Open Focus

In my previous blog, I talked about waking up and questioning assumptions, in particular those about running an organization. This blog is about goals and what they look like played out under the framework of an organization aspiring to be a conscious one. My own goals have more or less been the same my whole life: connection, innovation, impact, fulfillment and inclusiveness. What’s changed / is changing is my awareness of my state of mind as I engage with these goals.

Here’s what I mean. Do you play around in your head with several competing strategic directions your organization could take? I do. Maybe, if you are at a nonprofit organization like me, you and your board focus on the problems to be solved, with many discussions on fundraising, sales and recurring revenue streams. Those are important considerations, AND they can become very serious. They tend to keep us in a state of mind that Dr. Les Fehmi at the Princeton Biofeedback Center calls narrow focus – that is, tense, on alert and constantly scanning for what’s wrong.

Narrow focus serves us well when we are in a state of survival, but to engage with it (e.g. intensive problem solving) for a long time is to keep ourselves in a state of chronic stress. I think many leaders do this. I know I certainly did in my previous job as a director at the Aspen Center, partly because I didn’t have any other learning models or reference points. Now, among other practices, I’m aware of Fehmi’s idea of narrow focus and open focus, the latter being a relaxed, diffuse, and creative form of attention.

As it applies to business: what if, instead of a narrow focus on sustainable growth, companies aspire to hold an open focus and a larger vision? What if instead of sustainable growth, our largest vision was sustainable harmony? This is a beautiful term I first heard from Mathieu Ricard, the French writer and Buddhist monk. He suggests we should reframe our perspectives in the 21st century to value qualitative growth over quantitative growth and to “dare altruism” on a global level. (If you have not heard him, I recommend listening to his recent conversation on the Diane Rahm show). This is a vision that engages me.

Yes, I’m aware that results matter. Still, I’m not convinced that the narrow focus on strategy and economic engine, which in my experience is often a default conversation, is better than holding the question about sustainable harmony – or some other question that goes beyond the short term and requires us to think long term and as global citizens of one world. How might this affect our strategy and tactics? I’ve been wondering if and how contributing to the global good, following conscious leadership practices and paying attention to quality of our relationship will positively correlate to fundraising and social enterprise gains. Certainly the B Corp model is showing success with related goals.

These sort of questions are what we’re up at Foundation for Global Scholars (FGS). Personally, I aspire to be part of conscious organization and try on a conscious leadership model because I’m looking for a generous vision I can engage with long-term. In their thoughtful book 15 Principles of Conscious Leadership, authors Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman and Kaley Klemp lay out concepts I can engage with for a lifetime and whose practices, if actually done, will have ripple effects beyond my own life to generations that follow.

Some practices we follow at FGS that serve our goals of innovation, high quality relationships, and fulfillment:

1. We regularly locate ourselves above or below “the line.” This concept comes directly from the 15 Commitments book and from the inner map work of our friend Julie Colwell (whose work was inspired by David Hawkins’ line of consciousness in Power vs. Force). Above the line, one is open, curious, committed to learning. Below the line, one is closed, defensive, and committed to be right.

Neither is wrong. They are just states of consciousness. The practice is in noticing where you are and if you want to shift. For instance, as someone who prefers consensus and has a strong tendency to ignore conflict, I can quickly go below the line when conflicts arise and ignore my own and others’ feelings and push for cheery resolution. Following that, I have an urge to flee or retreat and hope things will blow over. I’ve learned through painful experience that this behavior is counterproductive to connection, flow and innovation. Through practice, I’m learning to deal with conflict sooner and to be okay with others’ big feelings. What helps me is to notice and identify my inner state and ask myself, would someone describe me right now as defended or unclear? If the answer is yes, I make an effort to shift to an undefended place of clarity before addressing the conflict.

2. We have a weekly team huddle. Each of our five team members shares a personal and a professional update, and we set and track weekly goals. We encourage one another to express our feelings; and we try to speak the unarguable truth. Speaking the unarguable truth is the difference between saying, “I feel mad that I just got a ticket for parking on the wrong side of the street today” versus, “I am mad at the jerk who gave me a ticket; he was trying to pad his revenue and he could see I was about to move my car.” Do you see how the second explanation is full of arguable statements? The former is a simple, one out-breath expression of feeling and what is; the other is long, arguable, and full of projections. Neither is WRONG, but that latter keeps us in a downward spiral below the line.

Speaking the unarguable truth is one tool we use at FGS in service to being present and more able to access creativity and innovation.

3. We practice making good agreements with ourselves and with our stakeholders. This means we say 1) what we agree to do, and 2) by when we’ll do it. If we realize we aren’t going to finish a task by the agreed time, we renegotiate. Since I first became aware in 2008 of this notion of making good agreements, I’ve been working on this behavior in myself and observing others in their practice of making agreements. There a handful of people in my life (and I am not one of them) who I experience to be impeccable in their agreements, and as a result I trust them deeply. I am very grateful that my teammates at FGS are very, very good at making good agreements, and as a rising tide lifts all boats, their commitment to this principle is influencing me and improving our whole organization. We have integrated our commitment to make good agreements into our relationships with our stakeholders, and created a conscious working agreement that we use with our vendors.

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