As leaders, we are often outwardly focused and forget the importance of inner work for social change. In this episode, Mallika Dutt helps us explore our relationship to fear and how to shift from reactiveness to becoming more responsive and present leaders.

Mallika Dutt is the president of INTER-CONNECTED and the founder of Breakthrough, a global human rights group that she led for 17 years.  She facilitates leadership that weaves together self, community, systems and the earth to become the humans the world needs now.


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Full Transcript

Mallika Dutt: Welcome to Leadership Moves, presented by Inter-Connected. I’m Mallika Dutt. Understanding our own patterns around fear and anxiety is a critical element of interconnected leadership. In this episode, I take us on a journey to understand our relationship to fight, flight, freeze and fawn, and show us how we can shift from being reactive to responsive and proactive leaders.

Hi everyone. Welcome, welcome, welcome to the session. I’m so glad to see all of you here. This webinar is part of the series for the BUILD community. And today we’re going to be doing something a little bit different. Instead of having an outside speaker with whom I speak or a speaker who’s training us on an issue like we did with the Deep Dive on storytelling, today we are going to go a little bit more deeply into leadership skills that we need for ourselves and I would like to try and get through three today and I’m not sure if we will be able to do that. But the three leadership skills that I want to work with you today on are presence, how to understand our own relationship to fear and anxiety so that we can learn how to calibrate our responses, and to learn the skill of working with conflict in generative ways. It might be a little bit ambitious to try and do all three, but we are going to see how quickly we can move through this process together while making sure that we are on this journey in an embodied and learning way.

So, in the interconnected leadership orientation that I follow in the work that I do, there are four quadrants. There is self, there is community, there are systems and there is the planet itself, the earth itself, and through the webinar and through the training, I’ve really been mindful of weaving in those elements in terms of how material is shared, the questions that I ask, the discussions that we have, certainly in the one-on-one strategy sessions that I have been able to do with many of you, we have followed that process together. And so today, really we are going to bring the attention to the quadrant of the self in the interconnected leadership structure. And I’m going to begin with talking a little bit about presence and then just leading us through a quick presence exercise. So, presence is really the ability for us to be with ourselves and to be with another or with the world simultaneously. Many of us as leaders are very externally focused and we often forget to really check in with our own landscape, with our own consciousness, with our own internal state of being, and in order for us to really show up as leaders and especially as leaders like the world needs right now, it’s very important to have a sense of what is happening within you so that you can be aware of that and engage with the world, not from a reactive place, but from a proactive place, from a responsive place.

A second quadrant that we’re going to look at, the second set of skills that we’re going to look at is how do we understand our own fight-flight responses to fear and anxiety. And very often we get triggered very quickly and we don’t have the ability to take the pause in between our internal state of fight-flight and what it is that we are responding to or more really reacting to and that can often also be something that hinders then actually the vision or the goal that we are trying to accomplish. And then the third thing that I want to talk about today is the idea of really approaching conflict in a generative way, understanding the distinction between a problem, to solve with a yes or a no answer or a conflict to resolve that might actually have embedded within it even more possibilities than you imagined, because approaching it with the idea of it being generative might open up options for everybody that has become a part of whatever might be seen as a conflict or a challenge right now.

So those are sort of the three areas that we’re going to look at today and I’m going to start us off really with a presencing exercise. So, I would invite you to just get really comfortable in your chair. If you’d like to stand, you’re welcome to do that as well. If your legs are crossed, please uncross them, bring your hands down to your side and really get comfortable in your chair. If you’d like to close your eyes or keep them half closed, soft gaze, whatever it is that you like, but just settle into your chair and just follow my voice. So let’s just take some conscious breaths together. So, a conscious breath is just like noticing your breath.

So, [breath] just allow yourself to arrive, so many times zones, so many countries, so much business. Maybe you’re starting your day. Maybe you’re ending your day. [breath] Let’s take one more conscious breath together. [breath] And now we’re going to do a quick scan, first of our sensations in our body. So, starting from your forehead, I just want you to notice any sensations, tightness, tingling, temperature, numbness, moving down your head, your forehead, your nose, notice if your jaw is tight, if your eye sockets are tight. Notice what’s happening with your neck, your shoulders. Is it cool? Is it warm? Is there a vibration or tingling of some sort? Are you tight? Are you compressed? Are you loose down your shoulders, your arms, your hands? If your hands are tightly clasped, please see if you can just allow them to relax. Down your chest, your belly, your back, just becoming present with your body, your incredible and miraculous body. Feel your hips, hip sockets. Down your legs, those big thigh bones, those muscles, just notice what are the sensations? Nothing to fix, nothing to judge, just becoming more aware of yourself into relationship with your own body. Your knees, what’s going on with your calves, your ankles, your feet. And see now, if you can just be a witness to your whole body and just have a sense of your physical presence, all of those muscles, the blood, the arteries, the veins, the organs, the glands, your relationship with your body.

Now from this place, I want you to just come into relationship with your emotions and your feelings. How are you feeling? Is there sadness? Is there happiness? Is there a curiosity, stress, grief, tension, mind running a mile a minute, or relaxed? What is the state of your emotional body? And now notice your thoughts. What are you thinking right now? You’re thinking about the next thing that you need to do? Are you thinking about food? Are you thinking 15 things at the same time? No judgment, nothing to change or shift, just becoming aware of yourself, coming into presence with you, with your being. Self-awareness is one of the most important tools of leadership and actually I would say of citizenship. You know, there’s one of these Jungian quotes that says, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” And so this is a moment of just coming into consciousness and awareness with yourself, the miracle of you, this extraordinary being that is you with all of your history, your ancestry, your DNA, your familial experiences, your education, the things you’ve created in the world, the families you may or may not have birthed, your communities, your likes, your dislikes, your passions, your shadows, your light, all of you just coming into relationship with the miracle of who you are.

Just take another breath and I’m going to start pulling up some slides and I’d love for you to share in the chat what did you notice? What was the experience like for you? Were you surprised by something that you noticed about yourself? Did you find numbness? So, as you share that with me, I’m going to pull up the slides and I would love for each one of you to just share in addition to the questions I’ve asked, what’s your mood right now? My mood is a little anxious and actually very excited because I get to share some of this material with you. So, that’s my mood right now. And Abby noticed tension, hunched over shoulders, mind goes fast. Alicia noticed tingling down the back of your head. This is great. I’d love for you to just keep sharing. And if you will look at what folks are sharing, this level of self-awareness is so critical. So, as I had pointed out to you before, interconnected leadership is about bringing the quadrants of self, community, systems, and the planet, this earth together and really asking the questions today who do you want to be? And how would you want to be? These are some of the elements that we’re going to be exploring today as I already explained to you, presence, connection, understanding your own reactions to fear and anxiety, generative conflict. And I didn’t mention deep listening before, but that is one of the dimensions of presence that is so important. We are so much in advocacy mode all the time that we often forget that we really need to do a lot of very deep listening.

We live in a very constant state of fear and anxiety as humans in the world that we’ve created. Now, the habitual reaction, the instinctive reaction rather to fight-flight to fright if you will to fear and anxiety is a very normal reaction and it is what keeps us safe. So, if there’s a car barreling towards you on the street, your adrenaline kicks in, you get the sugar rush that you need to remove yourself from the car, so that you protect yourself. If something is coming at you that you need to meet, because that’s the only way in which you can protect yourself, again, the adrenaline rush will give you the energy that your body needs to move into that mode. So, fighting or life, running away, fleeing or freezing, sometimes you may need to just stay still and that’s the safest thing that you can do. And sometimes you might need to fawn or what I call appease somebody, because that’s the way in which you’re going to keep yourself safe. And these reactions in the course of one’s physiological, normal, natural life are completely normal.

So, this exercise is not to take away these reactions; it’s for you to understand your reaction so that you can get a little bit of spaciousness in your own leadership so that you’re not stuck in a habitual response, but you can choose the response that you need to create. So what happens just physiologically is that when the adrenaline starts to move in our body, and the sugar starts to pump into our body to give us the energy to make the move that we need to make, we have a normal way like most animals do of then regulating ourselves so that we can calm our bodies down and get out of whatever trigger it was that put us in that place and then, you know, our body can self- regulate, move out of the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system and we can calm down. What has happened to most of us, many of us in this world that we have created and certainly for those of us who are leaders dealing with social justice issues where the levels of challenge, stress and anxiety are through the roof and now to add the pandemic challenges to that is that what happens is that our bodies get stuck in fight-flight response into habitual reactions.

And so the physiological impact of that is that cortisol levels in our body start to rise and that starts impacting not only our ability to react, but it affects our bodies, our diet, our health, levels of anxiety through the roof and we aren’t able to self-regulate our bodies and our emotions and our thoughts out of the sense of enormous anxiety. So, we become hypervigilant, right? Everything becomes like, Oh my God, I have to be in this state of alertness all the time in order to make sure that I am safe, my family is safe, my organization is safe, my colleagues are safe, my communities are safe, right? It becomes a way in which we are constantly scanning the world around us to make sure that we can be safe. Now, when our mind is acting out in that way, as leaders, what might be a really small thing in our organizational environment can become stuck in a past incident or this heightened level of alertness so we are being very reactive to a situation or a conversation or a challenge rather than being responsive or proactive. And so I want to help track what happens when we end up in these kinds of situations.

So, I want you to feel what fight is like as a response in your body and I want you to pick up one of your fists and compress it really tightly and have it move towards your other fist and bring your fists together and let them meet, let them meet with a bang. Okay? So just feel that in your body and feel if that feels habitual to you. Does that feel like, Oh, that’s my go-to place around when I’m feeling confronted, when I’m feeling fearful or anxious. So, just do that, feel that in your body a couple of times and just notice, notice what happens, notice whether you get excited, notice whether there’s constriction, expansion, but what I’m going to walk you through is just to understand that sometimes as leaders, when we’re constantly in fight mode, these are the ways in which we might start expressing this energy in our families and in our organizations and in our work. So, temper, angry outbursts, aggressive behavior that can often be quite bullying, needing to be very controlling, very dominant, demanding perfection from everybody around you, power, control being sort of ways in which you stay in charge. Always wanting to be the winner of a discussion, a debate an argument, always wanting to be right, being judgemental or overly critical. So, these are some of the ways in which the fight response plays out and can play out in how we show up in our leadership and it’s important to understand these dimensions of how fight as a survival mechanism, as a good mechanism to have, can get stuck into patterns that are not helpful.

So let’s move on to flight. So, flight patterns are when you kind of check out when you’re not really present with what’s going on and it can take many different kinds of behaviors. So, now, I want you to pick up your fist again and this time when you’re coming towards this hand, I want you to push this hand away. It’s almost like you’re checking up, you are going away. So try that a couple of times, bring your fist in and then move away and so this is another way in which we deal with not feeling safe and secure, dealing with fear and anxiety, we end up working all the time. Anxiety levels in our body are super high, we’re busy, we’re hyperactive, we’re analyzing everything, we’re worrying, perfectionism, overachieving. It comes a way for us to constantly be in flight mode as leaders and again, just notice how this sits with you, what might be some of the patterns that resonate or don’t resonate as we move on to tracking freeze. Now again, I want to emphasize none of these things are bad things to have. These are physiological responses that keep us alive in the world. When they get stuck or habitual, that’s when we have these kinds of challenges.

So, fist up, bring it towards you, have your other hand up and as this is coming towards you, just stay in one place and just feel that in your body as you’re coming into one place and so, freeze often finds itself in dissociation, checking up your disembody. You may be physically there. You may even be having a conversation or engaging, but you’re checked out. You’re just not present. You might have a lot of amnesia, forgetfulness. You might have struggled with decision-making, lifelessness, depression, isolation, and some of these fight- flight freeze responses also come from deep trauma in our own lives. These also come not from just trauma in our own lives, but trauma from society around us, from the environment around us. We are all working on social justice issues. So, we are being impacted by the structures of hierarchy, exploitation, discrimination. Some of us are experiencing them on the basis of our gender, our race, our sexual orientation, our ethnicity, different aspects of our identity. So, all of these things, along with our individual experiences, conspire to lock some of these responses into our bodies.

So I want to move on to the last one and that is the fourth response to fear and anxiety, which is fawn and yes, fawn is a baby deer, but it’s also a way in which in English we refer to trying to appease or please somebody. So, you have your fist coming towards you. You have the other hand coming and you start to appease whatever it is that’s coming. Oh, let me take care of you. I’m so sorry. What do you need? How can I be there for you? And so, feel that in your body a couple of times, feel the fist coming towards you and then feel what it means to get into appeasement or fawning mode. And some of the ways in which this plays out is lack of boundaries, trying to take care of other people, not wanting to deal with conflict, deferring to others to make decisions, not being able to really stand up for yourself an inability to say no.

So, before I continue into how we can move out of these states, I just want to check in with all of you and see how you’re doing. And Abby says it’s super helpful. I recognize myself in several states. Thank you for that, so I’d love to see your responses in chat and if you have any questions. Sally says me too several states, very informative, mainly the last three. So please keep sharing and yes, all of these can be present in different contexts because in addition to having maybe a dominant way of your leadership show up in the fight-flight mode, you also might end up noticing that you may respond to people that you see in the hierarchy as dominant in a particular way and in the hierarchy as more marginalized than you in a certain way, right? So you can also notice from that there might be cultural or patterns in your organizations. There may be organizational fight-flight responses. It may be that it’s a very argumentative organization where everybody’s constantly butting up against one another or it might be that the organization has a super high level of work, work, work, work, work all the time. This is a very common pattern for those of us who are in the social justice world, right? Like, these are all ways in which we’re constantly revved up and running on high, right? And so, yes, these things, as Georgia is saying that she could relate to several combinations and that in some ways, they correspond to different spheres of my life. So, yeah, a conflict that you might be having with your child might play itself out very differently than something that you’re dealing with, with one of your funders or your boss or your partner or when you’re out there in the world and dealing with an identity that might have certain dimensions of oppression or discrimination or privilege attached to it, right?

So, the point of this exercise, first of all, is to become self aware and to become self aware, that first exercise that we did of taking 5 minutes every day if you can to just do a scan what’s happening with the sensations in your body, what’s happening with your emotions, what’s happening with your thoughts. If you become more conscious of and in relationship with yourself, then you are able to really begin to notice these dimensions of yourself so that you can catch them and move them. And so the next thing that we’re going to do is explore how we shift out of these moods quickly.

The other thing that I just want to really emphasize is that never are we to say wrong or push it away or judge it or you know, start self-castigating oneself if you notice one of these patterns. It really is about finding a way to accept, so if something is coming at you, the first thing to do is and again, I want you to pick up your hands, is first to just become present with it, take a breath and just hold whatever the response is and you don’t have to physically do this. I’m demonstrating this physically, but sometimes it’s actually easy to just, even under a table, even if you’re at a meeting, you can make a fist and just allow your hand to hold your fist. Yeah. And then for fight, you know, it’s that very aggressive kind of energies, like your revved up energy to go from fight to being really calm can often be really difficult. So what is a move that you can make when you’re in that energy? You can dance, right? So it’s still got that — you’ve still got that energy moving through you, but instead of like getting into a combative state, you can move into a dance move and you can do this even in your mind or you can even just like wiggle as if you’re dancing in your chair if you’re already in the context of a situation that you’re trying to shift from.

So, the idea is you’re noticing a fight response. First of all, make sure that you actually may need to fight. You may actually like need to meet the threat that’s coming at you. If somebody is coming at you and your life is in danger, you may need to fight and you may need to freeze and you may need to flee and you may need to appease. So, all of those responses are great and fine. The idea of this exercise, this training is to understand when you’re getting locked into a pattern that is not necessarily what you want to be doing and finding that pause, finding that breath in between a reactivity response and a responsive response, right? So, if you’re in that energy, Oh my God, I can feel myself, I can feel myself getting into fight, you know, do like a really cool dance move. If you’re going into flee, if you’re running away, if your habitual response is to just get out of there and again, hold that, become present with it, take a breath, and maybe what you do is if some of you do yoga, step into warrior pose, like really step into more of a stance of, okay, I can move into this energy, I got this. Yeah. If your tendency is to freeze and disassociate and check out, so again, you know, hold that, find that breath and if you’re frozen, it can be something as little as wiggling your toes or just opening your eyes wider or licking your lips, just bringing some sensation back into your body to become present or taking a deep breath, right? So, you’re not checking out of the situation. Again, sometimes you might need to be frozen. Sometimes you may need to just protect yourself by like not being present with whatever is going on. It’s the choice that we are learning to make that is everything about leadership.

And for the fourth one, which is appease or fawn, you know, where you kind of like get into people pleasing and you lose your boundaries, again, let that come at you, hold it, take that breath and then just hug yourself, appease yourself first, find that place where you just take care of yourself. And so these are all really quick and easy ways to deregulate from falling into habitual patterns of fight-flight to fear and anxiety where you’re then just doing things because your physiological system has kicked into gear, but your mind is not being able to make a choice. So, I want to talk about something that is called helper’s high and helper’s high is a very common phenomenon of those of us who do social justice work and by helper’s high, I mean getting high on always taking care of other people and getting high on it so that, you know, it becomes the thing that gives you meaning, that gives you your rush, that gives you your sense of purpose in the world and it’s very important to have purpose and it’s very important to be in service and it’s also very important to understand when it becomes almost like an addiction to the extent that you’re not taking care of yourself and this is what leads to burnout, this is what leads to power and control often. This is what leads to some of the more challenging dimensions of Founder’s syndrome. You know, this plays out in our community, our social justice community in so many different ways, the most harmful being burnout, not just burnout, but people fall sick. People get physically unwell, people die, people really hurt and harm themselves from what helper’s high can do.

And so, there’s this little acronym and I can’t quite remember who I learned this from that I love, that is halt. So I’m calling this halt helper’s high and take care of yourself. Are you hungry? So many times when we are caught up in our work or some urgent crisis that is happening in the world or that we have to work with people across multiple time zones or we’ve got to take care of the kids or the partner or whoever else, we don’t feed ourselves. We don’t nourish ourselves. We don’t exercise that self care that we need for deep nourishment. And so hungry is a metaphor for actual food, but it’s also a metaphor for actual nourishment, like how do you nourish yourself? What are you hungry for? Is it for a nap? Is it for a walk? Is it for just five moments of gazing out into the sunset? Is it for a plate of food? Is it for a snack? Are you angry? Are you feeling angry, resentful for whatever reason? Is there rage running through your body? Are you lonely? Are you just feeling like you’re all alone in this world and you’re feeling the weight of the world on your back and feeling like there’s no one there for you and there’s a lack of connection. Are you tired? Are you just plain exhausted mentally, emotionally, physically, any one of those things, spiritually? What’s going on with you? And that presencing exercise that we did in the beginning also helps you to really get into a place of asking yourself, do I need to halt.

You know, the way in which I would invite you to think about this is that all of us are in the enterprise of creating a world that is more just, a world where all of us can thrive, a world where the wellbeing of everyone is at the core and at the center of the policies and the structures and the systems and the values that we create. And so, if we are unable to find pathways to live in that way ourselves, how can we then create the pathways for the world that we are all dreaming about? So, instead of seeing this as selfish or I don’t have the time or I have to take care of everyone, see this as an experiment, an experiment of can I actually embody the vision of the world I desire to create and make that the North Star that you use, because if you embody it, then your colleagues can embody it, your family members can embody it and maybe our movement can start embodying it as opposed to the current place that we find ourselves where there is so much stress, anxiety, harm, hurt, disease and the pandemic has certainly heightened things and many of these things existed before the pandemic came in as well.

So, really the invitation is how do we live our vision? Instead of always being and what are we against, can we have part of our North Star be what are we for and then therefore what needs to shift within us and our lives and how we live in order to embody that North Star. But for right now, I want to teach you a breathing exercise because, you know, a lot of times, you know, by the time the fist — you’re imagining the fist, holding it, all of those things, all of those things can become split second as you practice them, but this breathing practice is an easy one to do and basically when your exhale is longer than your inhale, your body starts to reset out of the sympathetic fight-flight mode, survival mode to the parasympathetic rest, generate, create mode, right? And how wonderful it would be if we could learn to be more in that parasympathetic state of being.

So, take an inhale. When you get to the top of the inhale, just pause, hold your breath and then inhale a little bit more. So kind of top it up and then exhale through your mouth as slowly as you can. So, let’s do an inhale, hold it and now top it up, a little bit more and then we exhale as slow as you can with your mouth open. Let’s do it one more time. Inhale, hold, inhale a little bit more. Last time together. Hold, top it up. And if you don’t even have the time to do this, you can even do a three count inhale and a five count exhale, just learning to be in relationship to your breath and becoming in charge of how you’re breathing, or even when you find yourself in a triggered state just taking one long inhale and exhale. Coming back to your breath is like coming back to your life force energy. This is what animates you. This is what gives you life.

We are all breathing this air. This is what connects us to all beings on this glorious, beautiful planet that we walk on, that we all care so deeply about and so for me, interconnected leadership is really about stepping into how we can create this new world as the old world disintegrates around us. What is the energy with which we can create this new world and if we’re all in a state of hyper anxiety, then our ability to actually create what we vision and we dream about is hindered, right? So, how much can we create from a place of pleasure? Can you imagine creating a pleasurable world? Wouldn’t that just be so, so delicious?

This series of Leadership Moves is supported by the BUILD program of the Ford Foundation. Stay connected at That’s M-A-L-L-I-K-A D- U-T-T dot com.

This series is supported by the BUILD program of the Ford Foundation.

“Inter-Connected Theme” composed by Devadas, (c) Mallika Dutt, LLC 2021.

Production team: Mallika Dutt, Devadas Labrecque, Ambika Pressman.