As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Abigail Stason.
Abigail “Abby” Stason is a social activist with 35 years of professional experience as an Integrative Leader, Master Teacher, Organizational Consultant, and Group Facilitator. She is a thought leader and facilitator of embodiment — she “practices what she preaches” — conscious leadership. As a disrupter, Abby is committed to a new social awareness in favor of exposing old and limited structures that are no longer of service giving way to the experience of peace, freedom, and truth in the world. In short, she helps leaders, teams, and organizations wake up by equipping them with behavioral practices.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I am passionate about supporting leaders and humans in being more conscious. I feel privileged to share my journey from a unconscious executive to a conscious human being.
I was born and raised in New Jersey, graduated from college, and like most people, entered “the rat race”. I spent 20 years on Wall Street. When I share this piece of information it’s super fun to watch the responses. It’s usually a big “wow!”
I lived and led through the 2008 market crash and in 2009 my Dad died. This was a pivotal time for me. While I was a successful business leader, my passion is about developing people and impacting the world in a more meaningful way. I knew I had to get out of the bubble of Wall Street to step fully into alignment with what I stood for. Leaving my compensation behind, I “jumped off the cliff” into the unknown and haven’t looked back. While this was a gutsy move and would do it again, I teach people how to come into alignment more gracefully so that it’s not such a “cliff event” for them.
My entire life I experienced a profound desire for something unspeakable. And I realized others wanted it too. What I wanted was to be awake — to be more conscious. My gift is taking spiritual and abstract concepts and turning them into applicable practices — this is my role in the world — teaching people how to be conscious leaders.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I forever remember a pivotal point for me keeping me forever grounded. At the time I didn’t think it was funny, but as I look back now it’s hilarious.
One day, I left my office in lower Manhattan to head home. Wearing a suit, heels, makeup, and with a briefcase in hand, I realized I’d be late to catch the ferry. Without a thought, I put it into high gear and started running. I made the ferry just in time. While sitting on the ferry I realized Wow! Here I am in my suit and heels, and I just passed a runner!
Yes, that’s right — I passed a runner while dressed in my suit and heels. The scene could easily be a skit from Saturday Night Live. The effects of pushing myself served as a wake-up call. I suffered from headaches, neck pain, shoulder pain, hip pain, and, finally, shooting foot cramps in my feet and up my legs. This ferry experience for me was the catalyst for me to move toward what I wanted, to move toward my passion.
I started to investigate: why was I running? What was I running from? I discovered I was running from myself and in that recognition, I realized I was the “punchline of the cosmic joke”. The learning for me was not to take myself and everything so seriously.
Fast forward to recently (pre-COVID) while delivering a keynote one day, I tripped across the stage on my own two feet (I didn’t fall). I was able to laugh, and the audience laughed with me. I used this experience to point out we are all very human and in fact, very funny creatures. As leaders, it’s time to be real and show our humanity instead of pushing ourselves so hard and taking ourselves so seriously. Amidst the intensity of the world, we can hold it all lightly.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I continue to be forever grateful for my spiritual teacher, Gangaji. She is ruthlessly in support of the invitation to wake up to the truth of who we are. When I first was introduced to her through a YouTube video it was like a lightning bolt hit me. I was watching the video and thinking “I want THAT!!!” Gangaji is the support I was seeking.
I immediately googled her and found she had an event that month in my local area — of course, I attended. While at that event I signed up for her silent retreat at Fallen Leaf Lake. That first silent retreat with her was a profound experience. I realized how much I suffered in the stream of my thoughts — I call this my “privileged person’s suffering”. Through her teachings, I experience peace and ease. The by-product of this experience is I am more present to myself, my clients, and I can fulfill my role in the world.
Over the years I volunteer for the Gangaji Foundation. The most rewarding experience is being involved in their Prison Program as a prisoner correspondent. I correspond with prisoners about what it means to be awake in the world. It’s a humbling experience to witness through handwritten letters prisoners’ experiences of freedom while behind bars. I feel extremely lucky to be exposed to such a program.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
I see, hear, and read so much about “being in your purpose,” and inevitably, this topic arises in my workshops and during coaching sessions. In my experience, people become confused with thoughts about purpose. These thoughts invite self-doubt and diminished self-esteem, leading to suffering. The topic of purpose becomes heavy. It’s important to distinguish between your purpose and your role. To bring clarity to the conversation I teach it this way.
We play various ROLES in our lives: executive, parent, child, friend, engineer, volunteer, colleague, etc. Our PURPOSE is to wake up and love each other — and as a human species, we are being invited to grow and evolve to meet the demands of this global, modern society. When we let go of the overloaded term purpose, we are equipped to have a more intelligent conversation about our role on this planet, how we want to contribute, and how we want to spend our time.
With this context, smarter questions can be asked, such as:
- What roles do I currently hold?
- What new roles do I want to take on or get rid of?
- As I mature each decade what roles are relevant and appropriate?
- How do I want to contribute to society for the good of all?
Furthermore, I teach everyone to consider a personal mission statement. Mine is: To be an exceptional partner to the human race and planet and to facilitate global awakening. I can live into my personal mission as a human no matter what role I am playing in the world, regardless of if my role changes. ROLES WILL CHANGE OVER TIME THEY ALWAYS DO!
Two of the many roles I play are Conscious Leader Facilitator and Volunteer For A Nonprofit. These roles change based on circumstances and context; therefore, I am “wearing different hats.” But my purpose — to wake up and love each other — never changes, and I can stay true to it no matter which role I am playing. I eliminated my former role as Wall Street Executive years ago, but it wasn’t an existential crisis, as my purpose to wake up never changed. And I continually live into my mission statement.
The same applies to your company or organization. Companies are made up of people — the purpose is still to wake up and love each other. You can ask the same role-related questions of your company:
- What role do we want to play as a company?
- How do we want to contribute for the good of all?
- Is our current role becoming outdated?
- Are the products we are producing beneficial to a global society
- Is there a role for us to play in educating the public?
As people become more conscious and wake up, they are attuned, with their awareness, to their impact on societies and the planet. With conscious awareness comes the agility to examine the organization’s role in the world and if it’s in existence for the good of all. Conscious leaders and companies are not tone-deaf to their impact. They know that waking up and growing as humans is the challenge of our lifetime.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
When times become uncertain or difficult, I lead more deliberately and actively. We are in the most uncertain and difficult times in modern history. We are still in the middle of this global pandemic. Now is the time for conscious leadership. In all my interactions I invite people to be present with themselves. I ground them in what’s important. I acknowledge what’s happening and how tough it is. I encourage people to recalibrate what they can get done during these unprecedented experiences.
Most of all, I instruct them to capture the learning that is being presented to us rather than languishing in the drama of it all. Humans tend to wallow in their mind chatter, which leads to suffering. There is enough going on in real life without having to add to it. There is enough pain to experience, but when we add negative thoughts, blaming, or shaming to our pain, we suffer unnecessarily.
Uncertain and difficult times are usually associated with loads of change. I consciously lead people with transparency and conscious discussion. For within the constant change and disruption we can always find what does not come and go by creating white space for the whole of the experience. In this white space is the learning and deeper wisdom we can gain. I’m not saying it’s easy. In fact, right now times are intense. Even in this intensity, we can learn.
And my next point is SO simple: during unprecedented times we must be unapologetic in our self-care. How can we exist in this modern, pandemic world if we don’t take care of ourselves?
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I approach the world a little differently. I don’t consider giving up. I DO wonder sometimes if this is the role I am to play in the world and I consistently challenge my own assumptions. What keeps me grounded and motivated is my mission statement I shared earlier. I periodically ask, “how does my mission statement want to manifest in the world — in a practical way?”
Being a conscious human being and creating a conscious culture is not for the faint of heart. It can feel daunting to invite leaders to be conscious when so much of the world is driven by fear and unconscious behavior. Then as I tune into my mission statement and live into my conscious commitments, I feel validated and supported.
Finally, I don’t exist in a vacuum. I am consistently concerned to know where I am relative to my various personal and professional projects and whether I am succeeding or failing. I search for feedback from the environment so as to adjust my course accordingly. The potential always exists that new information will require and adjustment of plans or intentions. How quick I will be to note such developments and respond appropriately has everything to do with the level of consciousness at which I operate. When I operate at a high level of consciousness, I am able to persevere in the attempt to understand and pivot in spite of difficulties.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Not only during challenging times, but also in this complex modern world, the role of a leader is to facilitate. Over the years, we’ve all heard the phrase “leader as coach.” There have been many programs created around this concept, where companies have pulled people away for a couple of days and taught them coaching skills. When they return to their day-to-day activities, these new coaching skills fall by the wayside. Is the Leader As Coach model dead? Maybe not yet, but it’s dying.
We are most familiar with the term coach in the sports arena. Coaching in sports typically involves instructing and/or training. There is one crucial distinction as to why coaching doesn’t transport from sports to leadership. In sports, ALL roles are established and don’t change. The rules and regulations of sports do not change or rarely change. The field/court is standardized — no matter where you play. Very little of this rings true in companies, especially technology companies. Imagine a sporting event where the roles, rules, and field are constantly changing throughout the event. This is what modern leaders navigate. By now you get it and are asking: what’s the alternative?
To consciously facilitate means to make it easier or less difficult. My goal as a leader is to be a facilitator — to bring ease to every situation and experience, even when extremely intense. A facilitative leader is a present leader and can bring what’s required to any situation. To this day I consider myself a facilitator.
Being a facilitator is an invitation into personal and collective responsibility. With everyone facilitating instead of wasting time in drama, and by taking personal and collective responsibility, we can spend our time on productivity, innovation, and connection — learning and development. Facilitating presence is fertile ground for accelerated growth.
What is required is a change in context to take full responsibility for your experience. The time and energy we spend trying to “coach” others is mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually draining. Instead, that time and energy can be spent on taking full responsibility for our own career, experience, value system, work-life balance, creative expression, new projects … the list here goes on and on.
Imagine a company where everyone is off autopilot, facilitating presence, aware of how they are showing up, and focused on facilitating their own experience. Imagine the ability to consciously navigate internal tension and situations that drain energy throughout the day. Let’s face it, the world today is a challenging place. It can’t fall entirely on the leader to Hero every situation — it’s simply a bandwidth issue. Anyone can facilitate all of the time. All that is required is to be a skillful conscious human being. With the serious global issues before us, being a masterful human being is non-negotiable.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate, and engage their team?
Even in the most difficult, challenging, and uncertain of times, there is ALWAYS the opportunity to learn. We all know employees don’t leave their company; they leave their manager. When employees are constantly growing and developing, they will feel fulfilled. Leaders can make sure employees are being developed, for challenging times are fertile ground for growth. I would never want to live through the 2008 market crash again, but the growth and learning were unparalleled.
Here is what leaders can do to inspire and boost morale:
- Make sure everyone has a six-month developmental plan so that growth doesn’t fall by the wayside — at ALL LEVELS
- Celebrate individual and collective wins along the way
- Recalibrate expectations when times are tough. It’s ok to have a high standard of excellence, but it must be calibrated for context. For instance, riders during the Tour de France reset their expectations and ride differently when it’s raining and cold versus when it’s 70 degrees and sunny.
- Reinforce the importance of a commitment to learning. Being a conscious human being is a never-ending process and there are plenty of skills to learn for navigating the human condition in a modern world.
- Ask! Ask your employees what they want and how they want to be recognized. In doing so you bring clarity and eliminate the guessing game.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way to communicate difficult news to anyone is immediately and directly. This is simply said, but not easily done. We lose an inordinate amount of energy when we delay the natural timing of tough conversations and on the customer service side, the relationship suffers for it. I can’t stress this enough.
Here’s an example: when I worked at the private bank, the tendency was for people to avoid telling a client “no”. High net worth clients sometimes request complex transactions and instead of being direct and saying “no, the company is not willing to take on this risk”, people avoided the conversation. Clients always end up angry and trust is broken. It’s ALWAYS best to be immediate, direct, and honest. Trust and loyalty can be built through saying “no”.
Here’s another example: in my early days of coaching a friend pressured me to coach someone. I agreed and after two sessions, I realized I was not the right coach. I immediately told my client, referred her to another coach, and paid for that first coaching session. She appreciated my honesty, was feeling the same, but didn’t want to say. She trusted me even more and referred clients to me who WERE a fit.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
What’s exciting about this modern world is we know a lot more about how our brains work and how what happens in our brains leads to behavior. Science is informing us and is educating us about how we show up and collaborate. Science tells us the main causes of stress are loss of control and lack of predictability. You can see these two equal ambiguity.
To the brain, predictability lessens stress. When we have information about what’s coming, we are comforted. Similarly, by knowing what’s coming, our stress is reduced by knowing what is not coming. What’s even more remarkable is even when everything is okay, a loss of predictability STILL causes a stress response. Yes — EVEN IF EXTERNAL CIRCUMSTANCES ARE OKAY the brain initiates a stress response in wanting to predict! With information we can predict, the nervous system knows which coping strategy is likely to work. When we can’t predict, this sends our nervous system into a frenzy.
This clearly explains why people would rather pay to shock themselves with an electric shock than sit silently. When we sit in silence and stillness, we don’t know what’s coming, hence, a fear of the unknown arises. An electrical shock is known. This is also why we can’t sit still. We move into action to make things predictable. These activities create a lot of QUANTITY of action instead of QUALITY of action.
For instance, if a co-worker regularly and consistently “flies off the handle,” this is stressful — but it’s predictable. If you have a co-worker who sporadically does the same, this is MORE stressful, because it’s unpredictable, and this is the type of experience that leads to health issues.
Now, ask yourself: “What can I predict in my life, work, or anything?” Not much, right? It’s intelligent in this modern world to assume change is constant and unpredictable. Therefore, we must know our relationship to ambiguity. We must cultivate a strong mind by learning how to sit in the agitation of the brain wanting to predict. In mastering our mind and biology, we can investigate what planning is needed and pivot when necessary.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The practice of presence is the foundation for every interaction and situation. For when we are present, we are existing in reality and interested in truth, no matter how inconvenient. When we are present, we are aware of ourselves, of what’s going on around us. We are aware of our impact on others.
Conscious Leaders know that the practice of presence is by far the most beneficial and exponentially transformative skill to cultivate. Presence is being with what is — exactly as it is. The benefits of presence include efficient use of time, authentic connection, easeful collaboration, access to creative capacities, and increased vitality. Being present allows us to actually BE in our experience and gain the wisdom and insight from it. This wisdom plus our cognitive intelligence makes for a powerful combination.
For example, navigating conflict requires a shift in the context of our thinking and action, a shift to Presence. When we are present, our primary goal is to stay connected to ourselves and others. Once shifted, curiosity and innovation can replace being defensive and deadlocked.
Mastery of the practice of presence supports us in navigating the ups and downs of turbulent times. Through presence, we can navigate anything, which includes recognizing when we must retreat.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The first and most important common mistake is not learning quickly from our mistakes. We must “fail fast”, learn, and move on. When we create a culture where mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn and grow everyone wins.
The second mistake we make is we judge our mistakes. We waste so much time criticizing ourselves, assigning blame, we aren’t able to recover from mistakes or see potential challenges that may come. Stop the judging and blaming and shift into learning.
Finally, one of the most amazing mistakes companies make during easy or difficult times is not teaching people about style preferences. I am continually amazed at how extensively the misunderstanding of individual style differences derails organizations, relationships, teams, and communication between people. It’s as if the list is endless. With so much focus on “what” we do, we ignore the “how”. Every person has a set of style preferences
The invitation is to investigate unconscious conditioning. While this seems elementary, we are not taught what our conditioned preferences are. I go out of my way to explain this to young people, empowering them with this advantage as they enter the workforce. This conflict happens at ALL levels and in ALL contexts — from the C-Suite to individual contributors, to volunteers, to intimate relationships, to two people planning a party. It’s time to use the gas pedal and brake pedal of conditioning consciously. At the end of the day, presence should dictate our actions and behavior instead of our preferences or conditioning. This is the “low-hanging” fruit of conflict and neurodiversity.
Conditioning is necessary and useful. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to function as human beings. When left unbridled however, we fall into autopilot, groupthink, and don’t have the leadership agility necessary in an information age.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
At the core of this topic is understanding how pervasive fear is. Fear keeps people, teams, and companies from forward momentum and innovation. Fear keeps leaders from collaborating for the good of all. Fear keeps human beings stuck and can even lead to self-sabotaging behaviors. You’ve probably heard of fear patterns: fight, flight, freeze, faint, and tend and befriend. These are the unconscious fear patterns that keep companies stagnate. The more we recognize the signs of fear, the better of we are. A company with an atmosphere of fear is an organization that isn’t agile.
It’s time to reframe fear into a useful emotion. Tapped into consciously, fear is an emotional energy sending the signal it’s time to pay attention to something. When feeling scared, nervous, stressed, tense, these are all signs we should pay attention to what’s going on. It’s time to get the oxygen flowing and investigate the truth to discover aligned action.
These days technology is disrupting everything. Add to that a global pandemic creating even more disruption. It’s easy to become scared about what to do, how to survive as a business. Many businesses didn’t make it through the pandemic. Instead of fear-based frenetic action, we can ask:
- Are we still relevant?
- How do we need to pivot right now given our context?
- How is fear keeping us from overcoming our challenges?
- Is there anything we need to pay close attention to right now?
- Who can we bring in for advice?
- How can we maintain our culture during such extensive disruption?
Conscious leaders know to speak openly about fear and how it affects companies. They deliberately lead during challenging times and don’t leave things to chance. Opportunities exist during difficult economies. Masterful leaders facilitate presence and support everyone in overcoming fear to take advantage of any situation.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- LEAD CONSCIOUSLY: In a world where industries are being turned upside down a new leader is emerging — the conscious leader. In this global modern world, we must be aware of our impact, as humans and companies. Whether times are turbulent or not, we can no longer lead today like we did yesterday.
- SUPPORT PEOPLE AND THE ORGANIZATION IN NAVIGATING AMBIGUITY: I’ve mentioned this before, all leaders must support their people in navigating ambiguity. Not everything can be predicted and/or controlled, however, leaders can acknowledge ambiguity and share how they navigate turbulence. Making sure people support each other creates a sense of belonging. In that belonging, they know they are not alone and will have more energy.
- KEEP PEOPLE GROUNDED IN THE VISION: By giving people a “north star” they have something to ground to. I offered this earlier. In any uncertain times, we can always wake up and love each other. From there we can examine our role in the world and pivot when necessary. Leaders should share their personal mission statement. And of course, leaders can ground people in the overall vision for the company.
- MAKE SURE LEARNING IS AS IMPORTANT AS ACCOMPLISHING THE OUTCOME: When we are solely focused on the outcome, we skip over valuable experiences that can inform us. I coached a leader who was headed to burnout — so focused on getting the project completed, it was as if she was wearing blinders. Her team followed suit and the project was about to fail. During the coaching, I taught her to check in to see what the team was learning during the process. By simply pausing to get present she realized there were duplications of effort. She and the team learned to stop, get present and see what actually wanted to happen rather than pushing for what they thought “should” happen.
- SUPPORT PEOPLE AND THE ORGANIZATION IN NAVIGATING CHANGE: With all of the disruption in the world, change is truly constant. During the Wall Street crash, I spoke of how much we needed to understand our relationship to change. We literally spoke of this specifically for each person who experienced change differently. In knowing this about each other, we were able to support each other through stressful situations.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary” — Viktor Frankl, Holocaust Survivor
Every year, I make it a priority to read Man’s Search for Meaning. For me, it’s a superb reminder by Dr. Frankl to be grateful for my life. I am a privileged individual, and even so, it’s easy to be pulled into the well of suffering by complaining about “first world problems.”
Another reason I read it each year is to never forget what human beings are capable of when in their individual and/or collective fear state: Us vs Them. There’s no better way to be reminded of this than to hear a person’s experience of living through the Holocaust. The book is a reminder for me to not waste a moment and to live in gratitude each day and to remember I am not separate from others.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Everything we discussed here is easier said than done. We must learn new skills for this global world and practice. Anyone can start learning by picking up a copy of my book: Evolution Revolution — Conscious Leadership For An Information Age. Don’t wait for your company to develop you. Start with friends, colleagues, even family. Read about a topic and download worksheets at my website: www.abigailstason.com. People can also access handouts and other resources on my website.
I offer 1:1 coaching, team workshops and retreats and soon to be announced online offerings. And of course, you can follow me on social media.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!