Why a more holistic understanding of your ‘self’ can enhance your leadership

17th March by Samreen McGregor

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My studies in organisational behaviour, neuroscience, management theory and biomedicine, combined with my experience in helping individuals understand themselves better, have shown me that the understanding of how to build self-awareness is shallow, and there are enormous opportunities to broaden and deepen our understanding of the ‘self’.

Adding layers to self-awareness

I have learned that although the established sources of self-awareness are good and necessary, they do not provide a holistic picture. Moving into some of the neuroscientific regions of our behavioural patterns has brought to the fore how critical it is to also consider what drives our physiological and biological needs for satisfaction and security when viewing some of the more surface traits and characteristics that form part of our personality, behaviour and perspective.

Dualism – understanding the parts but missing the whole

‘The part can never be well unless the whole is well.’ [1] Plato’s point supports my personal fascination with how the medical domain evolved from the concept of dualism, which is underpinned by the belief that the mind and body are not connected. Infused with reductionist scientific theory, dualism is an approach that led the medical profession to study, examine and treat the mind and body separately, which served us well in industrial society when more mechanistic approaches to learning prevailed. Though helpful in building our understanding, it ignores or simplifies the relationship between mind and body, the individual and its environment.

Gabor Maté, in his book When the Body Says No, explains simply, ‘Stress is a response to a perceived threat that affects every system in our body.’ [2] Through a combination of my studies of how our endocrine system works and my consultations with integrative medicine practitioners when I experienced pathological symptoms and chronic pain, I learned powerful and counterintuitive insights about the relationship between stress and wellbeing. I became more holistically curious about aspects beyond my values, personality traits, drivers and emotions and how combining this with physiological factors can enable different possibilities for safeguarding health, preventing illness and addressing pathologies. My learning and practice is rapidly encompassing this field given the context of volatility, adversity and challenge my clients face. I personally am integrating ways to tackle the physiological manifestation of a pattern of chronic stress in myself.

A physiological perspective on repetitive stress responses

When we perceive a threat, our hypothalamus triggers an endocrine pathway as a regulative response. A hormone called corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) is released, stimulating the pituitary gland to release another hormone called adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) into our adrenal glands and the fatty tissue just above our kidneys. This triggers the production of cortisol, which floods the blood supply in our body with glucose that serves as an immediate energy source to mobilise our muscles, readying us to confront or run away from the threat.

This physiological response can be provoked by so many day to day situations in the workplace ranging from the receipt of unexpected feedback (perhaps delivered unskilfully); resistance expressed by a stakeholder, an interpersonal conflict with a peer or perceived risk relating to a decision.

In chronically stressed people, this pathway is triggered regularly, meaning that cortisol is produced more frequently than needed. Over time, cortisol destroys tissues, raises our blood pressure, have an inflammatory effect and can damage organs like our heart. Cortisol can also have a suppressant effect on our immune system. Growing research into the presence of cortisol shows it has a detrimental effect on our natural killer cells, such as T-cells, which have a remarkable ability to protect our bodies from foreign intruders like viruses and destroy or prevent the growth of malignant abnormal cells.

When a threat response is triggered in situations where this pathway is unnecessary or overstimulated frequently, there are both short- and long-term damaging effects. These can lead to physiological conditions such as a suppressed immune system, organ damage, autoimmune diseases and even cancers.

Creating space to be mindful

Meditation and breathing practices, although practised for centuries in the Eastern world, has auspiciously grown in popularity in Western society and is proving a powerful instrument to nurture self-awareness. The practice is increasingly used to help adopt a healthier lifestyle, regulate emotions to counter stress and anxiety, enhance sleep and rest, and manage pain. [3] A rapidly growing repertoire of mindfulness practices can be used to support stress, anxiety and depression. Evidence of its impact on the central, peripheral and autonomic nervous systems is mounting. [4]

I encourage my clients to experiment with meditation and alternative practices, however, I see (myself and many) people caught up in a rhythm of life that follows a rapid drum beat powered by human-made expectations focused on producing outcomes. We live in a world that values what gets done and misses the richness and benefit of creating space to decompress, assimilate, clarify and question.

A simple way in which I encourage leaders to generate a more mindful space for themselves and with others is by taking small steps to integrate nature into their day-to-day lives. Taking breaks that combine fresh air and walking stimulates the body and brain in a different way – interrupting the intensity of operational activity and infusing the body with movement. These practices lead to embodied forms of consciousness that supplement what we cognitively know about ourselves - offering insights from sensations, feelings and aspects otherwise less available to us.

The invitation to you, is to be aware that there are numerous dimensions and facets to generating self-awareness and value in integrating these through conscious and embodied ways. The list is not exhaustive but some aspects I have been meditating on more consciously to better understand my ‘self’ and expand this sense of self-awareness include:

1. What am I conscious about and what might I be less conscious of – and how can I find ways to access and reveal more of the unconscious?

2. In a given situation, what is reptilian and primitive in my reaction and designed to keep me safe, what is a mammalian response, needing time and space to gain acceptance, and what has evolved for me as a primate to which I am more able to apply reason and logic?

3. My mind, brain, cognition and more rational approaches are useful instruments, but when might they be best integrated with other modes (like feeling and sensing)?

4. My emotional, more felt aspects and manifestations offer different and important data and skills.

5. My body, biological aspects, physiological signs and perhaps less visible processes that remain unseen until something goes wrong, or I feel unwell.

6. My experience, memories and the stories my mind and body are able (and willing) to interpret, store and learn for re-use or questioning in the future.


[1] Plato, Charmides (translated into English by B Jowett, 1870)

[2] G Maté, When the Body Says No: The cost of hidden stress (Vermilion, 2019)

[3] CJ Dahl, A Lutz and RJ Davidson, ‘Reconstructing and Deconstructing the Self: Cognitive mechanisms in meditation practice’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19(9) (201), 515–23, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2015.07.001

[4] Y Singh, A Goel, R Kathrotia and PM Patil, ‘Role of Yoga and Meditation in the Context of Dysfunctional Self: A hypothetico-integrative approach’, Advances in Mind-Body Medicine, 28(3) (2014), 22–5

A huge thanks to Samreen and her publishers for allowing is to share this edited extract from Leader Awakened by Samreen McGregor.

About Samreen:

Samreen McGregor is an executive coach, founder of Turmeric Group and author of Leader Awakened. She has a unique ability to create the conditions leaders need to stretch beyond their existing capabilities and her interventions lie in a unique cross-section between business performance, behavioural change and embodied consciousness. Samreen inspires leaders, teams and organisations to embrace adversity as a catalyst for empowerment and wellbeing.