Episode 374 – Leader as Healer with Nicholas Janni

Nicholas JanniWhen your work is about experience – helping people access a different physical and emotional state so that they can reconnect with their embodied, instinctual wisdom – you can do it most effectively when you’re in the room together. How can you possibly translate that somatic, relational, experiential work into words on a page? 

That was the challenge facing Nicholas Janni, and he rose to it so impressively that Leader as Healer was named Business Book of the Year 2023 at the recent BBA awards. In this week’s episode he speaks to me about the challenge of that translation process, and the somatic experience of flow in writing itself. 



Nicholas’s website: https://www.nicholasjanni.com/

Matrix Leadership: https://www.matrixleadershipdevelopment.com/

 Nicholas on Twitter: https://twitter.com/njanni

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge: http://proposalchallenge.com/

‘Kickstart Your Writing’ Workshop January 2024: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/666359076937

WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Nicholas Janni, who has devoted his life to studying and teaching the development of human potential since an awakening at the age of 16. He works with CEOs and senior teams globally, and teaches at two of the world’s leading business schools pioneering a new vision and practice of leadership.

In his first career he was a theatre director, teaching at RADA in London and researching the zone of peak performance. His new book, Leader as Healer: A new paradigm for 21st-century leadership, was named Business Book of the Year at the Business Book Awards 2023.

So firstly, welcome and also congratulations, Nicholas.

Nicholas Janni: Thank you very much, Alison. It’s great to be here. Thank you.

Alison Jones: First, tell us a little bit about that. It was an extraordinary night, wasn’t it? And that crowning moment of being called, having won your category, and then there’s the tension in the room as they announce the Business Book of the Year at the end. What was that like?

Nicholas Janni: Well, first of all, it was, winning my category was way beyond what I expected. So that was already a wonderful moment. When Jacq started speaking about the book she’d chosen as the overall winner, I was sitting there thinking, No, surely not, surely not, because it sounds like…

Alison Jones: I mean, it sounds like my book…

Nicholas Janni: So honestly, it was extraordinary. It really was, way beyond what I expected. And, you know, apart from an immense kind of personal satisfaction, more importantly, I really take it, took it and take it as an affirmation of the work.

Alison Jones: Yes.

Nicholas Janni: Yes.

Alison Jones: Well, tell us a little bit about the work and I mean, even as I’m reading the bio and introducing you, there’s so much in there that I’m sure is going to be awakening questions in people’s minds. So, what was that awakening at 16? And what is that new, the work of leadership, the new visions? Just tell us about a little bit about your journey and what it is that you are doing in the world.

Nicholas Janni: Well, the awakening at 16. It’s interesting because I come back to it more and more now. I mean very quickly and simply, a school friend said he was going to visit his grandmother, this was in London, who lived in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Scotland as as a nun, would I like to go? You know, we were 16 year old kids in London, fully signed up to the rock and roll lifestyle, and why not? Why not? Just sounded like, it’s something exotic.

Anyway, in the middle of our time there, someone gave me a classical Buddhist text to read. And I was sitting reading it and I literally knew exactly what it was talking about. It was extraordinary. And what it was fundamentally saying was that we live, we have come to live in a very much smaller version of reality than is the real big reality. And that’s our conditioning, and we’ve normalized that.

So that’s one of the essences of my work now, because everywhere I go I see exactly that, that we have normalized, it’s like we live in a very small bandwidth. And that bandwidth is absolutely over dominated by left brain, rational thinking, as the great Iain McGilchrist points out so brilliantly.

And it goes without saying that we’re at a huge crisis point as a species, and I believe that at the core of that crisis is how disconnected we’ve become by the over dominance of the left brain. So I’m not in any way saying there’s a problem with the left brain. I’m actually answering Einstein’s question, which always was, ‘is your mind your master or your servant?’

And the great problem is it’s become our master. So we process everything through thinking and we’ve forgotten it seems that our thinking mind is an extraordinary tool, but it actually doesn’t experience anything. I cannot experience the world or anything with my thinking, so if that’s my predominant faculty, as it most definitely is in most leaders, we have a big problem because it’s not adequate. It was for a while, but as the world got more and more complex, and is getting ever more complex, ever more unstable, thinking alone is not fit for purpose.

We’re not going to solve the crisis we have through thinking alone. Thinking needs to take its place alongside feeling, alongside embodied wisdom, alongside intuition, and alongside a capacity to sit in a much, much deeper level of inner silence, inner space and inner receptivity to higher levels of thinking and intelligence.

 That’s in a nutshell what my work is.

Alison Jones: You’ve encapsulated that beautifully in the metaphor of healer, and I think you contrast it with the dominant metaphor of leader as sort of executor.

Nicholas Janni: Yes.

Alison Jones: Somebody doing the doing, but you also talk about the need for excision, the need for almost surgery in that as well. It isn’t just nurturing, although that’s part of it…

Nicholas Janni: …no, not at all…

Alison Jones: …explain a little bit more that, unpack for us that metaphor of what it means to be a healer as a leader.

Nicholas Janni: Right. Well, first of all, I think it would be worth just saying why I chose Leader as Healer. And by the way, going back to the Book Awards, I think the very fact that a book with that title was chosen as Book of the Year is quite incredible. But what I mean by healer, I’m not talking of course about physical healing.

I’m talking about the healing of our fragmentation. Of our split between thinking and feeling, of our split between thinking and embodiment, we’re very, very split. So, you know, you ask most adults, please tell me how you are feeling; most of them will only tell you how they’re thinking because they’re not in contact with how they’re feeling.

Most adults are relatively disembodied and it starts at school, where we start to favorize information and data, and there are huge amounts of wisdom and direct knowing available through our body, and we’ve totally forgotten that as a culture. So Leader as Healer is a person who’s done enough inner work, which is, by the way, is lifelong, that they show up as coherent presence.

So what I say is connected to what I feel and it’s connected to my embodied sense of the world. That’s a leader who has real coherent presence. And most leaders I work with are not coherent at all. They speak and the speaking is out here, and they’re here and they’re much more in touch with this, than with this.

So you know, that’s why so many meetings are pointless in the end. Because it’s just talk, talk, talk, and we don’t listen because relating, we don’t really relate very much actually, because, as I have learned, relating means I feel you. I don’t just hear your words. I feel you, and I can’t feel you with my thinking. I can only feel you when I come home to my body.

That’s why people love yoga or even cardio work. You come out into the street after a really good physical workout and reality is different. You know, at least for a short time, this narrow bandwidth of reality got bigger.

Alison Jones: Yes.

Nicholas Janni: Simple as that, it literally got bigger.

Alison Jones: That really came through reading the book, that sort of, the range of ways in which that integration takes place that often we deprioritize, and your own experience has taken in really extreme physical activity and performance and drama, music and drumming.

So I guess what’s the common thread across all those? It’s embodiment, but it’s something deeper as well, isn’t it? It’s that sense of almost losing yourself to find yourself.

Nicholas Janni: Yes. That’s very interesting how you say that. I would say the deeper thread is connection. You know, another metaphor I use is that whole parts of us have gone offline, and I kind of speak, we need to put the USB back in. So I would say the, if there was one word that really encapsulates the journey, it’s about reconnecting all the parts of myself, and that means I connect to the world in a very different way. I connect to people in a very different way. When I meet someone, I’m not just thinking and feeling them, and I feel people’s emotions. We’re hardwired for that, and far too much of leadership is just transactional.

It’s what can we do? What can we do? And we get fixated on that and we miss the deeper relating. And you want to create high performing teams, you can’t do that unless there’s good relating and relating doesn’t mean everything is fine.

To go back to your question about excision, leaders need a sword. And you know, when I’m coaching people, I’m very, very warm and loving and I can be very challenging. And, the challenge is accepted because of the warmth and the loving part. I have no problem telling someone, you’re talking absolute rubbish right now. So that’s, you know, it’s the sword of excision and sometimes people need to be exited. If people are too toxic and not willing to engage any kind of developmental process, they need to be exited.

Alison Jones: This shift, not shift, this focus on leadership is interesting because actually what you’re talking about is just humans. You’re just talking about people.

Nicholas Janni: Right.

Alison Jones: At what point did you recognize that there was a willingness in the business community amongst senior leaders to engage with this? Because I can imagine that there are an awful lot of leaders who would just not engage with this at all, who are completely stuck in the left brain thinking.

Nicholas Janni: Well, first of all, there was a transition because I was 20 years the theatre director, and actually, you know, arts is in my blood. My father was a…

Alison Jones: Your father’s a cinema director isn’t he?

Nicholas Janni: So I never thought I would leave the arts, that’s first of all to say. And a small group of us, we were involved in the opening of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London in 1997, and during it we were invited to work with a group of public service leaders to explore whether Henry V, which was the production that opened The Globe, had anything interesting to say about leadership.

Alison Jones: How fascinating.

Nicholas Janni: And anyway, you know, to cut a long story short, after three days, they said, honestly, we’ve learned more about leadership in these three days than ever before. And that lit a kind of fire in us because we were also involved in the men’s movement of the time, Robert Bly, Michael Meade, and they always use story. So, to make it very concise, we started exploring, okay, we have these incredible stories. We’ve been told they have a lot to say about leadership. Let’s work with that. So we went through about three years of developing what we called Mythodrama, and we had great support from one of England’s leading business schools.

And about three years later, first of all, we got really good at it. And we got really good at using the story to really trigger inquiry in people, in leaders. Okay, this is what’s happening in the story, how is this happening in you? And we were getting an incredible amount of work and we got, actually, we just got very excited about working with people who had real power. And that I think was our main motivation in exiting the theatre and really going on a completely new adventure, three of us at the time. So we created a company and within a very short space of time we were working all over the world and we’d expanded and we started using three or four different Shakespeare stories. And we were very good. It was very important because we were so far ahead of our time and we had to be very good. And in all truth, we were.

And you know, we worked all around the world and you could see people thinking, well, what has Shakespeare got to do with me? And by the time we told them the story and we knew how to tell the story, they were like, ah, okay, okay. I’m in, I’m in.

Alison Jones: It’s such an amazing illustration of the power, of the timeless power, of story to make us see the world differently, isn’t it?

Nicholas Janni: That’s right. And then, you know, basically I did that for quite a while and we built and built the company in every way. And then there was a time, I would say about nine years ago now, when I needed to leave and just focus on my work and stop using story, even though it is a brilliant tool, and really go deeper and deeper into my work with presence, out of which then deepened into what I call Leader as Healer.

So to the first part of your question, there was always an interest in our work because we grew and grew, but now I think it’s growing, you know, and you’re right, I teach at like the world’s number one business school and I have 40 executives for two or three days. And at the beginning they are very, very in their left brain, within an hour, I’m quite coherent, so, and I have a certain force in how I present to them. Within an hour, they are at the very least interested in what I’m saying. And the majority of them are saying, yes, this guy is making sense because they’re in crisis.

Alison Jones: Yes, they recognise…

Nicholas Janni: …really stressed. They’re really stressed, and many are working in organizations with toxic culture.

Alison Jones: Yes. Yes.

Nicholas Janni: So, and indeed, I really believe anyway that what I and others like me are saying, people know the truth of it. It just needs to be said in a way that they can say, yes, this does make sense. And maybe it’s a bit frightening, but it actually makes sense and we’ll at least listen.

And then of course then we need a lot of, so I do quite early on, I do some deep somatic work with the body, breathing and lying down. And you know, at the end of half an hour of that, people are like in a very different state. So what I’ve said about you are living in a very small version of reality, which is usually my opening comment, starts to make sense experientially. Okay.

Alison Jones: You can feel their biorhythms have changed and deepened.

Nicholas Janni: Actually feeling the truth of that now.

Alison Jones: Yes and that… it’s fascinating from a writing perspective as well, because so much of what you’ve talked about there is experiential, the way that you present yourself to skeptical leaders, the way that you help them recognize the truth of what you’re saying through somatic experience. When it came to putting that into a book, how did you go about translating that very, very experiential piece into words on a page when you are not in the room with people?

Nicholas Janni: Yes, that’s a great question. It wasn’t easy. I think I did make the most of lockdown in that respect because I was still working quite a lot online, but I had a lot of time to write, I mean, I’m an okay writer. I don’t think I’m a brilliant writer, but I’m an okay writer, so, and I’m quite organized. I have a good left brain actually.

Alison Jones: Ironically,

Nicholas Janni: You know, the interesting thing, Alison, is that in the hyper left brain of the business world, people are so imprecise with language. It’s a very interesting point, I believe and teach precision of language. We need, people say stuff and then you say, sorry, what do you actually mean by that? And after two minutes, and then I say, no, but that’s not the language you used, we’re so lazy and imprecise. I do love the process of language. I love language. It’s a very high skill, writing. I don’t think it’s my best skill. So I got some help. I mean, I wrote the whole book. I organized the chapters, that was not so difficult, and I had a lot of good stories as well.

You know, the book has anecdotes and I have practices. But the body of each chapter, I did write and rewrote, and rewrote, and rewrote. And then I had really wonderful help from an American editor. So I would send her a chapter and she would just polish it a bit and send it back. And then I would, you know, just take out anything that I felt was a bit too much hers and we arrived at something, you know. Now the nice thing is, I mean, I’m sure you know, sometimes you write stuff and you look back at it a year later and you think, oh no.

But actually when…

Alison Jones: …if I’d spent more time on that…

Nicholas Janni: … when I open the book now, I’m pleased to say I like it. So I think we came up with something that is well written, and I do know when books are well written or not, but in all honesty, it was her help that really took it to the final step.

Alison Jones: I think having someone involved who is not the domain expert, who can almost act as the ambassador for the reader, is extraordinarily helpful, isn’t it? Yes.

Nicholas Janni: And the construction of English sentences is a great art.

Alison Jones: Yes.

Nicholas Janni: I have a friend who’s a…

Alison Jones: …which is why we can learn so much from Shakespeare.

Nicholas Janni: Right. And you know, I read books and I can tell immediately if they’re well written or not.

Alison Jones: Yes. So I’m going to ask you for a tip.

If somebody’s listening and is resonating with what you’re saying and is thinking, I also would love to write a book, but I want to write a book that I can be proud of in a year’s time, what would be your best tip for them?

Nicholas Janni: Trust. Trust your impulse. Be true to what you want to say, and then find the right people to give you feedback. I think it’s really important.

You know, it’s no accident in the theatre that you have previews before you open to the public, because you want to get feedback. As any kind of writer, artist, we have to have feedback.

So write, write, write, trust what you want to say, don’t compromise. I think that’s a really important thing. And then find the right people to give you feedback and work on it. I mean also I think you have to find, like I know what are the best times of day for me to write and I know when I’m in flow and I know when I’m not in flow and it’s not much use writing when I’m not in flow and so on. Things like that, you know, you have to know your, your process.

Interestingly, long time ago, I had a friend who was a well-published novelist. He used to actually work at midnight till 6:00 AM That was his… I don’t recommend that, but that was his thing. But once I asked him, how do you know when you are really in a good flow with your writing?

And he thought about it and his answer was, my breathing changes.

Now, Now given that I’m so into somatic work, it made total sense. That means the body, heart, and mind are coming into a synchronization. It’s fascinating that he said that.

Alison Jones: Yes.

Nicholas Janni: The other thing, of course, go on.

Alison Jones: Well, it’s just when I am leading exploratory writing sprints, you see people start and for the first couple of minutes they are themselves, and then there comes a point where they drop into the writing and the connection of the ideas and so on, and you see the shift in them and their breathing.

There’s a ‘sigh’ and suddenly it changes. You can see it happen. It’s fascinating, yes.

Nicholas Janni: Yes, and I see that in rooms that I work with, that by the second day literally the bodies are changing, people are sitting differently, then often people say lovely things like, well, I guess another thing to say is that it’s very crucial in my work that I slow everything down. And at first that’s not easy for people because we are going at a very fast pace.

So my whole rhythm is, and I talk about doing and being, and the crucial need to get as much into our being as we are into our doing. And then by the second day, it’s lovely when someone’s, you know, because there’ll be silence, which on the first day would be intolerable. And then someone says, you know, yesterday I would’ve hated this silence, today I’m enjoying it.

It’s a lovely sign that, that there’s a…

Because I do believe very strongly that my work is, it’s secondarily intellectual work. The intellectual framing supports a much deeper change. Change has to happen deep in our nervous system.

So when a group is ready, I would sometimes say, do you understand that actually what we’re doing here is energy work? You know, we’ve been talking and talking and talking, but actually what’s happening is energy work deep in the fabric of who we are and if there’s been enough experience, people say, yes, yes, no, I understand why you say that.

If I said that at the beginning, it would be like, what’s he talking about?

Alison Jones: Amazing. It’s a great illustration of how you take people from where they are to where you want to get them to be, rather than hauling them to the start.

I always ask my guests as well, Nicholas, to recommend a book, I mean, you’re not allowed to recommend Leader as Healer. Sorry, I’ll do that you.

But if you could recommend a book that perhaps people listening might have missed but would benefit from, what would it be?

Nicholas Janni: Well, there’s a wonderful book. It’s actually, I think it might even be 15 years or more. It’s a really great book called Presence. It’s written by four people, Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, Joe Jaworski and Betty Sue Flowers, and I remember reading that and having a huge kind of sigh of relief, wow, other people are talking about this and it’s a really, really wonderful book. Yes.

Alison Jones: How interesting, when you started with the title, I thought you meant the Amy Cuddy book, so I am going to have a look at that because I wasn’t aware of it. Thank you, great recommendation.

And if people want to find out more about you, more about Leader as Healer, and more about the work you do more generally, where should they go Nicholas?

Nicholas Janni: Thank you. Well, I have my own website, which is nicholasjanni.com, and then in the last year, I’ve been running Leader as Healer for the Europe division of the world’s largest law firm. That’s a sign of times changing. And out of that work which is all supported by someone very senior in the organization, we’ve created a whole new platform, which is called matrixleadershipdevelopment.com.

And that’s actually really up to my new platform in a way. So both are worth visiting.

Alison Jones: Brilliant, and I’ll put those links on the show notes along with the transcript of this conversation. So if you haven’t got a pen with you just now, you can go to extraordinarybusinessbooks.com and find all those links there.

But thank you so much for your time, Nicholas. It’s been just a joy to talk to you.

Nicholas Janni: It’s been a real pleasure. Thank you very much indeed. Thank you.

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