Being Well and Leading Well by Dr. Katalin Illes
Being Well and Leading Well
Presented at the Leading Wellbeing Research Festival
16-18 July 2015
Ambleside, Cumbria, UK
Dr. Katalin Illes
University of Westminster, London
Building on the latest research in leadership, neuro-biology, organisational and leadership development the paper suggests that the socioeconomic, geopolitical and cultural-spiritual challenges of our time are interconnected. To address them we need a fundamental change of perspective. “Not only do we have to change things, but we have to change the way we see things” (Brabandere 2005, p. xi). We need to let go of the mindset of maximum “me” – maximum material consumption, and start looking at the world as deeply interconnected (Scharmer, O. and Kaufer, K.2013.). Leaders have a key role to play in recognising individual and collective responsibilities and showing the way towards a more human and healthier way of life. Learning to see our blind spots requires a particular kind of deep personal and collective listening. To recognise our patterns we need to slow down, suspend judgment, listen with our whole being, be comfortable with the silence and wait patiently for the feelings and thoughts to emerge.
The benefits of connecting mind, heart and the felt sense are well documented. Integrating such practices into the organisational culture increase the level of wellbeing, the levels of trust, honesty and openness of communication.
Some techniques from the Leadership Embodiment practice are explained. These techniques utilise the somatic intelligence of the body and when practiced regularly reduce stress, enable more skillful presence and assist wellbeing and good leading in organizations.
There is awareness about the complexities of leadership and the demands on leaders. The search for integrated and practical approaches to leadership and organizational development to support the wellbeing of leaders and followers in the workplace comes from many fields including critical management studies (Sinclair, A. 2007; Ford, J.and Harding, N. 2007; Cunliffe, A. 2009; Alvesson, M. and Spicer, A. 2012) philosophy (Ladkin, D 2010) business and virtue ethics (Zsolnai ed. 2015) and neuroscience (Hanson, R. 2009). Some organisations offer training programmes in emotional intelligence, mindfulness meditation or encourage physical activity by supported gym memberships, others introduce embodiment training and follow the techniques of Wendy Palmer (http://www.leadershipembodiment.com), Richard Strozzi-Heckler (http://www.strozziinstitute.com), or Paul Linden (http://www.being-in-movement.com).
There is a demand for good leaders who are not only effective but also ethical (Ciulla, J.B. 2011). They are expected to be fully present in the workplace, be embodied, in touch with their higher purpose, emotionally intelligent, authentic, listen deeply, be prepared to show their weaknesses and ask for the support of others. Those leaders who meet these high expectations work for the common good and create strong communities. Although there are examples of embodied and morally sound leaders they are in minority.
A Chartered Management Institute (CMI) report (McBain et al. 2012) suggests that organisations spend between £1400 and £1700 per annum per person in a manager role on leadership and management development programmes. Is this money well spent? Jan Hills found that sophisticated development programmes, many at high ranking institutions costing much more than the CMI but they are failing to get changes in behaviour (Hills, 2013). According to Hills the programmes are not designed to be compatible with how the brain learns and how behavioural change takes place. No one ever changed their behaviour because they learnt a new model, attended a lecture, or because the CEO told them to change. That is just not how behavioural change happens. The neuroscience of learning and behaviour change is complex with multiple layers.
We change when we have our own insight through experiences, questions and reflection. When we understand why the behavioural change is important for us personally. If we want lasting change we need to change our mindset and align our beliefs to the new behaviour. We need to master the new behaviour and own it by generating a personal version of the knowledge and apply it habitually. We are ready to help the change process of others only when we embody and live the new behaviour.
The search for good leaders, the desire for personal wellbeing, the search for meaning and how to live a good life have been with us throughout the ages. The wisdom traditions give us clear guidance on how to live and lead well. Aristotle for example defines virtues as conscious habits that we do. We learn them through education and role models and when we continuously practice them they become an integral part of who we are (Aristotle, Nichomachean ethics, Bk. 2.5). His ideas from 2,500 years ago resonate well with the neuroscience supported process of successful behavioural change.
To give further historic example let me quote Confucius: “If a ruler sets himself right, he will be followed without his command. If he does not set himself right, even his commands will not be obeyed” (Confucius, Analects 13.6). To “set ourselves right” requires a commitment to self-knowledge and continuous personal development. According to Plato an “unexamined life” is not worth living and a more modern philosopher, Kierkegaard observed that “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” To experience our reality we need to learn to be fully present and listen to the messages of our emotions and senses as well as our rational thoughts.
Confucius observes, “A man of humanity, wishing to establish his own character, also establishes the character of others, and wishing to be prominent himself, also helps others to be prominent” (Confucius, Analects 6:28). In other words if we put the emphasis on developing our own character it has a positive impact on the character and behaviour of others around us.
Leaders are constantly in the spotlight and are often called upon to earn authority without control. Economic and social change demands leadership by consent rather than by control. The phenomenon that we perceive as good leadership tends to be continuously co-created by leaders, followers, the context and the purpose of the organisation, thus it is a collective rather than an individual responsibility (Illes, K. and Mathews, M. 2015).
Trusted leaders are the guardians of the values of the organisation. They release the energy of people and enlarge the human and intellectual capital of the employees. In a trusting environment when we are committed to our shared purpose we play active roles both as leaders and as followers. Authentic leaders know themselves and this helps them to be effective and moral (Walumbwa et al. 2008) and lead by example.
There is growing evidence that the materialistic model of mainstream business does not produce true wellbeing for people and actually undermines wellbeing. “Outmoded mental models have produced an intellectual bankruptcy: the bankruptcy of mainstream economic thought“(Scharmer, O. Kaufer, K. 2013. p. 11). By advocating economic action on the basis of money-making, and by justifying success in terms of profits made, the materialistic business model encourages the irresponsible behaviour of economic actors, contributes to ecological destruction and disregards the interests of future generations. The presupposed and still widely used ‘rational management model’ is in fact highly irrational if it produces non-rational outcomes for society, nature and future generations. What we observe is a disconnect between reality and awareness: between an eco-system-centric global economy and an ego-centric awareness of institutional decision makers.
Alvesson and Spicer suggest that organisations do not take advantage of the available knowledge of employees and functional stupidity is an integral part of many workplaces. “Functional stupidity refers to an absence of reflexivity, a refusal to use intellectual capacities in other than myopic ways, and avoidance of justifications” (Alvesson, M. and Spicer, A. 2012 p.1194). Asking difficult questions is not encouraged, and challenging the “way we do things around here” culture is frowned upon. Forms of stupidity management repress or marginalise doubt and block communicative action. Individuals are encouraged to focus on the positive and marginalise or dismiss more negative or critical ideas. Functional stupidity creates some certainty for individuals and organisations, however, it also creates a dissonance among individuals and the organisation. When elements of functional stupidity are recognised and openly discussed in the organisation a more humble attitude can be developed. Perhaps the stupidity that we see is “not due to an individual’s cognitive deficiencies, but to active stupidity management” (Alvesson, M. and Spicer, A. 2012. p.1216).
World events force more and more of us to critically review how we live, how to move beyond self-interest and how to take part in shaping the future and our communities. In society we need to create new platforms to debate how we live, how we want to live and what kind of legacy and planet we want to leave for future generations.
A Different Methodology
Changing our perception is not easy particularly when we are surrounded with taken for granted, unchallenged assumptions about our business and social environments.
Phenomenology provides us a different way of perceiving reality. “Phenomenology…examines the limitations of truth: the inescapable ‘other sides’ that keep things from ever being fully disclosed, the errors and vagueness that accompany evidence, and the sedimentation that makes it necessary for us always to remember again the things we already know” (Sokolowski, R. 2000. p.2.). It reclaims the validity of epistemologies more associated with philosophy than science, especially in developing truths about the everyday world of human beings.
Phenomenology recognises the subjective nature of knowledge and pays close attention to lived experience as a valid source of knowing. It embraces the significance of meaning within the human sense-making processes. Concerned with aspects of quality rather than quantity, it reasserts the importance of felt experience as well as the cumulative effects of history on our ability to know.
Edmund Husserl argued that the tools of modern science are not equipped to address questions of meaning and significance central to human lives (Husserl, E. 1970.). In order to better understand a phenomenon such as leadership, for example, we must attend to it in the particular circumstances in which it arises rather than through abstract theoretical frameworks. These circumstances Husserl called “The Lifeworld” (Husserl, E. 1967). Phenomenologists argue that the way any perceived phenomenon is known is entirely interwoven with the viewpoint of the perceiver. ‘The Lifeworld’ is a ‘universal framework for all of human endeavour’ and as such encompasses scientific as well as philosophical endeavours.
Social construction is a unique human process. Freedom for example does not exist in a material form, it does not have substance or shape (Ladkin, D. 2010. p.20). The power of concepts arises from the way in which they remain unquestioned and remain generally accepted. In order to change our perception we need to ask new questions and appreciate the interconnectedness of the different sides and aspects of the phenomenon we are studying.
From a phenomenological perspective, an entity’s identity always remains elusive and a thing’s identity will always be beyond the reach of human appreciation. Certain phenomena such as leadership, management, creativity, business and well-being do not exist on their own. Their ‘beingness’ is dependent on the things of which they are part of. Consequently they cannot be removed from their environment and studied appropriately in the abstract. A phenomenological perspective acknowledges the subjective nature and limitations of research in social science.
A more phenomenological approach in leadership research encourage us to review our perceptions. Ciulla, J. (2008) for example argues that “Leadership is a human phenomenon embedded in culture, which includes art, literature, religion, philosophy, language and generally all those things that constitute what it means to live as a human being” (Ciulla, J. (2008) Leadership Quarterly, p. 393.).
Reinforcing the need for a different perspective Ladkin states that “Leadership does not exist without people who are in some way identified as ‘leaders’ or people who are identified as people who they will lead. Neither can it exist outside of a particular community of organisational culture or history. For these reasons [Ladkin argues] that rather than being a ‘whole’, leadership can best be described as a ‘moment’ of social relations” (Ladkin, D. 2010, Rethinking Leadership, p. 26).
Being in the Present
Changing our perspective is an individual process. It requires a level of curiosity, open mindedness, continuous questioning and regular reflection. In confronting ourselves, taking responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings, emotions and actions, we touch upon a level of awareness where we experiences unity (Andras, L. 2015).When we slow down and spend time examining ourselves we can transcend ego-centeredness and create experiences of interconnectedness and wholeness.
When we listen deeply to the emerging needs of the workplace, for example, we step into the most relevant and useful roles and make appropriate and valuable contributions both when leading and when following. Members of organisations with a deep level of listening trust themselves and each other. They build and nurture trusting relationships and allow the future to emerge organically (Scharmer, O. 2009).
There are well tested methods in the wisdom and spiritual traditions that offer effective ways for self-examination. They teach us to slow down, quiet the busyness of the mind, suspend judgment, let go of the past, be with the empty space within, accept the uncertainty of not knowing and patiently wait for something new to emerge. Scharmer (2009) calls this process “Presencing” and argues that with an open mind, open heart and open will we are able to learn to lead from the future as it emerges. For this to happen we need to be fully present in the moment and listen deeply with all our senses.
Creating free space and allowing the future to emerge is a necessary condition for bringing forth creative, ethically sound ideas and practices. This process restores intrinsic motivation and provides a long term horizon. There is evidence to support the value of contemplation throughout history. Today spiritual and reflective practices are starting to gain recognition in organisational and educational settings. However, both in academia and business, instrumental and utilitarian rationality are still the dominant perspective. It is a challenge to shift the perspective towards a deeper, non-instrumental and non-utilitarian experience of life. Current forms of education provide plenty of opportunities for learning how to satisfy the hunger for money and material success. However, one needs to search carefully and select critically the appropriate guidance when it comes to searching for meaning and purpose in life (Illes, K. 2014). The interest in Mindfulness Meditation (Kabat-Zinn, 2011), Embodiment of Leadership (Melina, et al., 2013.) and the demand for ethical, sustainable and spiritually inspired business (Bouckaert and Zsolnai, 2012.) indicates a shift in attitudes of seekers who want to live and work differently.
Biology and Neuroscience
‘We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking’ (Rohr, R. 1999).
In Western societies we tend to put the emphasis on rational thinking and there is a widely held belief that it is our cognition that makes the ultimate decisions in our lives. “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am (Descartes) runs deeply in our collective subconscious.
“We live in a culture that privileges the rational mind, while tending to dismiss the somatic, emotional, and subconscious aspects of ourselves as irrelevant or counterproductive to intelligence. From a Western model, we feel we should have the mental fortitude to think our way out of stressful situations” (Palmer, W. 2013).
When we try to think ourselves into new ways of living we often fail because the body is not invited or consulted about our intent. Our emotions and nervous systems often sabotage our rational plans. Over the past years advances in biology and neuroscience started to provide solid scientific evidence and show that our bodies and emotions have their own rationality. If we want to make full use of our faculties we need to read the messages of our senses and emotions and build stronger connections between the different parts of the brain (Siegel, D. J. 2009).
The human brain is a complex organ. To develop our discussion and to understand the dynamics of the brain under stress it is important to make a rough distinction between three areas of the brain: the neocortex, the limbic and the reptilian parts.
The neocortex is the newest part of the brain. It is responsible for higher level thinking, for example reasoning and future orientation.
The limbic system is the seat of emotions and memory. It can be described in relationship to others with three processes: resonance, regulation and revision (Lewis, T. et al (2000). Limbic resonance shows how we attune emotionally to those around us and get a feel for their internal state. Limbic regulation is the ability of a person to influence the mood of others around. Someone can walk into the room and their presence can have a calming effect while others have the opposite effect on their environment.
Limbic revision refers to the brain’s capacity to rewire itself over time when exposed to a different emotional patterning. When you are surrounded by emotionally healthy people, you will become more stable emotionally over time. And when you are in a stressful environment for a long time you will become tenser unless you have a well-established practice for grounding yourself.
The reptilian area of the brain is also called the brainstem. This is the oldest part of the brain and it regulates the automatic body functions such as breathing and heartbeat. This is the most primitive part of the brain, but the most crucial to our survival. It controls our fight, flight and freeze responses.
Within our limbic brains is a pair of structures called the amygdalae. They process the emotional intensity of incoming stimuli and decide which brain systems should be recruited to respond. The amygdala is also called the “fear centre” because of its central role in evaluating threat. Depending on the threat level the amygdala decides whether it is your higher brain (neocortex) or your reptilian brain should deal with the stressor. The higher the perceived threat the more likely that the brain will default away from creative problem solving and falls back on habitual responses from the past or at worst chooses a base level flight, fight or freeze response (Crawford, J. 2011). When the lower part of the brain takes over it is called the “Amygdala hijack “. In this state we only focus on our own survival and safety. We are “ego-centric” and not able to give others a sense of connection. We can freeze and respond with fright and a blank mind for example when the CEO suddenly turns his attention on us. We fight and get into an angry defensive state when challenged by someone. These are unconscious and involuntary processes. Our higher functions are often still aware, and give us an excruciatingly frustrating experience where we are aware of what we’re doing, but we can’t stop it (Brack, A. 2015. pp.80-81). After the event when we regain our balance we know how we should have or could have responded if we had been in a relaxed and focused frame of mind.
Through applying embodiment techniques we can learn to recognise our stress patters, prevent or quickly recover from an amygdala hijack and learn to respond more skillfully in stressful situations.
I have been teaching leadership courses and working with individual leaders for over twenty years. It has always amazed and frustrated me that the smartest people who understood complex theoretical concepts easily and applied them consistently failed to improve their leadership capabilities and often led stressful and unhappy lives.
My frustration encouraged me to try innovative ways in teaching and introduced activities of self-observation, reflection, role plays; worked with voice and drama and offered the experience of silence in short group meditations during my sessions (Illes, K. 2015a).
In my search for more effective ways of developing leaders I completed a three year training in Somatic Experiencing (SE) and learnt to release the stress and trauma related tensions from the body. The techniques in SE help to improve the individual’s level of tolerance to stress and keep the nervous system in a relaxed, non-triggered state for longer and longer periods (Levine, P. 2008). The more resilient we are to the uncertainties and stressors in life, the faster we can recover when we are pushed out of balance, the healthier and happier we are.
A new phase started in my own wellbeing when I took a three day Leadership Embodiment (LE) workshop with Wendy Palmer in 2014. I began to experience the benefits of the practical, body centred techniques of LE straight away and have been studying them ever since that first workshop.
Wendy Palmer’s work grew out of the Human Potential Movement. The human-potential movement is rooted in humanistic psychotherapies that first became popular in the 1960s and early 1970s. The movement emphasised the development of individuals through such techniques as encounter groups, sensitivity training, and primal therapy. Humanistic therapy preceded the human-potential movement and provided the movement’s theoretical base. Humanistic therapy flourished in the 1940s and 1950s. Its theorists were mostly psychologists including Gordon Allport, Abraham Maslow, Everett Shostrom, Carl Rogers, and Fritz Perls.
According to the Medical Dictionary: “The human-potential movement and humanistic therapy is distinguished by the following emphases:
- A concern for what is uniquely human rather than what humans share with other animals.
- A focus on each person’s open-ended growth rather than reshaping individuals to fit society’s demands.
- An interest in the here-and-now rather than in a person’s childhood history or supposed unconscious conflicts.
- A holistic approach concerned with all levels of human being and functioning—not just the intellectual—including creative and spiritual functioning.
- A focus on psychological health rather than disturbance.
The purpose of humanistic therapy is to allow a person to make full use of his or her personal capacities leading to self-actualisation. Self-actualisation requires the integration of all the components of one’s unique personality. These elements or components of personality include the physical, emotional, intellectual, behavioural, and spiritual. The marks of a self-actualised person are maturity, self-awareness, and authenticity. Humanistic therapists think that most people—not only those with obvious problems—can benefit from opportunities for self-development.” (Medical Dictionary)
Wendy Palmer’s Leadership Embodiment (2013) is built on the wisdom of the non-aggressive martial art, Aikido, mindfulness meditation and the findings in neuroscience. This approach is very practical and teaches us how our posture, the way we sit or stand can change the way we think or speak. It develops centred, powerful leadership by teaching how to develop a mindful interest in the situation and how to shift from reactive reflexes to responsive choices.
“Most of what we do is neither conscious not volitional. Until we become aware of what drives us, be it thoughts, emotions or body dispositions, we are powerless to change.
The body takes a shape before the mind consciously identifies a thought or feeling. Our physical being is the most direct point of intervention. How you sit and stand will change the way you think and speak.” (Crawford, J. quoted in Palmer, W. and Palmer, T. 2014. p.9.)
LE focuses on changing habitual, less conscious behaviour and developing more skilful responses in challenging and stressful situations. We are invited to be open minded and discover our habits, show an interest in our own and other people’s patters and maintain a mindful interest towards all individuals and situations.
“Mindful interest means that there is openness to examining problems and the possible remedies while relating to a continual stream of discovery. This type of openness is the hallmark of a great leader and includes the practice of dropping the defensive mask of self-protection and allowing oneself to be transparent and accessible as a human being – one who wants to work with, rather than control others” (Palmer, W. 2013, p.1.).
Palmer observed that outstanding leaders have three competencies:
1 Inclusiveness: they are able to expand their presence and ‘embrace’ even large audiences by creating a “we are all in this together” feeling.
2 Centred Listening: they listen with their whole being, hear all what is being said without taking the message personally
3 Speaking Up: they are able to speak their truth (even when it is not a popular view) with clarity and precision without becoming aggressive or collapsing
LE developed a set of practical exercises to help individuals to develop, and through daily repetition, master inclusiveness, centred listening and speaking up.
We all have a personal pattern for handling stressors. These patters developed over a longer period and when triggered we regress to these familiar reactive behaviours.
It is helpful to make a distinction between Personality and a Centred state. Personality is similar to the ‘ego’ and it is a less complex, more widely available concept. LE views personality as the part of us that attempts to create security. It uses control (through the head), approval (through the heart) and safety (through the core of the body) to manage relationships.
Centre on the other hand is the part of us that is always stable. We experience it when we are in the ‘zone’ or in a state of ‘flow’. In this state everything seem to happen effortlessly. The centred part of us is able to relax under pressure, open up in moments of stress and find creative solutions in conflict.
During the LE practice we use mild physical pressure and simulate stress to observe the body’s reactive, survival pattern. Then, while the pressure is still on we learn to shift to a more uplifted open and relaxed way of being.
Over time we develop a strong awareness about the interconnectedness of body postures and the production of testosterone, cortisol and oxytocin in the body. Power Posing
(Cuddy, A. et al. 2012) gives an immediate feedback of the changes we can achieve in the body within a relative short time. When we work with our patters, focus on our posture, the quality of our breathing and regularly return to our centred state even during a busy day, we notice the increase in our energy levels and the positive impact that it has on our personal well-being and the well-being of others around us.
In this paper I propose a connection between the individual’s level of wellbeing and his/her ability to lead well in stressful and complex environments.
How well we are has an impact on what we can achieve in the workplace and beyond.
Although an individual’s wellbeing is primarily a personal responsibility it is also a collective and organisational duty to reduce the levels of stress and eliminate toxic work environments where functional stupidity prevents individual growth and undermines creativity and productivity.
In order to face the growing demands leaders need to be able to utilise the signals of the limbic system and the reptilian brain and learn to incorporate their feelings and the information of the senses into their rational decision making processes.
It requires an ongoing commitment to learning from the wisdom traditions and from neuroscience, finding time for silence and giving equal attention to the needs of the body, heart, soul and the intellect.
Bill O’Brien, the CEO of Hanover Insurance spoke from personal experience when he noted: “ the success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener” (Quoted in Scharmer, O. 2008) .What counts, is not only what leaders do and how they do it, but that “interior condition” the inner place from which they operate.
Understanding and nurturing this inner place is key to the wellbeing of all human beings and it is a pre-requisite of the leader’s wellbeing and good leadership.
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