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The Practice of Personal Leadership
By Barbara F. Schaetti, Ph.D.; Gordon C. Watanabe, Ed.D.; Sheila J. Ramsey, Ph.D.

(Excerpted from The Practice of Personal Leadership in The SIIC Intern Program)

Published by the Intercultural Communication Institute, May 2000

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Personal Leadership (PL) is not about leading others in the traditional western sense of leadership, nor is it about what some might consider a more eastern approach, keeping private our true feelings while conforming to group norms. Rather, Personal Leadership is leadership of our own internal experience such that we actively engage our intercultural encounters with consciousness and creativity. This paper posits that doing so enhances our capacities as effective interculturalists.

This paper presents the framework of Personal Leadership as it was conceptualized at the time of the writing of the full article in 2000. It reviews the principles of Personal Leadership, its theoretical foundation, and the kinds of intentional behaviors that support us in its practice.

The framework of Personal Leadership (PL) is essentially related to the most broad of human experiences and of interpersonal interaction. In this article, however, we are centrally concerned with the practice of PL in the context of intercultural communication. While some would argue that the intercultural is necessarily interpersonal and that the interpersonal is necessarily intercultural, the two arenas are made distinct by degree of complexity. That is, while both address differences in the substance of individual experience, the intercultural arena also places emphasis on differences in communicative style (Barnland, 1998). Barnland asserts that,

When people communicate between cultures, where communicative rules as well as the substance of experience differs, the problems multiply. But so, too, do the number of interpretations and alternatives. If it is true that the more people differ the harder it is for them to understand each other, it is equally true that the more they differ the more they have to teach and learn from each other. To do so, of course, there must be mutual respect and sufficient curiosity to overcome the frustrations that occur as they flounder from one misunderstanding to another. (p. 50–51)

Personal Leadership speaks specifically to the ways in which we navigate these frustrations. It suggests specific practices that foster respect and open us to the mutuality of teaching and learning across cultures.

Many of the ideas woven into the framework of Personal Leadership will be familiar to experienced interculturalists, as well as to those conversant in both eastern and western philosophic traditions. Indeed, PL is not about leading others in the traditional western sense of leadership, nor is it what some might consider a more eastern approach, keeping private one’s true feelings while conforming to group norms (Seelye and Wasilewski, 1996). Rather, Personal Leadership is leadership of our own internal experience such that we actively engage our intercultural encounters with consciousness and creativity. This paper posits that doing so enhances our capacities as effective interculturalists.

Personal Leadership: Principles and Practices
We believe that the effective interculturalist is one who commits to the transformative potential of his or her intercultural experience. As such, we assert that Personal Leadership and the intercultural experience are closely intertwined. PL promotes the transformative potential of the intercultural experience. At the same time, the intercultural experience provides a potent context for those who practice Personal Leadership. Each serves as a catalyst for the other.

Consider first one of the fundamental tenets of intercultural communication: cultural self-awareness (Casse, 1982; Bennett, 1998). From our first moments in the field we are taught, and in turn come to teach, that to understand another’s culture we must also come to understand our own and the dynamic interplay between them (Yoshikawa, 1980, 1987). Edward Hall (1996), speaking at an SIIC evening program, reminded us that it was through cultural self-awareness that the field began. He explained that before there were training programs, books, and manuals, there were only curious, self-aware individuals. They had to use their own experiences, to learn from their own mistakes and their own successes, as they attempted to work effectively across cultural difference. They served as “their own instruments.”

Since those early days some fifty years ago, the intercultural field has become increasingly sophisticated in both methodologies and knowledge. We now have books, manuals, and training programs, and professional development forums such as the Summer Institute. We can learn about the theoretical foundations of the field: low and high context (Hall, 1976, 1981), value orientation (Kluckholn and Strodtbeck, 1961; Condon and Yousef, 1975; Kohls, 1988), facework (Ting-Toomey, 1994), verbal and nonverbal communication styles (Hall, 1976, 1981), etc. We can study culture-general dimensions of intercultural interaction (Paige, 1993; Martin and Nakayama, 1997; Bennett, 1998), including such phenomenon as culture shock (Hall, 1959; Barna, 1976; Bennett, 1977; Storti, 1990) and re-entry shock (LaBrack, 1983; Pusch and Loewenthal, 1987; Storti, 1997). We can increasingly move beyond the general to the particular, having now at our disposal a plethora of well-researched culture-specific materials to prepare us for almost any given or anticipated encounter. Reviewing the Intercultural Press catalogue gives ample evidence of this.

As interculturalists we take well-deserved pride in this evidence of the field’s maturity. With such resources now at our fingertips, however, we can too-easily become seduced into a focus on the “cultural other” to the exclusion of the “cultural self.” To the degree we allow this to happen, we risk our field losing its most fundamental strength (Ramsey, 1997a).

Visionaries in the intercultural field suggest that we must re-focus our attention not only on the “cultural self” but even more specifically on the intrapersonal transformative process (Fowler and Ramsey, 1999). Nancy Adler, in fact, urges interculturalists to operate from proprioception, which she defines as “attend[ing] to internal messages, vision, and values…” (Fowler and Ramsey, 1999). Edward Hall would undoubtedly agree that the effective interculturalist must focus now as ever before on what it means to “be your own instrument” (Hall, 1996).

Personal Leadership (PL) provides interculturalists with a roadmap for this journey. It takes us to the very heart of what it means to be an effective interculturalist.

Personal Leadership is a state of mind, of heart, and of what the Japanese call our hara, or belly. It describes a way of being and of interacting with the world that begins from the “inside-out” (Covey, 1989). It asks us to be fully present in our lives, awake to our habitual behaviors and willing to look at every situation with fresh eyes. Personal Leadership offers the possibility of a creative and inspiring relationship to work, family, friends, and colleagues—to everything we do.

Practicing Personal Leadership means sustaining a commitment to deepen our own intercultural capacities. It asks us to disentangle internal experience from external circumstance, recognizing that we are the creators of the former and not the victims of the latter. Practicing Personal Leadership encourages us to recognize that every situation—every new experience, every challenging encounter, every joy and every sorrow—can serve us in both exploring and fulfilling the purpose of our lives.

Personal Leadership invites us to identify a guiding vision and to intentionally and attentively craft a life in alignment with that vision. (Ramsey, 1997b; Schaetti and Watanabe, 1998; Schaetti, 1998)

As we engage in Personal Leadership, practicing the principles of Consciousness and Creativity as presented below, the transformative potential inherent in the intercultural experience is made manifest.

The Principle of Consciousness
Consciousness is the first principle in the practice of Personal Leadership. It parallels the basic intercultural communication (ICC) tenet of developing cultural self-awareness. ICC develops this self-awareness through the encountering of difference; working and living across cultures thus offers an opportunity to cultivate one’s practice of PL.

In examining the principle of Consciousness, consider for a moment the commonly-invoked image of “a fish in water.” Is the fish aware that it lives in water? Probably not. The fish takes the water for granted. What other environment could it possibly find life supporting? It is when we are “a fish out of water”—in the experience of difference and contrast—that we become aware of our versions of “business as usual,” our habits.

It is easy to live life from habit. Many of us operate extensively on “automatic pilot.” We drive the same route to work every day, shop at the same grocery stores, engage in the same exercise program. We become habituated to making decisions, solving problems, and resolving conflicts with a repertoire of skills and strategies that have served us well over time in familiar environments. Such habitual behavior, however, is not adaptive and can in fact be quite detrimental in new cultural environments. One of the greatest gifts of the intercultural encounter is the call to “wake-up” to our habitual behaviors and to look at all situations with fresh eyes. It invites us to learn through very direct, on-going and personal engagement with difference just how we all create the water in which we live.

As the intercultural literature has recognized, fresh eyes are critical to those who find themselves in the midst of uncertain and ambiguous situations. The ability to “withhold judgment” and to “tolerate ambiguity” have long been recognized as key intercultural skills (Casse, 1982). The field has given little guidance, however, on just what to do when judgmental thoughts or discomfort in the face of ambiguity arise (as they inevitably do) in intercultural interaction. Withholding judgment too often is only an external façade—a matter of simply not speaking the judgmental thoughts. Discomfort in the face of uncertainty becomes a stoic sufferance. However, closed lips and stoic sufferance towards something regularly encountered are not particularly life-enhancing. Neither practice is sufficient for the effective interculturalist.

The unstated corollary to Edward Hall’s “be your own instrument” is “be your own teacher.” Engaging the intercultural experience with consciousness brings self-awareness forward as both instrument and teacher. It encourages us to actively engage with difference in order to expand our repertoire of behaviors and broaden the ways in which we interpret events. It also suggests that we value self-reflection—being “awake”—and that we do whatever is necessary to stay awake. Consciousness, then, is a cornerstone principle in the intercultural practice of Personal Leadership.

The Practice of Suspending Judgement
There are particular practices which encourage Consciousness. Culture shock experiences, for example, or noticing oneself thinking judgmental thoughts, become opportunities to practice self-as-teacher. We can ask ourselves, “How is it that this intercultural interaction, and especially my judgments about it, can function for me as a mirror (Cooley, 1967; Yoshikawa, 1988), can show me aspects of myself and of my own cultural conditioning?” Rather than simply withholding judgment, we can use our judgments as windows to access new learning.

As biologists Maturana and Varela suggest, humans, biologically, cannot not function from habit and cannot not judge (1992). What we can do is recognize, suspend, inquire, and allow change. We can be aware, to a point, of how we are constructing our world. We can choose to move with as much awareness as possible, even if only from one habit pattern to another.

The Practice of Engaging Ambiguity
Just as we can learn to suspend judgment, we can learn to engage ambiguity rather than to suffer it stoically. When we find ourselves feeling uncomfortable in the midst of uncertainty, we can ask ourselves, “What was I expecting that isn’t here, such that I now experience this situation as uncertain and uncomfortable?” Ambiguous experiences thereby become opportunities to develop our ability to see a situation from several points of view, to hold inquiry and curiosity in relationship to judgment, and to show respect in hitherto unfamiliar ways.

The Practice of Inviting Reflection
A third practice encouraging conscious wakefulness is that of having special times during which we sit quietly, allowing the body to relax and the mind to take a break from concern with daily events. Within this quiet space it is possible to receive insight and new information about the day just coming to a close or the meeting about to begin. Such quiet time combined with writing in a personal journal can facilitate clarity from confusion, discernment of right action from a multitude of choices. At the very least, we become balanced for another day of living life across cultures. At the best, we become ever more fully present to our own lives and to our own creativity and possibilities.

The Practice of “Something’s Up”
A fourth practice closely related to the other three is what we, the authors, have named “Something’s Up.” This means that we pay deliberate attention when we feel a disruption in our sense of cultural equilibrium, and we make a conscious choice. We can choose to engage the practices of Personal Leadership or choose to respond in the same old ways, with judgment, perhaps, and internal entanglement in the external. If as interculturalists we are committed to the practice of PL, however, the choice is clear.

It is important to remember that intercultural communication is a “whole body” experience. It influences and is influenced by what some have started to call our “bio-cultural awareness” (Castiglioni and Bennett, 1998) and what Ramsey calls “embodied knowing.” However much we may have studied and come to cognitively understand the “cultural other,” we nevertheless respond emotionally and viscerally to intercultural difference. When the behavior of a cultural other pushes our comfort zone, or we are pushed by our own attempts to behave appropriately in a different cultural context, we experience the physical dissonance of “embodied ethnocentrism” (Bennett, in Castiglioni and Bennett, 1998). As effective interculturalists, we learn to recognize that “Something’s Up.” Engaging our experience with consciousness, we tune into these culturally constructed physical responses and to the meanings we assign them. We learn to ask ourselves, “What just happened that I feel upset, uncomfortable, annoyed?”

Rather than limiting ourselves to cognitive reflection, however, we also learn to bring our attention into the sensory experience of our bodies. That is, we don’t just think about what the knot in our bellies might mean, we actively engage our cultural bodies to release the knot. We return to our quiet space, use our breath, use what Schaetti calls “authentic movement” and “authentic sound”—whatever movement and sound our bodies ask of us in that moment—to ground ourselves and to relax (DeRohan, 1984). As we learn in these ways to clear and maintain our bio-cultural sensors, we become increasingly able to engage our intercultural experience with consciousness.

The four practices discussed here foster and in turn are fostered by our capacity to “meta-level”—to step out from our experienced reality into a bigger picture, and from there to self-observe, to question how we are making meaning and creating value, how we are constructing our relationships (Langer, 1989). Approaching our intercultural interactions with this kind of consciousness, in engaging the practices, we can begin to see that all life experiences serve us. Every encounter offers the gift of bringing into awareness our deeply held expectations, assumptions, values, and patterns of thinking. As these are uncovered and their intricacies unraveled we become more able to act from a knowing of what is truly appropriate for every situation or person. We are no longer limited to drawing from a repertoire of habitual behaviors more fitting to another time and place. We can access instead the wellspring of our creative possibility.

The Principle of Creativity
Creativity is a second principle in the practice of Personal Leadership. It can be related to effective intercultural communication from several vantage points.

First, creativity is thought to be a core competence for any individual who works and lives effectively across cultures (Ramsey, 1994; Sorrells, 1996; Ramsey and Sorrells, 1996). In this sense, creativity implies that an individual is particularly flexible, having the ability to adaptively respond to what is called for in each unique situation, to rid him- or herself of “scripted expectations and [to] become free to respond as the circumstances of the moment dictate” (Howell, 1979). Such a person reacts not from habit but, calling upon a wide variety of skills and strategies, tailors a response to the particular context and people involved. Such a person knows how to learn and can incorporate all that is learned from one moment for use in the next. The principles of Creativity and Consciousness are closely interlinked.

Ramsey and Sorrells (1996) have integrated the literature to offer six phases to the creative process:

  1. Opening—when interest is sparked, curiosity rises and we become motivated to explore.
  2. Exploration—we search, wonder and wander without limits and boundaries.
  3. Reception—a time of mystery and chaos, during which it is vitally important to stay empty and open to the unknown. It is a time of trusting, of “allowing,” and of paying attention to whatever “shows up.”
  4. Connection—the “aha!” when pieces fall into place, illuminated, connecting with other pieces in ways that are new and unexpected.
  5. Manifestation—we put the new connections out into the world, try it out and receive feedback in relationship to intention.
  6. Reflection—we assess, ask about the lessons learned. This is also a time of attending to the presence of new Openings, and thus to beginning the cycle again. The more consciously that we as interculturalists engage these six phases, the more we increase our ability to adaptively respond to new and unfamiliar situations.

Calling attention to the relationship between creativity and synergy, Charles Hampden Turner (1981) discusses the process by which seemingly disparate and contradictory forces work together. This is in fact the essence of creativity: the ability to see connections where none were seen before. Such connections are facilitated by asking the “dumb questions” and by intentionally staying full of curiosity and wonder.

Creativity as we are discussing it in the context of PL is also about recognizing that we make choices in every moment about how we will experience the circumstances of our lives. We are not passive reactors to outside stimuli but the active creators of our own (Yoshikawa, 1980). When in intercultural interaction we feel offended, confused, superior, inferior, we can recognize that these feelings come from within ourselves and are not caused by the person or circumstance “out there.” Living from “the inside out,” we can respond to our emotional highs and lows with creativity rather than from either the role or attitude of victim.

Finally, Creativity as we are discussing it here also refers to a person’s joy and connection to passion. Creative living does not refer to an innate ability to dance or draw, but rather to living a life that grows from a connection to what has deeply-held meaning and motivation.

The Practice of Aligning with Vision
As with Consciousness, there are particular practices which foster Creativity. These begin with paying attention to our highest vision of possibility. It requires us to examine in very active ways what it is that feels personally generative and life-enhancing. We do this by asking ourselves what it is that brings forth joy and builds upon our unique capabilities (Ramsey, 1997b). We then invite ourselves to stay open to the information we receive, letting it guide our actions as we craft a life in alignment with our vision (Duffy, Watanabe, and Duffy, 1997).

Articulating a vision is more than a cognitive exercise. The process must engage three ways of knowing—knowing from our head, from our heart, and from our hara. As we commit to living in alignment with our vision, these three ways of knowing serve us as a guidepost. We learn to draw on their synergistic wisdom, using neither head nor heart nor hara in isolation from the whole. When we notice that they—and therefore we—are out of balance, we make conscious the creative moment. We reconnect. From that place we then either re-align our behaviors with our vision, or revisit and revise our vision to match a changed reality. Crafting a vision and living in alignment with it means that we are never left alone to respond to ethical challenges or to uncertain intercultural interactions. We have only to look to our vision, to what we know to be true for ourselves, in order to step into the creative inspiration it offers us, our passion and our joy, and to receive guidance as to our right action.

The Practice of Witnessing Emotion
Emotion opens a channel to the wellspring of creative connection, waking us up and bringing us fully into the present. It paradoxically, at the same time, disconnects us. Emotion, whether high or low, enmeshes us in the “story” we create to explain it. This enmeshment serves as a catalyst to recreate and recycle the very emotion that may be confusing us or fueling our reactive state.

We can choose to respond by “witnessing” emotion—not suppressing, not getting hooked, rather engaging the emotion as an avenue into deeper levels of inquiry. We can ask ourselves, “What is behind this emotion, what story is driving me here?” Evoking authentic movement and sound can assist us in moving out of our systems the emotions that block access to creativity. In these ways we honor emotion as another sort of mirror, one that again leads us to a deeper intercultural understanding of our experienced reality.

The Practice of Living in Liminality
The creative process requires that we spend time in the very fertile in-between experience of ambiguity or perhaps even of contradiction—of liminality. The word liminal originates in the Greek word limnos, meaning threshold. It defines that place between certainty and uncertainty, between what was and what will be. Those who study creativity speak of the liminal nature of the creative process: of being doubtful as well as certain, of being simultaneously orderly and disorderly, of being both rational and intuitive. Clearly, intercultural encounters not uncommonly foster liminal space.

For the effective interculturalist, liminality offers a place in which to hold things in a tentative way. It provides a place in which to move beyond singular truths and to examine multiple realities. It is in our intercultural encounters with difference that we can recognize the limitations of our “one right way.” Maturana and Varela (1992) call this recognition the social imperative for a human-centered ethic. Whenever we find ourselves “holding tightly to certainty,” knowing the one or even just the best right way, we can invite ourselves to step into a bigger picture, into “another domain where coexistence takes place” (Maturana and Varela, 1992). That domain is liminal space. Unconstrained there by a monocultural “either/or,” we can access the full range of our “both/and” creative options.

The Practice of Not Knowing
The practice of Not Knowing, interconnected with the other three, means intentionally putting ourselves in unfamiliar situations. The purpose is not to learn content but to engage with not knowing: with not being competent and with not being skilled. This can awaken us as interculturalists to new ways of knowing. It can open us to outcome and intentionally uncover for us a creative space in which to encounter difference. The more we can stay open to not knowing, the more we will become able to recognize unexpected occurrences, incongruities, and synergistic connections. As we exercise this “muscle,” we become increasingly able to draw on all our capacities and abilities in the face of new and challenging situations. Actively naming what we learn through the practice of Not Knowing can be a great source of creative inspiration.

Approaching our intercultural interactions with creativity, in engaging these four practices, we can experience ourselves as connected to what is most generative. As artists of our own personal paintings and poems, we can make decisions, resolve conflicts, craft a leadership style, raise a family guided by our deepest sources of inspiration and motivation. With an articulated vision, with attention and alignment and a willingness to explore liminality, our generative connection can become a familiar guide, one that is especially valuable in rafting the whitewaters of intercultural interaction.

Personal Leadership, then, is built upon the interconnected principles of Consciousness and Creativity. The best way to visualize the relationship between these two principles may be by paraphrasing Muneo Yoshikawa’s (1987) double-swing Möbius strip: “complementary and constantly in interaction.”

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