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Center for Enlightened Leadership

Being Present in the Present

  Dr. Stephen L. Sokolow
  Dr. Stephen L. Sokolow
Executive Director and Founding Partner

Woody Allen famously said, “90 percent of life is just showing up.” Showing up physically is a good place to start, but to be fully present we need to show up with our minds, our consciousness. Leaders are most effective when they are present in the present. The present always offers a rich panoply of sensory images and associated feelings. Like an artist working from his paint palette, the wise leader chooses where to focus his awareness to create the best possible effect from moment to moment.

As I sat down to craft this article, I wanted to write from a state of being that was fully present to my present. I also wanted to be in a present that was conducive to the creative process. I turned on some light classical music. Bach is now playing in the background. Since it’s a beautiful day, I sat outside on my patio. So what’s in my present as I write this? Sweet inspirational music, the sound of water running and falling from my outdoor water feature, feeling a breeze on my face, arms, and legs, the pleasant smell of grass, trees, and bushes in late spring, scratching an itch on my nose, watching a blackbird fly by, seeing the leaves and branches gently shimmering in the breeze, seeing orange flowers in the garden, watching a bird taking a bath in the pond section of the water feature, shadows of leaves dancing on the patio with patches of sunlight, a writing pad in my lap, a pencil tracing ideas on paper. These are the elements of my present, my now. I can be aware of all of it, or some of it, or none of it. The present is always rich. Moment by moment we select what we will be present to.

Our present-ness becomes even more interesting when we add people and our emotions to the mix. As leaders, we exert a powerful influence on the people with whom we interact. Our moods affect others, our words affect others, our affect affects others. Each of us generates an energy field that affects those around us. We can be warm and engaging, or we can be aloof and detached. Our presence affects the presence of others. If we pay attention to people in a positive way—with our eyes, our smiles, our willingness to listen in a non-judgmental manner—we can empower others and help bring out the best in them. When we focus on others, that’s when they feel our presence. As leaders, we are both mirrors and amplifiers of other people’s energy fields. The present, the now, is always rich with possibilities. Wise leaders focus on those things that enhance people and the organization and minimize the energy going toward things that diminish people or the organization. You can’t do this unless you are fully present in the present, from moment to moment, because each moment presents new opportunities.

My lawn service just appeared in my present. The sound of the mower is loud and momentarily draws my attention. I’m going to take some deep breaths to refocus my state of being on this article. I notice that the music is still playing (now it’s Shubert), the leaves on the trees are still swaying, and I can still feel the breeze. For a short while these things left my present. Where was I? I was with you. I was writing to you. I was focused on you. I lost my sense of self and narrowed my focus. I was in a state of being that is, for me, connected to a state of doing. This state of being is relaxed, calm, peaceful, serene; it allows me to hear my own inner voice. Before writing, I set an intention to connect with my inner voice to convey ideas that would be empowering, enlightening, engaging, useful, and, for some, even inspiring. There is where a state of being flows into a state of doing. What am I doing? I am writing to you—now, at this moment, in my present. You will read it in your present. This article will be a bridge from my present to your present. My present may be in the month of June. Yours may be in July or some other month. Isn’t it interesting how presence can transcend time and space? As I mentioned earlier, it is an energy field, and that energy field is not bound by time or space.

I have the ability to strongly focus my attention, sometimes like a laser. This capability is both an asset and a liability. I mention this because it reveals a paradox about presence. From time to time my wife complains that I am not paying attention to her. She is talking but I am not really listening to her. She says things like, “You’re not here. Where are you?” She’s right—I’m not present to her because I’ve focused my presence inward. I’ve put her in the background (like the lawn mower, though she might resent the comparison) so I can focus my attention where I wish in that moment. Therein lies the paradox. We can all focus our attention internally or externally. When we focus it internally, we are present in a place and space known only to us. When we focus externally, that’s when others feel that we are present for them. Advanced beings may be able to be present internally and externally simultaneously. People who are wired like me choose one or the other in any given moment. Some people can move from one state to the other with ease; others need to pace themselves. We may need to say to others who are seeking our presence, “I just need a few minutes to complete what I’m working on or thinking about and then I’ll be available to you.”

I just noticed that the lawn mower people have departed. They really didn’t interfere with my writing. Why? Because when I was writing I narrowed my field of consciousness. I focused on you and what I wanted to say to you. I was in a semi-flow state in which ideas move effortlessly from my consciousness to my fingers on the keyboard and words appear on the screen. When I complete a thought or paragraph I shift my attention to the larger field—the one that has the lawn mower and dancing tree branches. Psychologists call this moving from foreground to background and vice versa. I mention this because sometimes we are fully present in our foreground and other times we are fully present in the background of our reality. Effective leaders are quite facile in moving from foreground to background at will.

My brother Adam and I engage in what we call “walk ‘n’ talks.” We hike in the woods and engage in heady conversations about the state of the world and our respective states of being. As I conclude this article, I want to leave you with one last concept that emerged from our last “walk ‘n’ talk” about presence. In your own way, as a leader, you are a warrior. People who seek to make the world a better place always encounter countervailing forces. To overcome those forces we must, like the best warriors, be present in our present. The best state of consciousness from which to do so is one of relaxed vigilance. This is a state of being to which we can all aspire.

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