the kids are saying when they talk about you”. I don’t think it’s too comforting to Brennan.

Other days are more painful. There have been tears, refusals to get out of bed, and an insistence that “I will not go to school there!” from our oldest child. He’s taken to crying out in his sleep at night, dreaming of some unknown factors, dreaming of the unknown.

Stepping out of the comfort zone is hard. Neuroscience shows that our brains interpret emotional and interpersonal pain in the same ways that we interpret physical pain. Separating from the known and leaping into change can cause true, visceral pain.

Knowing this, it becomes clear why some folks cling to status quo and resist change so deeply. It’s scary and can be downright painful. But sometimes staying put is painful too. We end up needing to make a decision between the chronic, low-grade discomfort of our current situation or the more acute and short-lived pain of change.

Reminds me of the Anais Nin quote:

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud

was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Reaching for change and seeking out discomfort is fertile ground for learning and growth. Resistance is to be expected. Those of us who face change and shout (or whimper) “bring it on” and those of us who insist we “will not go” have something in common. Change brings anxiety, it’s unavoidable, and we are all going to grow.

The Land of Plenty

November 23rd, 2015

As we prepare to leave the USA and enter Ecuador, we have the privilege of buying new shoes and various comfort items, taking along extra medications and contemplating the various phone and internet packages we need to keep in contact with our friends and family back home. Look at us trying to maintain our current living standards as we prepare to live in a country with different standards of living!

The suitcases are empty and appear to be gaping, hungry caverns on my bedroom floor, awaiting the piles of belongings we will bring. And we’ll be packing “light” compared to some.

While going through my kids’ shoes, I realized that we have a handful of used Nikes we can bring along to donate to kids in Mindo, the small town where we plan to live. As I started to pack these, I realized we have plenty of used clothes that we can bring along as well. Then I posted on Facebook, asking my friends for donations, and lo and behold, we were offered 15 used Nike soccer balls! Indeed, we are in the land of plenty. We can bring two extra suitcases along with good loot to donate, and we won’t even feel it.

The Land of Plenty; the USA. As I thought about this phrase, equity, and our personal situation, I couldn’t help but sing the Men at Work song, Down Under. Granted, they are saying Land Down Under in many of the lines, though they do use the phrase land of plenty:

Lyin’ in a den in Bombay
With a slack jaw, and not much to say
I said to the man, “Are you trying to tempt me
Because I come from the land of plenty?”
And he said

Do you come from a land down under? (oh yeah yeah)
Where women glow and men plunder?
Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover

Damn, that’s sounding ominous.

Perhaps this song is more about travel and the oddities of being a stranger. Or maybe I’m fooling myself and it really is about imperialism. Certainly Western owned Oil companies have done more than their share of plundering in Ecuador, namely stealing oil from the Amazon, leaving the people and the environment suffering while lining the pockets of a few.

Regardless of what this song is “about”, it’s my theme song today as I reflect about travel between a land of plenty and a land with ample poverty. Travel becomes more of an oddity when equity issues are considered. I’m thankful we have loot to deliver and we plan to distribute via agencies to minimize the “gringos who are like santas” phenomena.

How will we negotiate the cognitive dissonance of being generous and social-justice-minded while simultaneously protecting our iPhones and pocketbooks full of cash and plastic? Maybe we don’t even have to travel to a foreign country to struggle with this question. We face it daily in the USA as well; there’s just something about travel that makes the usual become an oddity.


A Family Sabbatical

November 22nd, 2015

We sometimes become so entrenched in our habits and engrained in our way of life that we lose sight of the opportunities that exist. Many of us catch glimpses, only to tell ourselves we cannot, our should not, pursue the dream. Then there are also those of us who catch onto the momentum of the vision, and make it happen. In a handful of days, that is exactly what my family and I will do. We are embarking upon our family sabbatical; an opportunity to live in Ecuador for 3 months.

I will be using this blog, for the time being, to document our adventure. No one in my family has ever stepped foot in Ecuador. A few of us speak Spanish, sort of, and a couple of us don’t speak Spanish at all. We have a general road map of our life over the next three months, but our entrenched habits and engrained ways of life will be left behind with the rest of our personal belongings and creature comforts.

I hope you stick around and follow this blog. It may or may not speak to my work as a Leadership and Personal Development Coach. Then again, it may be all about leadership and personal development; so much of what we do as leaders is embark on the unknown and reflect on the process as a means of personal growth.

My hope for you is that when you see the opportunities that exist in your life, you go ahead and permit yourself to envision. You never know where it may lead.

Physiology of Leadership

February 11th, 2013

Recent research in the field of leadership and organizational development (OD) has focused on our brain chemistry. Once believed to be purely a function of our biology, we are beginning to understand the interface between one’s biology and one’s environment. Leadership and OD experts are becoming increasingly interested in neuropeptides and physiological responses. What happens to our staff when they are under stress? What can we achieve when we have trust and security?

The research on stress and how we react when stressed is revealing. One major stress hormone is cortisol. When our cortisol levels are high, our executive brain functioning is diminished. When cortisol levels are high, our limbic system is activated (think: lizard brain), and our more rational and higher reasoning functioning takes a break. Many individuals work in high pressure environments, such as performing surgery for long hours, working with high-conflict situations,  or leading resistant staff. Their stress levels are very high on a regular basis.

Some of the stress levels (and consequent secretion of cortisol) can be controlled, though certainly some of it is just “the nature of the beast”. One role as a leader is to keep stress levels as reasonable as possible (your own and your staff), knowing that it will thereby improve performance and efficiency. The first step in this process is managing your own stress well. There is a lot of information about how to constructively deal with stress. Working with an executive coach can help you apply these strategies to your unique situation.

Creating a supportive and safe environment is another key action that leaders can take to decrease stress in the workplace and thereby improve the functioning of their teams. When we feel connected and appreciated, our oxytocin levels go up. When we have oxytocin, we feel some elation and security and that translates into higher levels of motivation, higher levels of energy, greater creativity, and all kinds of good things. A few behaviors that create a sense of connection and security and may translate into increased oxytocin levels include:

  • Express sincere gratitude. This goes beyond “good job” and states something specific.
  • Catch staff doing something right. Let them know when they achieve something great.
  • Demonstrate genuine concern for the person; connect on a personal level. This may include some “small talk” so you know their interests, their whole person.

It can be a bit of a “catch 22” for someone who feels her status is threatened. A person feels threatened at work when she feels micro-managed, under-valued, misunderstood, in competition with co-workers, or under a critical eye of a supervisor.  If one feels threatened, her performance will suffer as her cortisol soars and she is put into “fight or flight” mode. This reinforces perceptions that others may have of her inability to do x,y,z. It becomes a bit of a trap, or self-fulfilling prophecy, on the part of the ‘actor’ and the ‘perceiver’. A supervisor thinks a staff member is messing up, so the supervisor collects mental evidence of those mistakes. The staff member feels she’s being criticized and judged, which spikes cortisol, and diminishes her ability to perform at a high level. This reinforces the supervisor’s perception of incompetence.

There are many things that organizations can do to create supportive and secure environments. Taking a look at the performance review system and analyzing it’s impact is one major step in the right direction. Giving leaders the tools they need to be compassionate, vulnerable, open and connected supervisors is another step toward more trusting and productive workforces. Hiring a coach to work with your leaders is one of the best resources you can offer. As the saying goes “the proof is in the pudding” and as your staff begin to feel better (good bye cortisol) , they will begin to perform at higher levels  (thank you oxytocin).

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