Leaders who Label May Harm their Effectiveness

Susan S Freeman Blog

Leaders labelingYesterday I heard something in a yoga class that shouted out to me as a valuable leadership lesson:

The idea of putting a label on an experience.

Think about how many times a day you get caught up in labeling.  We endlessly label our experiences (and sometimes those of others), we label our feelings, moods and thoughts as positive/negative, good/bad, strong/weak, etc.    Our brains benefit from our ability to categorize and label; it is a way of accessing the huge amounts of data stored there.  A label can help the brain find a “similar” file drawer quickly and efficiently.  Processing data would be difficult, if not impossible, without our highly developed capacity to label.

The shadow side of labeling 

The process of affixing a label for our own experiences takes an already active (often reactive) mind and occupies it fully.  By giving an experience a label from a similar past experience or attempting to classify it in order to help predict and control a future outcome, we are harmed.  Our tendency to label beyond the need for analysis can hinder leadership because it keeps us everywhere but in the here and now.  We miss being present to “what already is.”

Learning to pay close and mindful attention to sensation without the need to label or categorize is important for leaders.

All that is required of you is to simply be in the experience rather than outside of it.

Why does “not” labeling matter?

It matters because when you are aware of what is happening in you’re here and now, be it any problem or challenge, a person or a situation you will pay close attention to its essence.   The essence of your experience defies labeling.  The essence must be experienced.   There is no other way.  You must be in it, and not outside of it.

Leaders awarenessYour heightened awareness can be experienced in your body.  Because it will speak to you in a language that may be unfamiliar at first, here is a process to get started:

  1. Stop and be still

  2. Breathe deeply from your abdomen for 3-5 breaths; lengthen the inhalation and the exhalation with each new breath

  3. Attend to the pure sensations going on in your body; learn its “language”

  4. If the tendency to classify or categorize comes up, simply continue to breathe in a relaxed manner.  Watch the tendency to label drift, as with a cloud moving across the sky

  5. Be curious; open yourself to the potential that may have escaped if you had tried to label first!

The Proper Use of Labels:

Using labels can paralyze you from being present because the act of labeling attaches feelings and emotions that may not be responsive to the moment at hand.

Instead, save labels for organizing, collecting, and grouping data.   Labels are useful when used for analysis; less so when they cause leadership paralysis!

I invite you to share your story on how leading without labels works for you.   Join the conversation so we can comment and learn.

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