Disappointed in Your Followers? Try Cultivating Awe!


Every leader has experienced this frustration. You put your best leadership vision and energy foreword but you are met with an uninspired response. You hope for a reaction that is lively, expansive, generous and creative. Instead, your followers are unimaginative, scarcity-minded and inwardly-focused. What’s a leader to do?

Turning the tide might be easier than you think. Emerging research shows that simple experiences of awe unleash brain power, enhance generosity, and strengthen social connection.  Awe opens people up. Learn to cultivate awe as part of your leadership repertoire.

 What’s Awe Got to Do with It?

According to philosopher and psychologist William James, awe is the feeling we get when we come across something so strikingly vast in number, scope or complexity that it alters the way we understand the world.  The emotion that we call “awe” is our capacity for deep pleasure. When facing the incredible- we pause to take it all in.

Research is discovering important linkages between the experience of awe and our capacity for clearer thinking, kindness, generosity, creativity, ethical behavior and social connection. Research even suggests that awe combats narcissistic behavior in individuals and groups. When people have regular experiences of awe they are increasingly oriented to the world around them and less invested in individual goals and agendas.

How Awe Works

Awe is triggered by a variety of experiences that include prayer and worship, an exposure to natural wonders, great works of art, music, architecture, brilliant colors, remarkable human accomplishments, or mind-expanding theories.

Experiences of awe make us feel small. Our self-perception shrinks, but not in the negative sense of low self-esteem or lower social status. We simply get clear about our own relative insignificance in the grander scheme of the universe. Awe elicits the “small-self,” shifting attention away from our individual needs and goals and toward the larger experience of the collective group. We see the universe as expansive and ourselves as less important.

Michele Lani Shiota, Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University,  explains that emotions have adaptive functions-they help us thrive in a changing, unstable environment. Fear, for instance, promotes avoidance and escape from danger. Love facilitates the intimate interdependent relationships on which humans thrive. Awe serves a distinct purpose.  It elicits our capacity for deep pleasure in the face of the incredible, and it calms us so that we can fully absorb our environment.

 

What Awe Produces

Most positive emotions elicit the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response). They produce the energy and adrenaline needed for survival and needed for goal achievement.

Awe has the opposite effect. Awe engages the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system (the rest-digest response) and invites us to be still.  It creates the perception that time is expanding. This calmer state of the nervous system impacts the brain. Awe creates a sense of uncertainty that we are compelled to try to resolve. It opens us to more careful, detail-oriented processing of information from the environment. In simpler terms, awe sharpens our thinking and helps us to notice, adapt and learn.

Awe also encourages altruistic behavior.  When we encounter a sense of something larger than ourselves, it expands our beliefs about the richness of human potential. Awe promotes social cohesion.

Research shows that people who regularly experience awe are kinder to others and more generous with their time. They behave in more ethical ways. They have a reduced sense of entitlement and deprioritize their own goals in service to a group goal.

 

Eliciting Awe

Fortunately, religious institutions excel at attuning people to awe. Our worship services, prayer disciplines, sacraments and healing rituals are meant to be awe-inspiring.

Unfortunately, many of use leave the experience of awe at the door when it comes to managing the business of the church. We ignore the potential benefits of awe in the board room, the staff meeting and in our committee work.

We can significantly enhance the qualities of leadership and followership in our congregations by inviting regular experiences of awe. Here are a few simple ideas:

  • Invite people to remember a recent time when they experienced awe. Invite them to write or talk about that time. Research shows that the simple act of remembering an awe-filled experience elicits many of the positive effects of awe.
  • Show your people visual stimulation that is awe-inspiring, like this awe video . Let them sit in silence and gratitude for a few minutes after viewing the video before picking up business as usual.
  • Take your leaders on an “Awe Walk” before making a big decision. Move them into nature, if nature is available. Take them to explore a part of the city they’ve never experienced before. Otherwise, simply ask them to gaze on something familiar, from a unique angle and with fresh eyes.

While walking, shift awareness so that you all are open to what is around you, to things that are vast or unexpected. Things that delight and surprise.

As you walk, breathe deeply, counting to six as you inhale and six as you exhale.  When you return to your meeting venue, bring this state of awe and wonder with you.

We live in highly anxious times. It’s difficult for people to think and behave expansively when they are anxious. Inviting more frequent experiences of awe, and helping people attune to awe, can transform both you and your followers.

 

Photo Credit: “Morning Awe”, © 2009 Dru BloomfieldFlickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

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