Leadership   //   April 8, 2022

Bookshelf: Beth Anstandig on how nature gives us lessons in leadership, empathy and survival

This article is part of the WorkLife Bookshelf series, which features interviews with authors of recently-published, notable books tackling topics relevant to future of work trends.

Children are all about following their natural instincts. But as adults, many of our instincts get squashed as we move through life on autopilot, reacting to the latest dilemma amid the noise of regular daily life. But in this new era of modern leadership, in which empathy is the new must-have, and people grapple with how to lead workforces that have a myriad of newfound expectations about their working lives, there is a well of untapped inner wisdom we can all draw from.

These are the views of lifelong psychotherapist and author Beth Anstandig, who in her forthcoming book “The Human Herd: Awakening Our Natural Leadership” seeks to explain precisely how nature gives us lessons in leadership, empathy and, above all, survival.

For anyone still in tune with their inner child, author Beth Anstandig draws on her personal experience with animals and her insights in psychology to give us effective formulas that will increase our ability as workers to turn decision-making into a natural talent.

WorkLife spoke to her to find out more, ahead of the book’s publication on April 12.

This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

You say our instincts go unanswered as we move through our professional lives on autopilot. In the workplace, how can we be more aware of what our instincts are telling us?  

If you think about the highest-paying jobs, they’re often the most intellectual and cognitive [rather than physical] ones. And there’s a lot of prestige in western culture around business. It’s a badge of honor to be incredibly busy. I think we feel more peace if we feel relevant and productive. Several factors contribute to the way we work, how much we work, and how much pressure we put on ourselves at work. We have been taught from very young ages in school to suppress the body. We’re put at desks when we’re in kindergarten, first grade and later in office settings in particular. It’s different with physical labor — first responders, doctors, builders — whose jobs require them to be more connected to the body.

That said, we are used to ignoring signs and signals of pressure from the body telling us that we need to make slight adjustments. A lot of that autopilot has to do with allowing thought to be the dominant signal. It’s not that it’s a bad signal or one we should ignore. It’s just that we need to make some space to integrate these other signals. Some of those signals come from our bodies, our emotions and they’re instinct-driven. 

How do we use our humanity to respond to pressure, make correct decisions, and build more stress-free relationships at work?

That part of us can be a little painful to wake up because we’ve become aware of how much pressure we’re holding. Pressure on the continuum isn’t a bad thing. Pressure is needed in a system for things to move forward, like blood flow in a heartbeat.

But we’re at a place of overwhelm or being flooded. We’ve gone past tension, past stress, and into trauma where we’re either numb — and that would be like autopilot — or we’re overwhelmed, flooded and we’re exploring, we’re reactive. When we begin to wake up and realize that we’re flooding our systems, there’s usually a period of painful awakening and reckoning. 

One of the chapters in my book is about pace, and about learning to understand the places where we need to speed up or slow down. Often, we have them backwards. It’s about changing the pace of the day or building in these small adjustments where we’re getting some needs met. That allows the pressure system to come back into balance rather than holding all this pressure that creates stress.

You introduce a concept of “natural leadership,” can you explain what that is, and how to manage that skill? 

Our natural leadership is the innate signal system that is designed to keep us alive in balance and our system in a state of equilibrium. It’s a survival system. We have to assume, based on the rest of nature that if we have that system, it’s probably pretty brilliant and it’s kept us alive and evolving, that it probably has some information for us that we should listen to — that’s the natural part of it.

The leadership component is that [our natural instinct] is designed to help us lead ourselves through the world. It is in a state that will keep us alive as long as possible and keep us thriving and perpetuating our species. Natural leadership is when we tap into that intellectual part of ourselves that has evolved — that can make art and build spacecraft and innovate and do incredible things with technology — along with this survival instinct that we’re not fully utilizing, because we’re all limping along. We’ve got plenty of evidence of stress diseases that prove that. The intellectual and innate survival instincts need to be integrated to embody this concept of natural leadership.

Are we taking care of our basic needs? No, we’re not. We think of self-care as a day at the spa, but self-care is a practice we do all day, every day. Our natural leadership guides that practice and it’s serious business, it’s survival-based. 

One of your readers said, “This book is for all of us who tried to talk to animals as children because we knew they had something to teach us.” How can we use what we see in nature to be more empathetic leaders? 

When someone or something slows us down a little to look at the very basics of our human connection, and we look another person in the eye and there’s a smile, you don’t have to know someone’s story, but you have a recognition of shared humanity. It lights up something in us that’s important about being a member of the human herd. When adults allow themselves to access that, which is the very basis of our empathy, it’s just a moment of recognizing another human connection. 

There’s a lot less stress if we’re just peacefully coexisting than if we’re fighting. As a species, we can afford a bit more ease and a little less infighting. If we think about those basics, like if I can just say friend or foe, and the answer can be friend, it doesn’t have to be anything more complex than that. Any situation you could put yourself in could benefit from that approach.

Being a therapist gives you a scientific take on people’s reactions, can you explain how human experience is a source of wisdom in the workplace?

There’s the innate wisdom that’s the instinct-based, survival-based wisdom that comes through the body. If we look at it with a modern psychology lens, it’s learning from our lived experiences — what we’ve walked through or crawled through.

In the workplace, I don’t think that people consider how much relational wisdom they learn. We could look at skill sets and competencies and tactical approaches and people will say, those are workplace assets. But we should bring the wisdom we carry from our life or interpersonal experiences to the workplace, because that’s such a huge part of ourselves.

Instead we compartmentalize those as separate parts, almost like two separate selves. I think often you won’t realize that you’re working alongside someone that has wisdom to offer you, that goes beyond the tactical, that has to do with being. But those are the people who you work with that you always remember and have become a part of your story.

We’re multigenerational learners as mammals. We need elders or people who’ve walked before us who share their experience, their strength, their hope, how they have gone through difficult things and come out with those metabolized resources and wisdom. 

The Human Herd, Awakening Our Natural Leadership is published by Morgan James Publishing.