Shakti Leadership: Allowing Ourselves to be Whole

by Sonya Mohamed, CLA facilitator, and program alumni –

It was like taking a deep, full breath after a series of short, shallow inhales. With a title like Shakti Leadership: Embracing Feminine and Masculine Power in Business, I had no doubt I would be engaged and interested in what was being shared, but Nilima Bhat did so much more than that. She breathed new life into ideas I had neatly tucked away and long forgotten. She urged us to rediscover what made us come alive and warned us of the shell we might become if we did not make space for our whole selves.

The idea of Shakti Leadership aligns with and builds upon Conscious Capitalism. For those who know me, you know how energized I get talking about conscious business (or just consciousness in general). So much of what drives our behavior, the decisions we make and the way we treat each other, is unconscious and unexamined. Until we uncover and investigate our mental models – the generalizations and assumptions we make based on our deep-seated beliefs and values – we operate out of an absent state rather than a present one.

Presence, the first element of Shakti Leadership, was described as a “state in which you have nothing to defend, promote or fear and are completely at home in the moment”. It isn’t that our mental models are “wrong” or “bad”, but if they are informing and guiding our behaviors and decisions, especially as we exercise leadership, isn’t it irresponsible to leave them lurking in the unconscious?

 “The leader you are is the person you are.”  

That quote was up on the screen toward the beginning of the day and it stuck with me. So often I’ve found myself in conversations with people who insist that who they are at work is different than who they are at home or in their personal lives. I never understood how that made sense. How are you ever anyone other than yourself? Sure, you may have different roles and responsibilities, may use different voices to achieve the desired effect, but you’re always you. The importance here, what I’m really getting at, is how critical the practice of getting to know yourself is. When we begin to know ourselves more genuinely, we are able to tap into the infinite power source of presence. We become alive and elevate to an entirely different level. Nilima calls this Shakti, the second element of the Shakti leadership model.

Wholeness and flexibility both build upon allowing space for our full selves to be realized. To stop denying or suppressing parts of ourselves that we don’t understand or have been taught to hide. Until we embrace our masculine and feminine, which is in each of us, we simply cannot be whole. The better we begin to understand masculine and feminine energies, the more successful we’ll be in consciously operating from both. Being able to access and dial into either is helpful to our own well-being and is profoundly useful for engaging with others.

The amount of overlap this model has with adaptive leadership is significant. What’s truly powerful about both is their willingness to acknowledge our shadow side. Perhaps willingness is not the right word. Both models demand that attention is brought to your shadow side. At times I struggle with adaptive leadership because it can feel too narrowly focused on the darkness within us (because it’s usually deep within us and persistent) without leaving space for the light. Shakti leadership’s attention to duality seems to strike a better balance to me. It honors the importance of mindfulness and finding peace within ourselves, but acknowledges our journey can be dark, which deserves compassion and understanding.

I have incredible respect for the practice of mindfulness and it is a huge part of my life. Though to think a mindfulness practice in and of itself will yield inner peace, power and passion is a fantasy. Coming back to the duality that is central to Shakti Leadership, this is only half of our inner-work. Our shadows are there, whether we turn a blind eye to them or not. Until we acknowledge our shadows and begin to work with them, we cannot be whole nor can we be fully conscious.

The way Nilima explains congruence, the final and culminating element in Shakti Leadership, is where I get particularly excited to see how Shakti Leadership and Adaptive Leadership can complement each other. Congruence is described as “the capacity to be centered, authentic, and aligned with one’s purpose, both internally (how one feels) and externally (how one acts)”. Now imagine coupling this with Heiftz & Linsky’s metaphor of moving from the dance floor to the balcony and back – which speaks to the capacity to shift our attention between the dynamics unfolding right in front of us and seeing the larger system at play by taking a step.

The result would be a highly conscious, self-aware, whole person in front of you, who is interested in seeing the whole system and owning their piece of it. It’s a person I hardly believed could exist, especially in a position of authority, because it was so contrary to my personal experiences and what I see out in the world today. I left feeling so inspired and hopeful for what we, collectively, are capable of doing and creating in this world. More powerfully, this workshop and those involved with adaptive leadership at the University of San Diego have given me the space to start imagining myself as that person and the framework and courage to exercise leadership in a way that is meaningful, intentional and impactful. 


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