How to Be an Awe-ful, Not Awful Leader

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it..” ~ W.H. Murray

We are a society of scientists and logicians. We like to know “why,” “why,” “why.” When things seem to be happenstance, we need to know the logical explanation for it. Yet many inexplicable things happen to us on a daily basis – perhaps it’s not getting hit when that car ran a red light, or getting the last train in time for a meeting that was critical to a project’s completion, or getting into an elevator at the same time as your future boss. Is it all coincidence? Magic? Or simply good timing? The idea of “magic” may seem fanciful or childish, but perhaps there is more to “magic” than sleight of hand and fantasy. Perhaps if we stop trying to over analyze, observe more, and believe in what we cannot control, patterns and opportunities will arise such that we can be more ready to take advantage them – and perhaps, even find some playfulness in the process.

Research from UC Berkeley and UC Irvine show that awe stimulates prosocial emotions and behaviors. When we are faced with something that is profound and transformative, we generally recognize how teeny we are. We actually have to quiet our monkey minds and slow our heart rates to take in the overwhelming information. ASU professor Michelle Shiota distinguishes awe from other emotions, such as enthusiasm, as it allows us too simply be curious and open to what is there, rather than have it conform to what we expect should be there.

Awe can be elusive. We know it when we have it. The more we find it, the more open we can be to how it helps to impact us leaders in our organizations and communities. It has the potential for us to cultivate the organizational cultures and climates that will transform societies in positive ways. Leaders who seek out moments of awe no longer put themselves at the center as ego-driven centers, but encourage an ecosystem where ideas and innovation and individuals thrive.

Header Guimaraes posits that the reason we don’t always see the amazing things is we don’t pay attention or search for them. He suggests that this magic is around us – it lies in patterns and the little things that make things appear to be coincidences, but paying attention might be the clue to unveil the secrets.

When we bring a lens of Emotional Intelligence, we are less in rumination on me, myself, and I, and more open to the patterns and possibilities all around us. With social and relationship awareness, we bring into our sphere of influence what is, what could be, and what is invisible to the naked eye. To cultivate our capacity to do, let’s take a look at a few tactics:

1. Be silent

Rushing through the day and talking through everything never lets our brains absorb, ears hear, or eyes see. We try to explain everything with logic and analysis and talk. If you observe children, oftentimes, they simply watch in wonder and awe. They want to understand, but before they start asking, they just revel in the moment of, “wow.” For that moment, they are quiet (and then the “whys” begin). Perhaps we should learn from them and sometimes, just be quiet and sit in awe of the little coincidences and big coincidences.

2. Suspend belief

Even if there are likely logical explanations for almost anything, a moment of wonder can lift the spirits and return us to the joy children feel. Suspending the need to explain everything doesn’t make us stupid or silly. It reminds us that faith has a role in the human psyche to help us remain optimistic and hopeful for what can be. If we stay in the realm of the practical all the time, we only see the possible pitfalls and dangers. Permitting ourselves to imagine the possibilities – as magical as they may seem – allow us to break free of constraints and give ourselves the permission to be creative and explore.

3. Look for patterns

Card tricks are often no more than a game of patterns. Once we begin to really listen, you can start to discern patterns of things that happen. For example, it may seem that you are always “just in the nick of time.” Rather than that simply being a phenomena of inexplicable magic, it could be that your pattern of behavior is rising to the occasion when pushed at the last minute. Consider the patterns in your life and work – both positive and negative ones – and what you can learn from them.

4. Keep the mystery

As magicians keep some secrets a secret – after all, if everyone knew every secret, magicians would not have professions – so too can we keep a little mystery about what makes us invaluable to any team or organization. Authenticity is key, but you don’t have to tell everything about yourself to everyone. People might be amazed at how you remember their birthdays – it’s like magic – but your little, not-so-difficult-to-guess secret is that you keep birthdays in a calendar. People might be amazed at how you connect with your team – it’s like magic – but your little, not-so-difficult-to-guess is that you find out at least three things that are meaningful to each person and make sure to (authentically and sincerely) connect with each person about one of those things.

5. Practice and play

Great leaders, like great magicians, practice. It’s the practice that makes things look effortless. Does someone seem to have the magic touch when giving presentations? That takes practice. Does someone seem to have the magic touch picking stocks? That takes practice. Practice makes things look good. But beyond practice, those who really make the most mundane things or the most challenging things look not just good, but amazing, are those who also have fun. They forgive themselves when they fail. They laugh when they goof. They revel in the learning. Practice makes something seem magical. Play keeps the magic alive.

Being in awe means paying attention to the mysteries around us and within us. As Neurosurgeon and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research Education Jim Doty notes, the brain and the heart need each other. Together, they keep us open, curious, and willing to step into the inexplicable.

Image by Belinda Chiu

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Belinda Chiu

Belinda Chiu

Belinda believes in the power of play to bring authenticity and compassion for a happier planet. She is on the forefront of the movement to democratize emotional intelligence through Goleman EI as head of educational innovation and a faculty member with the Goleman Emotional Intelligence Coaching Certification program. She works to cultivate resilient and mindful leaders through Ignition Coaching LLC, Hummingbirdrcc, and the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. With a background in international education and diplomacy, she also brings experience in competitive university admissions. She is the author of the forthcoming book, The Mindful College Applicant: Cultivating Emotional Intelligence for the Admissions Process. A member of Valley Improv, Belinda currently lives in New Hampshire with Bandit, the pink-nosed pup.


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