Lead From Within: The Key To Creating Social Change

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Photo courtesy of Gretchen Steidle

[The following is the full raw transcript for a LEADx Podcast interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Kevin Kruse: Hello everyone. Kevin Kruse here. Welcome to the LEADx Show, where we're on a mission to spark intentional leadership in a hundred million people over the 10 years. If you want to stand out and get ahead as a leader, as a manager, as a high potential, a highpo, at work, visit the website, LEADx.org. Check out our daily free training videos and check out the dozens of world class online learning program in the LEADx Academy.

Again, that's LEADx.org. Today on the show I talk to an amazing non-profit leader about her failure to success story from the slums of Cape Town, the secret to great relationships, and her challenge of the day, which is for us to each time we feel emotionally triggered, to pause long enough to take three breaths.

First our quote of the day is, “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” Author Peggy O'Mara. If you truly believe that, the way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice, this will change the way you talk to your children.

Our guest today is the Founder and President of Global Grassroots, an international organization that leads a social venture incubator and mindful leadership program for women and girls in East Africa. Among many other awards, our guess has been named a CNN Hero in Haiti, for her work after the devastating earthquake in 2010. Her new book is, Leading from Within: Conscious Social Change and Mindfulness for Social Innovation. Our guest is Gretchen Steidle.  Gretchen, welcome to the show.

Gretchen Steidle: Thank you so much.

Kruse: I'm looking forward to talking about your new book in just a minute, but I have a tradition on the LEADx show where I always start with the same first question, because I think our failures are always just stepping stones to something else, even if we don't know what that something else is going to be. Tell me a story about one of your best failures and what did you learn from it?

Steidle: I agree. I think there's always something to learn from failure. When I got out of business school, I really wanted to begin work in the world making some sort of difference. I was coming from this very top down approach thinking that we really just needed more corporate investment in the great ideas of social entrepreneurs around the world and where could I make a case where that was going to be most important? I thought, I'll go to South Africa, I'll understand the HIV/AIDS crisis, and I'll try to get more corporate investment in solving this problem.

At the time that I went there, in 2004, the HIV/AIDS pandemic was at such a height that some of these companies were hiring three workers for the same job because two of them would die by the end of the year.

Kruse: Oh, that's awful.

Steidle: There was a real reason why they should care. As I made my rounds to these executive boardrooms, I found time and time again there were these programs that looked good on paper and certainly were great in social marketing purposes, but they were, in many cases, totally ineffective. Companies were patting themselves on the back for having programs offering free testing and drugs, but they didn't seem to notice that not many people were even participating because of the stigma.

One day, someone asked me, “Have you ever actually talked to somebody with HIV? Maybe someone suffering from this disease in the townships?” These are the slums that surround some of the major cities. I hadn't. I didn't know how to do work on the grassroots level. I knew how to go to the top. They offered to bring me into one of these townships outside of Cape Town to talk to a young woman in her early twenties who was addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis to talk with her and some of her friends who were suffering from full blown AIDS.

As I sat there in her shack, this two room metal shack, and she was talking to me about the intricacies of HIV/AIDS and the sexual violence crisis that was wrapped up in the spread of HIV, I realized that here were the experts. Women who knew exactly what to do to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS, but they had the economic vulnerability and a lack of sexual rights and freedom that made them susceptible. Yet, this woman who was not… Her name was  Zoleka Natuli. She was not formally employed. She had no real education. She barely had some coins to spare.

She'd figured out how to make money making beaded products to bring together a group of women and men to combat this issue of sexual violence in her community. She was, in very innovative and effective ways, making real change happen. In that moment, I realized that I had completely missed where change was really happening by trying to go from a top down approach. That what I really needed to do was to listen. To go into these grassroots communities and listen to the women who, in so many ways, are deeply impacted by these crises, and know exactly what to do to fix them, but have the least access to the resources and training to do it.

In that moment, I scrapped my entire new endeavor that I was doing and dedicated myself to supporting the ideas and solutions of grassroots women around the world. That was what started Global Grassroots. From my complete ignorance and mistake about what was going to make change happen.

Kruse: This really was a great failure. It sounds funny to say that, but you went in with one set of assumptions and it completely flipped around and led, literally, to the founding and the naming of your organization. All about being grassroots.

Steidle: Exactly. You have to be able to listen to know when and to step down from your own agenda to know when to change gears.

Kruse: Right. In the beginning of the show, I shared your remarkable career, your bio, and you've been involved in so many different things. What advice would you give to a young person today, someone who wants to have an amazing career that's both varied and impactful? What would you say to someone?

Steidle: Well, I feel like thriving in your career and success shouldn't be looked just in conventional terms, but really about making a meaningful contribution, whether that's to your organization or to a broader cause, and feeling challenged to grow and learn. To do that, for me, there's been five things that have been really important. One is identifying your passion. That might be the type of work you're doing, a cause, a place, a population you want to work with. Figure out ways to leverage it in service to the greater good. Create that personal mission statement for yourself, because that's going to bring you meaning.

The second thing is to invest in your self awareness and bring the same quality of attention to your relationships. The more that you let your ego get out of the way and consider any difficult experiences that you have where you're challenged, or where you have conflict, or where you have failure as actual intelligence for you, the more you are going to improve the way in which you know yourself and relate to others.

The third is to invest in your own wellbeing because, especially in my industry, there's so much self sacrifice to the point where we burn out really quickly. It's really important to know what nourishes you in terms of your mind, your emotional wellbeing, your physical health, and spirit. Invest in those things. Set boundaries, ask for what you need, and then listen to yourself and trust your guidance.

Then fourth, find a mentor who's been through similar experiences and stay connected. It's really important to reach out and in terms of staying connected, I've had a lot of people ask my advice, but then I never know whatever happened to what they did with that advice. Stay connected, follow up, let them know how they've helped you, and ask you progress in your career, offer similar support to others who are following behind you.

My number piece of advice to everyone, and this sounds really simple but it's core to my philosophy that I've written this book about, and that is part of Global Grassroots work, it's about mindfulness. It's taking a single breath. If we could just take a single breath before we click send on that email, or that Tweet, or before we act, there is so much that would actually happen differently than when we're reactive. Take a deep breath is the first step.

Kruse: Yeah. It's creating that space between thought and action. Not just reacting instantly to everything.

Steidle: Very well said. Exactly.

Kruse: Incredibly career advice and I do recognize some overlap with what your new book is all about. This is a great segue. Again, your new book is Leading From Within: Conscious Social Change and Mindfulness For Social Innovation. You talk about the five capacities you've just sort of touched on a couple of them briefly here. Let's start, what's the big idea of the book?

Steidle: What I call conscious social change is actually a design methodology. I guess, what I'm trying to convey to the world is that mindfulness, which is now more and more in the mainstream, this process of developing your self awareness and being able to be more present every day, that goes beyond our own wellbeing, our sense of calm, or helping ourselves protect ourselves from burnout. Mindfulness is actually a design tool that we should be using in the way that we solve problems.

Whether you're doing that as a social entrepreneur, creating some new thing to address some of these intractable issues around the world, or you're doing this within your organization or your community. Or even within any sort of relationships, mindfulness is a form of brain training and it actually makes us better able to manage our relationships, to communicate, for example, and handle conflict with less anger. It reduces stress, it allows us to have more positive emotions. There's real benefits to the self, but it also helps us understand problems in a new way.

The way we diagnose issues, the way listen to people, the way we drop our ego and our agenda to really understand what's working, and what's not working, and what people need so that we, instead of imposing ourselves or demonizing our opposition and creating more divisive tactics just to win, which we see all the times in politics, we also look at being more inclusive, more responsive, and more collaborative. At the end of the day the kind of solutions we result in are more sustainable because it involves everyone's input and ownership. That results in longer term real transformation.

Kruse: Okay. This is a curveball question, not one that you probably were prepped for, but you really punched some triggering buttons here. You're right. What frustrates me is you talk about it's so common to think divisively and to demonize the opposition. I have studied a lot, and think a lot about, persuasion. One of the easiest, most powerful ways you can persuade someone, is to sort of agree with them that they have this enemy out there, and the enemy is a threat, and a growing threat, and you must band together to fight these threats, right?

What frustrates me is it seems so easy to demonize our opposition and so hard to realize that the wholeness, the oneness, of all of us together. Why is that? What is your take? Even evolutionarily speaking, biologically speaking, you would think if truth is oneness, is this mindfulness and understanding where we are alike rather than where we are different, you would think it would be easier to lean in that direction.

Steidle: Right. Yes. We have this innate interest in feeling like we belong. That started way back on the playground. We wanted to belong. It feels good to be validated in our viewpoint and to feel like we have a common experience. When we, then, associate and affiliate with a limited self interest group and demonize an enemy or pursue our own interests at the expense of or the exclusion of another, it results in actually much less effective long term change.

I think when we thrive on this sense of opposition or this competition to win, we are sabotaging our ability to understand each other and actually move towards greater progress. To realize that we are all connected, that there are all these similarities of human experience. What mindfulness does for us, as again, this is a form of brain training. Mindfulness as a definition is simply paying attention to what's happening in this moment on purpose. By doing that, we're training our brain to look at things in different ways.

The more we start noticing ourselves… This is not comfortable. We start recognizing our own patterns of behavior that might have previously we've been blind to that could be how we react to stuff and the messiness of the way we relate to people. The more we notice how we behave under stress or in conflict, for example. The more, then, we have the power to change or behavior and assumptions rather than letting us just operate on automatic pilot.

The more that we start to understand how we go through change, because we all want it, but it's hard. It's hard to adapt to things. The more we go through that experience, the more we realize that others are having the same experience. Even if we don't have the same values or we don't see eye to eye, others are going through life having the same challenges with change and we can bring a different level of human understanding of what that looks like and compassion to what's going on in their behavior.

Then we're curious about it. The same curiosity we have for ourself, we extend to others. The more we accept ourselves and our imperfections, the more we do that with others. That leads us to see a different kind of belonging and connection and a way of working together to result in the kind of change or policy that benefits the majority, or more people, as opposed to just our particular side of the equation. What we're going to see and what we keep seeing is this pendulum swing. If we don't, we get just enough votes to pass our thing and then the next time someone else is in power, they want to reverse it. That's not getting us anywhere.

Kruse: Right. Every four to eight years it swings back the other direction and you're suggesting it's only through that understanding and curiosity that we could possibly get to some long term solutions for all of us.

Steidle: Exactly. That benefit the most or that incorporate an understanding of broader needs so that everyone is participating in designing that kind of solution.

Kruse: Your book is called Leading from Within and that's one of your chapters. Of course, this is the LEADx Leadership Show. Many of our listeners are young managers, young to mid career leaders in various organizations. Tell me more about leading from within. What do you mean by that.

Steidle: Well, I would say a conscious leader is someone who works very differently from the conventional paradigm where we try to get people to comply with what we want with incentives or punitive measures. We're telling or forcing people to change. A conscious leader who leads from within starts first, as I've just been describing, by understanding the circumstances around them and change from the inside out.

As we come to understand ourselves with much greater clarity and self awareness, we have deeper understanding and compassion for others. From there, we then engage with people and our relationships we build from a very different kind of awareness and quality. The quality of attention defines the quality of our relationships. We too are able to connect with people more deeply. Leading from within also involves us finding and leveraging our own gifts and purpose that brings us meaning. When we do that for ourselves, we are more likely to seek to support others in doing that for them too, rather than just seeking to find people to attend to our own agenda.

By doing so, we inspire people. We inspire people to step into their highest capacities and to contribute in ways that are meaningful to a common vision or a greater whole. Conscious change leaders who lead from within come into their work with others with a greater humility, and greater curiosity, and deeper listening skills than most of us do and attempt to live with that kind of integrity and engagement with world that is inner driven and is more other focused.

Kruse: Love it. I just want to underscore for our listeners, you said something I just scribbled down. It's pure gold. The quality of our attention determines the quality of our relationships. I'm always reminding people that I feel we're leaders at work, we're leaders at home, we're leaders everywhere we go. Boy, that statement quality of our attention determines the quality of our relationships, can apply in so many different areas. Gretchen, I like to challenge our listeners. I say, don't try to transform yourself, your life, all in one day. Try to get a little bit better on this never ending journey. Can you give us something practical from your book or experience that … Something that we could do today?

Steidle: Yes. If everyone had—I'll give you two quick things.

Kruse: Okay.

Steidle: If everyone is able to start by giving themselves, instead of hitting a snooze button, or instead of taking a coffee break, both are about seven to nine minutes long, typically, just take a moment to spend time in solitude. Whether that's going for a walk or sitting on your own with your eyes closed and just watching your breath. Just paying attention with awareness to how you breathe.

That is the start of a mindfulness practice or meditation that will begin to train your brain to realize all of these many different kinds of benefits we've been talking about. There's numerous apps and I even have some guided meditations on my website, conscioussocialchange.org, where you can find some practices to help guide you in this. That alone will get you started in this process of being a more mindful leader.

The second thing is to take three breaths before you respond, especially in circumstances where you feel really triggered. Annoyed, frustrated, irritated and your inclination is to react. A very quick story of how that makes a major difference involves a woman I was working with in Rwanda who I taught this skill to. She came back to me at one point and she said, “The other day I went home and my kids had totally destroyed my home and I was so angry. I usually just spank my children, but today I remembered what you said and I took three breaths. I realized, I don't want to hit my kids. I just want them to clean up the house, so I was able to explain to them this and they listened to me for the first time. I was so profoundly transformed by this that it's made me think a lot more about the issue that I'm working on.”

This woman was a social change agent working on domestic violence and she realized in that moment how easy it is for our automatic patterns to actually perpetuate violence. That she had deeper compassion for how she was going to try to change other perpetrators of domestic violence and she shifted her approach to not only working with couples but working on parenting skills so as to help raise the next generation without violence. That single moment of taking three breaths in her personal life transformed the whole way that she was designing and going to work with other people in her domestic violence work in her community. That's all it takes, is three breaths.

Kruse: I love both pieces of very practical advice. Very powerful. Not to minimize the story from the woman in Rwanda, but really to build on it, I was in an executive health program in Philadelphia a couple years ago and one of the things was me spending time with someone who'd been advanced training in mindfulness and meditation. When she came in, and we were talking, and she was very… Almost the stereotype. She was very zenned out. Almost monk-like.

She said in a soft voice, she said, “I can tell you're very calm and present, Kevin, but what do you find triggering? When do you react without pausing?” I said, “That's usually something with my kids.” Then she just shook her head says, “Yeah, my kids trigger me too.”

Steidle: So true. They're our biggest teachers I think.

Kruse: I think so.

Steidle: Just one quick comment. I'm not proposing that we all work to simply get to a place of no reaction or calm, although you may get there. Sometimes it is necessary to channel anger in a way that's very potent and can raise attention. If we do not pair that with mindfulness, we could create harm. This is about using our presence and our capacity wisely and consciously to channel our energy in a way in our decision making, and our actions, and choices, and words, more effectively as opposed to letting it drive us.

Kruse: Love it. Gretchen, how can our listeners find out more about you, your work, and your new book? I know you have a couple of different websites you want to mention, right?

Steidle: Sure. Well, Global Grassroots, my non-profit that teaches this kind of work with change agents in Africa is at globalgrassroots.org. Then I also have a personal website, conscioussocialchange.org where I have access to a link to my book, and toolkit, and a whole range of different courses, and mindfulness videos for those who want to start learning what it's like to apply mindfulness to the way in which we create change or lead.

Kruse: Fantastic. We will put those links, of course, in the show notes and everywhere that this episode appears.

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Kevin Kruse
CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE trial of the LEADx platform at https://page.leadx.org/demo.