Drawing on my observations over many years of helping leaders improve their emotional intelligence, I’ve identified four core practices that are instrumental in emotionally intelligent leadership and that, when practiced in conjunction with experiencing nature, increase their impact exponentially. They are: our relationship with time, our ability to broaden our perspective, our ability to gain balance and equilibrium, and our ability to effectively use all three to calibrate to the most helpful and useful action.
Daniel Goleman speaks of four domains of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. The first two, self-awareness and self-management, make way for social awareness and relationship management. Self-awareness is at the center from which healthy and emotionally intelligent leadership grows.
There is a rapidly expanding body of research showing that being in a conscious state of observing nature has a positive effect on emotionally intelligent attributes like impulse-control, humility, empathy, patience, bias awareness and our overall ability to focus. In my own executive coaching, I have seen how much easier it is for clients to practice observing nature than it is for them to practice meditation. This might be explained by the “biophilia effect” which refers to human’s instinctive attraction to and deep affinity for the natural world. As the client builds her ability to focus attention in nature, she is better able to internalize that state and translate her observations into her leadership behaviors.
I see the four domains of emotional intelligence as the cross-section of a tree trunk—with the oldest and strongest part of the tree being the core, and as it matures the tree’s rings grow outward. In this respect, healthy self-awareness and management lead to healthy relationships with the greater ecosystem around us. The practices of Time, Perspective, Equilibrium and Calibration support all four domains of emotional intelligence, and in essence are the nourishment running through every part of the tree, and every part of emotional intelligence.
Let’s take a closer look at these four core practices:
Our modern lives run at a pace which is not conducive to being truly thoughtful and deliberate about our actions. We have multiple windows open on our phones, computers and iPads, often carrying on more than one conversation at a time. We are in essence “addicted to distraction”—banished to a state of continuous partial attention. We “lose track of time” every day. The human brain wasn’t designed to function under these conditions. So, at the core of all nature practice is relaxed intentional observation. Time is relative. A tree may take 100 years to grow ten feet. When we sit still, are genuinely present, and intentionally observe, we experience time differently, it feels as if it slows down. When we “get lost” observing a butterfly float from flower to flower, or leaves flutter on a branch, we experience a type of timelessness that reduces stress and increases positive emotion. It is restorative to the brain. We breathe without pressure. Time practices in nature are aimed at changing our relationship to time and result in our ability to slow it down, to listen and observe attentively, to watch with curiosity, and to sense what is happening around us. We slow down reactivity and impulsivity. We learn cognitive patience.
Perspective is being able to look beyond our own biases and assumptions in order to assimilate into our point of view important overlooked data. Studies show that when the brain is in a relaxed state of intentional observation it is better able to arrive at creative and imaginative solutions, and take into consideration factors it had previously overlooked or dismissed. Studies also show that gazing over a panorama, or looking through a magnifying glass at something small in nature, stimulates the imagination and opens one’s mind in unique ways. It’s been described as a state of wonder or awe and, more importantly, one which leads to a feeling of deep humility. Much of emotional intelligence depends on our ability to see beyond ourselves, which is related to our ability to enhance our perspective. This, in turn, provides us the ability to slow down time and turn our attention to the bigger picture, or conversely, the smallest detail. By staring at open landscape, perspective expands, impulsivity and reactivity decline and we are able to see why one course of action might be more beneficial – or worse – than another. Many of my clients have adopted the practice of taking photographs of small and unexpected details they would not have noticed before, often while simply out for a walk. This practice of teaching themselves to seek different perspectives in nature reminds them how to slow down and seek different perspectives as leaders.
Once we have slowed down and been able to observe and calmly absorb our surroundings, once we have gained perspective on ourselves and our challenges, we begin to want to move into action mode. Most of us have been trained to believe that drive and productivity are synonymous with action and fast results. However, nature teaches us that right action must be preceded by equilibrium. Think of an eagle in flight looking for its next meal. It balances perfectly between its left and right wings before shifting its weight decidedly one way or the other to begin a dive. One can not be truly self-aware or in self- control if one’s insight and action does not initiate from a place of equilibrium. Emotional intelligence depends on a deliberate equilibrium of all our internal forces. By observing nature’s dependence on equilibrium in order to thrive, we internalize into our bodies and minds –what it looks like, what it feels like –and we can practice equilibrium in all the many ways it can be useful. Nature is constantly fine-tuning itself for equilibrium, just as we should be before making declarative statements or making impactful decisions.
One of the most fundamental laws of nature is constant calibration. Natural systems are constantly receiving feedback and adjusting and readjusting in response to the feedback. Nutrients get sent to one part of the plant versus another depending on its health. Flocks of migrating birds shift who is the lead based on who is most alert at any given time. If you observe carefully the details of nature in action, you will come to appreciate the important relationship between equilibrium and calibration. It is a constant circle of communication that leads to critical pivoting and results in adaptability and sustainability. To leaders wanting to act in an emotionally intelligent way, biomimicry (an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating time-tested patterns and strategies found in nature) has much to teach us. When we choose to say or do something, our action should be carefully calibrated to intended outcome. And our action should be preceded by a process of judgement and balance that comes from slowing down time — enough to gain perspective and achieve equilibrium within our emotional states.
As a whole, these four practices constitute a behavioral model that supports emotionally intelligent leadership while also deepening our interdependent relationship with the natural world. The ultimate goal is that as leaders become more emotionally intelligent through a lens of nature, they will create organizational ecosystems that thrive not just for themselves, but that are sustainable for the natural world as well. This would be the hallmark of a truly sustainable and emotionally intelligent relationship.