by Joe Loizzo, MD, PhD
It’s no secret that our work lives are becoming ever-more complex, fast-paced and stressful in our global, digital age. We need only look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the workplace to see how rapidly and radically the conditions of living and working in today’s fluid environment can change. At the same time, the pandemic has also laid bare pressing social and environmental needs—for true racial, gender and financial equity, and for a more sustainable economy—that demand fundamental changes in the way we think, live and lead.
The many challenges we face as individuals and as a society may seem completely unprecedented—a perfect storm of globalization, systemic social change, and novel technology—but I believe the deeper shifts we need to meet these challenges are shifts humanity has recognized and made many times before. In fact, the work of learning how to adapt to greater interdependence, diversity and complexity is as old as civilization itself, and lies at the heart of humanity’s varied cultural traditions. What is more, while the complexity and scope of transformation we need now is unprecedented, our scientific understanding of how deep transformation works and our access to rigorous practices that can make it accessible for all are greater now than at any time in human history. So as I see it, the situation we’re in today is both a perfect storm and a watershed moment when we are poised as individuals and a global community to realize our boundless human potential for personal and collective flourishing as never before.
History aside, the changes now underway in our work lives are truly challenging. The once clear boundaries between personal and professional—home and work—have begun to dissolve in new remote and hybrid live-work models, accelerating the gradual erosion of the traditional work week underway for decades given the digital economy and its 24/7 information flow. The much vaunted strategy of multi-tasking held up as the answer to this new way of work has been proven to undermine our capacity to do anything well, only compounding the chronic stress that puts harmful wear and tear on our minds, brains and bodies, inexorably degrading our performance, health and well-being at the same as it adversely impacts our connections to family and community. On the other hand, current trends have not spared those essential workers left out of the new digital workplace. Those of us keeping the heart of our society beating by showing up in overburdened hospitals, understaffed schools, neglected neighborhoods and a devastated service sector are being exposed daily not just to coronavirus but to intolerable levels of stress and even trauma, with neither the time nor the training to metabolize them.
So as I see it, the situation we’re in today is both a perfect storm and a watershed moment when we are poised as individuals and a global community to realize our boundless human potential for personal and collective flourishing as never before.
Ironically, we could have been much better prepared to face the multi-dimensional crisis we’re in today if not for the failure of our professional disciplines to keep pace with the times. Despite the unprecedented scope and complexity of the challenges we face, the basic education and training most of us received to support our life’s work dates to a time—from the nineteen-fifties to as far back as the eighteenth century—when our institutions and economies were far smaller, more isolated and slow to change. While even the best schooling still focuses narrowly on building a tool-chest of objective knowledge and skills, the real world conditions we face put an increasing premium on internal qualities like mental flexibility, emotional resilience and positive energy, qualities that have been widely misunderstood as fixed traits not amenable to training or cultivation. Crucial efforts to upgrade our outmoded skillset in recent decades, like introducing systems thinking, emotional intelligence, wellness culture, and even mindfulness, while laudable have not gone far enough to bridge the gap between the unprecedented demands our work lives put on our minds, hearts, and bodies and the internal traits, competencies and qualities we need to meet those demands.
While these troubling trends are beginning to receive the serious attention they deserve, most of us have been feeling their effects on a personal level for years, and all too many have had their lives and livelihoods impacted in powerful, transformative, and even tragic ways. As a psychiatrist and cancer researcher I’ve seen that impact in so many of the people I work with, from the CEO’s of multi-billion dollar companies to smart, successful and caring health professionals, educators, free-lancers and non-profit workers. In fact, my whole approach to helping my clients—integrating the latest neuroscience of learning with timeless contemplative methods of transforming mind, heart and body—grew out of my witnessing first-hand how my dad’s medical training gave him none of the inner preparation he needed to prevent long-term burnout, much less to promote lifelong flourishing.
Most of those who come to see me use our time together to build vital inner capacities that empower them to transform the way they live and work. Many come after chronic stress has led to a serious adverse impact—from a divorce, addiction or illness to some form of burnout or mid-life crisis. One financial service professional who came to me in recovery from cancer took the opportunity for a deep dive into early traumas that triggered disabling reactivity and panic. Eventually, she found herself on a whole new path of cultivating greater self-awareness and resilience through meditation, self-compassion and breath-work, contemplating a career shift towards guiding others along that healing new path. Another marketing executive chose to take her mid-career burnout as an opportunity not just to build new inner resources and capacities but to apply them to a life transition towards greater thriving through finding less stressful, more meaningful non-profit work. A principal in a multi-billion dollar investment company came to me for help managing a stress-related back problem that required surgery and long term recovery. He wound up extricating himself from his hyper-stressed work environment, fully exploring and understanding the early traumas that compounded his stress and blocked resilience. Eventually, he was able to assume an even larger role, with a whole new mindset and skillset that allowed him to flourish personally while leading his new company towards a culture of well-being.
Boundless Leadership on the other hand approaches leadership as primarily an inside job, emphasizing internal traits like self-awareness, authentic engagement, and embodied flow
My experience with my clients confirmed for me that we all need a whole new approach to work in our day, based on growing the inner traits we all need to lead ourselves, engage others and make positive change in our complex world. That’s when I teamed up with Elazar Aslan, a Fortune 100 executive turned entrepreneur whose experience helping colleagues through the rough waters of stress overload, career-crisis and burnout inspired him to embark on his current path as an executive advisor. While Elazar’s background in business seemed a long way from my research in the science of change, we came together around our shared experience of the power of contemplative practice and our deep commitment to weaving it into a new approach to living and leading we came to call boundless leadership.
Conventional approaches to leadership emphasize objective knowledge and skills that help us mitigate risks and maximize opportunities, yielding outward results defined by external outcome measures like financial wealth, job title, number of followers or institutional power. Boundless Leadership on the other hand approaches leadership as primarily an inside job, emphasizing internal traits like self-awareness, authentic engagement, and embodied flow that yield a transformed way of being defined by intersubjective measures like unbiased clarity and agility of mind, social emotional connectivity and resilience, and the deep sense of fulfillment and purpose that comes from embodying our full potential for positive change. In short, conventional approaches to leadership and boundless leadership are as unmistakably different as the outward trappings of success like a job title and bank balance and the inward felt sense of abiding well-being and consummate satisfaction. Consistent with the groundbreaking findings of positive psychology, boundless leadership directly challenges the myth that outward success at the expense of our inner peace and quality of life is the one sure way to lasting happiness. This stark contrast stems from the two approaches having not just divergent aims but also radically different sources and methods.
Boundless Leadership draws on three intersecting fields of know-how: new science, timeless transformational methods, and novel practical applications. First, it is based on decades of breakthrough research in the neuroscience of stress, resilience, transformation and well-being. This research has debunked many of the myths assumed as part of the foundations of modern economics, business, and leadership. To name just a few, these include: the belief that stress enhances performance while relaxation impairs it; the assumption that qualities of mind and heart are genetically hard-wired in the brain and cannot be changed or trained; the faith that survival drives like competition, greed, pride and aggression make us fit while social emotions like empathy, love and compassion make us weak; and the idea that intellectual and executive capacity are independent of the states of the human heart and body. Instead the new science has shown us conclusively: that stress impairs human performance at all levels—mind, heart and body; that mental activity constantly rewires the brain for better or worse, and that clear mindedness, emotional intelligence and flow states can be systematically trained; that survival drives impair long-term performance and lead to burnout, while positive social emotions like compassion promote not just peak cognitive and social performance but positive mind/body health and well-being; and that cognitive and executive capacity are wholly dependent on prosocial emotions and positive mind/body energies and states.
Since the approach of boundless leadership turns conventional wisdom inside out, it should come as no surprise that its practical application works in counterintuitive ways.
Taken together, this new science is a total game-changer for our understanding of the creativity and happiness of human individuals and groups. Just when we’ve found that internal qualities and ways of being are becoming more and more critical to sustained performance, conscious leadership, and authentic wellbeing, science is telling us that those qualities and ways of being can and must be systematically, universally trained. And as if this shift was not radical enough, the related fields of stress-reduction and meditation research have shown us that timeless contemplative practices of mindfulness, compassion and breath-body training are among the most teachable and effective methods for prompting and guiding the conscious self-transformation of the human mind, heart and body. This new scientific validation, combined with increased global access to a whole range of contemplative practices preserved in diverse ancient traditions, provides boundless leadership with its second main source: time-tested methods of change. Out of those timeless traditions come a complete, evidence-based system of transformational practices that target the mind, heart and body and support the three disciplines that yield the key competencies and traits of the new leadership.
This brings us to the third converging field that completes the transformational path of boundless leadership: the emerging new approach to leading ourselves, others and our companies based on applying the three disciplines of mind, heart and body to our everyday life and work. Since the approach of boundless leadership turns conventional wisdom inside out, it should come as no surprise that its practical application works in counterintuitive ways. Instead of focusing on preconceived goals, planning and execution, the discipline of mind in boundless leadership revolves around the competency of open-minded clarity and the practical application of clarifying and aligning our intentions. By keeping a radically open mind, we can remove the blinders of implicit bias and bring our boundless capacity to objectively see and accept the complex, unfolding reality of current conditions. And by clarifying our intentions in engaging those conditions and aligning them with our deepest aims, we optimize our chances of realizing our short-term objectives and long-term interests in a positive, responsible way.
When it comes to the discipline of heart, once again boundless leadership does a full about-face in our practical approach and application. Instead of leaders focusing on their own agenda and trying to control others to fulfill it, we focus on the intersubjective process which is the ground of all cooperation: authentic engagement and mutual trust. By relying on the competency of compassion and the application of empowered responsibility, we open our hearts to earn the engagement and trust of our teams, while making sure to guard against shame and blame by modeling accountability for our own limits and taking empowered responsibility for sustaining group learning and innovation.
Not only do we all need this path to thrive in today’s fast-evolving work world, but we all must come together to transform an outmoded way of living and working that is harming us all in different ways and endangering all life on earth.
Finally, in the discipline of body, we make a 180 degree shift from the reptilian instincts and energies of grasping privilege and dominance through a self-protective mind/body stance that guards power and avoids vulnerability. Instead, we rely on the competency of fearlessness and the application of embodying purpose to tap into the prosocial instincts and energies of flow, humbly investing ourselves in enhancing our meaning and purpose by making every move and action an expression of inspired service to the greater good.
Given this brief introduction to the transformative approach and breakthrough method Elazar and I have refined for over a decade to meet the great transition we face, it may help to spell out why we called our new path of leadership “boundless.” Boundless leadership is boundless because, contrary to the myth that stress fuels progress, it prepares us to break free of the scarcity psychology, destructive emotions and “dirty energy” of stress, granting unlimited access to our full human potential for creativity, positivity, and the “clean energy” of flow that all stem from our innate social instincts and capacities. It is boundless because it taps into the biological strong forces of social communication and cooperation that support our ability to fully embody our potential as the consummate social animals, harnessing our capacity to have boundless impact on our world through equitably engaging and co-creating with others. It is boundless because it works not by merely adding incremental new ideas and skills to fix our current limits but by prompting each and every one of us to take a quantum leap by envisioning, tapping and harnessing our boundless human potential, the inner gold mine and quantum energy source of all innovation and real human progress. And it is boundless because, contrary to the hierarchical myth that only a chosen few have what it takes to be elevated as effective leaders, it assumes that everyone can and must develop the inner qualities and way of being we’ve described, since optimal creativity and innovation can only come when the boundless reservoir of potential in each and every one of us is tapped synergistically.
I hope this brief blog post gives you a taste for how you can empower yourself and encourage others to take on the inside job of living and leading in our complex, fast-changing world. The counterintuitive approach I’ve tried to share is one that has given Elazar, me and our clients and students real hope for the future in these uncertain times. While the leverage we tap in boundless leadership is our natural capacity for self-transformation, we believe this method offers far more than a personal way forward. In fact, we think of it as a middle way that works on two fronts: cultivating self-leadership, based on deep personal work that transforms our mind, heart and body; and growing servant leadership of others, a transformative path of engaging with our colleagues, companies, and larger society based on the contemplative traits of self-awareness, wise compassion and fearless embodiment. Not only do we all need this path to thrive in today’s fast-evolving work world, but we all must come together to transform an outmoded way of living and working that is harming us all in different ways and endangering all life on earth.
Given that this path is fruit of decades of shared exploration and work, Elazar and I are indeed grateful that we’ve been able to share it with more and more people through our six month Boundless Leadership Program at Nalanda Institute, where each January we guide a new learning community on this transformational journey. And for those of you who would prefer to see the map and path unfold in written form, please check out our forthcoming book, Boundless Leadership: The Breakthrough Method to Realize Your Vision, Empower Others, and Ignite Positive Change (Shambhala, 12/21/21).
May we all become boundless leaders!