“Opening Up Is a Practice, Not a One-Time Activity.”
Graceful leadership requires you to connect with the love, compassion and authenticity of your inner self, Alexsys Thompson argues in The Power of a Graceful Leader. Embarking on graceful leadership is challenging, but it can be one of the most important missions you’ll undertake.
Alexsys, the term “grace” is not usually found in common leadership development literature. What made you choose the term?
Grace is the pathway to integration for a conscious leader. It is about putting the new awareness into action within an organization, community and the world at large. After a couple of decades of working with leaders in executive coaching and team facilitation, I found that the pivot point for most people was happening inside their grace center. The shift did not just happen on an intellectual level. These leaders were beginning to radiate energy underpinned with love and courage and draw other people in. Words like ‘grace’ aren’t necessarily used in business today. When I was looking to publish this book, some prospective publishers told me that I would need to remove the word ‘grace’ in the title. This sent me straight into self-publishing. I am okay with this book being a little uncomfortable for us – this means that we are on the edge of growth.
How would you define grace?
Grace is loving, connected compassion for yourself. Grace extends itself to all of existence. Grace is experienced and felt. It is not an abstract concept. The more the head tries to make sense of it, the more aloof the experience of grace can become.
Most of us can relate to showing up as different people at work and at home. How do we hold ourselves back when we don’t bring our whole selves to work?
Imagine that you have this really cool tool chest about how to be you. It comes complete with all these cool gadgets and ways of being in the world. But you leave one drawer locked when you go to work because that’s the one you only use at home. We learn what drawers to keep locked because keeping them closed may have worked for you in the past, and it has become a habit. So you shut yourself off from a whole tool chest that could make you a more effective leader – skills such as empathy, compassion and active listening. This is where the delineation between power and force comes in. Grace and compassion are powerful, not forceful.
Many employees feel confused about how much they want or should share about their personal lives and feelings. What’s your advice on navigating this question?
This is an intimate journey, and what works for one person in a given situation may not work for us all. I personally struggled with this one myself, and I still do. I grew up in a time where the expectation, both spoken and unspoken, was to keep home at home and work at work. Times have changed, yet for many, the fear remains. When practicing transparency, I recommend starting with people you already know are safe, so you have some ‘good’ experiences to build your courage up. Then look for a place, person or situation at work where you can begin to practice letting yourself be seen. Be kind to yourself through this process as lots will come up. One of the best gifts this process will bring you is a keen awareness of how you identify and set boundaries in healthy ways. You will goof it up, then respond with love and courage for yourself and others as needed. The biggest mistake people make is to move from being very closed off to very open overnight. This will shock your system and catch others off guard. Opening up is a practice, not a one-time activity.
I am okay with this book being a little uncomfortable for us – this means that we are on the edge of growth.
Becoming a graceful leader doesn’t happen in a day or a single leadership development retreat. Progress won’t be linear, and there will always be setbacks. Once committed to following the path toward greater integration, how do you keep yourself on track?
The quickest way to notice that you are out of alignment with yourself is when you start having a really negative connotation about a situation or a person. That’s a red flag signaling that you are not operating from the best and most graceful version of yourself. Be aware, pause and readjust. Practice humility, clean up the messes you may have created and get back into alignment. Most things are never all the way awesome or all the way horrible, right? When you catch yourself thinking in absolutes, you probably should take a pause and start asking yourself what’s underneath this strong reaction. Be with this inquiry for a bit. I have found that I need to peel off at least three layers to get to the root, so don’t automatically accept the first answer that comes up, which is often a defensive response. Gently ask yourself whether that first answer is true and dig deeper until you can move on with more grace. Gratitude is an entry point for grace. Gratitude helps you reframe a situation and gives you access to at least one other possibility.
What are the benefits of a regular gratitude practice?
There are many good, robust studies on gratitude. The part that I find most fascinating is how a gratitude practice can impact health. I’ve seen it with me and with many leaders I have worked with. A regular gratitude practice boosts your emotional, mental and physical resilience. For me, that has meant that my emotional lows no longer feel so consuming. I still experience lows, but I know that they aren’t going to be there forever. Prior to starting a gratitude practice, my low points felt as if I was never going to recover. Now I know that I can just be with these difficult emotions for as long as I need to but without allowing myself to wallow in that space. My gratitude practice has helped me with getting unstuck thousands of times.
Gratitude is an entry point for grace.
There are many different types of gratitude practices, including journaling and gratitude lists. Are there methods that are more effective than others?
I like the old-fashioned pen or pencil way of journaling. Gratitude journals with prompts often work better than blank notebooks, which can make people freeze. The framework you use really doesn’t matter. Just get in the habit of writing down some things you are grateful for. Make it light-hearted to get started. There are lots of good apps and organizations out there to help you with the process.
What is your favorite gratitude practice?
We all have different ways of accessing our heart center. I’m an author, so I enjoy words. Some people will create art in gratitude. Others exercise for gratitude. There are lots of different ways to get there. Journaling is just one place to start. Personally, I like practicing gratitude while doing my morning chores. Gratitude for the mundane brings joy.
My gratitude practice has helped me with getting unstuck thousands of times.
A critical number of people acting with more grace can truly transform workplace culture. How would you go about implementing grace as a guiding principle within an organization?
If you are a leader, the best place to start is with yourself: Exemplify the principles of grace as you practice them. It is now a frequent experience for leaders I have worked with to loop back with me a couple of years after starting their path into grace and tell me, ‘You won’t believe what just happened. I just had a huge shift and got recognized for it.’ People may start asking, ‘What’s different? Have you lost weight? Is your hair different?’ And really, none of those things might have changed. But the essence of who you are is just different energetically. And people notice that but can’t put it into words. This shift in you creates openings for very different conversations – and everything around you starts to change.
When you catch yourself thinking in absolutes, you probably should take a pause and start asking yourself what’s underneath this strong reaction.
How can organizations support this shift?
If an organization already prioritizes individual and team wellness, a leader can dive right in and introduce the principle of grace – perhaps by organizing a book club or bringing in a speaker. But before all that can happen, you will need to create psychological safety. You as a leader will need to do your work – to be willing to look bad, make mistakes, clean them up and make amends. You can practice and model this behavior when the stakes aren’t high. As you become more graceful, you will find that you will become more curious, less judgmental and less negative. This way, you build the resilience you need when the crisis comes. So often, it is inside a crisis that the gift of grace offers so much to so many. If you do the prework now, you and your organization will be ready.
Grace is experienced and felt, it is not an abstract concept.
Do you have recommendations for team practices?
Traditional team-building practices may not be the type of activity that brings grace, but they are important for building relational skills and creating a desire to be together. Conversations about grace and love build on top of this foundation. So instead of going bowling, you may initiate deeper conversations around a personality assessment. The advantage of personality assessments is that they create a common language. They provide a framework that enables team members to connect with themselves and each other at a deeper level. Another fun way to dive into grace is through the gift of sharing stories. Stories are memorable, and people bond around storytelling, enabling teams to build a strong and resilient foundation to draw upon.
About the Author:
Alexsys Thompson is a pioneer in leadership, bringing gratitude, grace and love into leadership development and executive table conversations. A board-certified executive coach, Alexys served as adjunct staff at The Center for Creative Leadership and is a member of the Forbes Coaching Council. She is the author of The Power of a Graceful Leader, and hosts a podcast by the same title.