Transcendent Near-Death Experiences : Key Learnings for Leadership and Engagement

Imagine for a moment what it would be like working in an organisation that is under huge pressures to grow, to transform itself and to beat the competition; an organisation that is mandated to do more with less and to do more differently rather than following the status quo. For many of us this is a daily reality. We can palpably feel the sense of urgency these pressures create.

Every moment of every day such an organisation is very likely to be under real existential threat: existing competitors are trying to grab our customer base and startups are gunning to make us irrelevant with disruptive solutions. Now imagine that your leaders not only fear organisational irrelevancy and death, but also fear their own professional and actual death:  these leaders are caught between the need to change and charge ahead and the paralysing fear of not existing.

Two main questions arise from this all too common situation: firstly, how can such leaders lead well when they are stuck like deer in existential headlights worrying that they could drop dead at any moment; and secondly, how can a person survive and thrive when they are working in such a company for such fearful leaders; how can people be expected to find purpose and meaning in their work; how can they remain engaged when they are working within such an environment of existential fear?

The short answer to both questions is that they cannot and the workplace surveys reflect this: big time. There is a paucity of purposeful leadership: by purpose I mean a goal that is bigger than our company’s results or share price. There is also a massive breakdown in staff engagement within the corporate universe.

To tackle this problem leaders need to be able to overwrite their fears; alter their reality and reinvent themselves; they need to be happier with greater overall life satisfaction, more in tune with a higher purpose and completely devoid of their previous fear of death.

This is not a trivial problem to solve for and the two overarching questions that emerge are: how can we as business leaders find a solution to this paralysing and very real corporate pandemic; how can we help our executives to deal with their fear?

The answer lies in confronting that which we fear most: no matter how uncomfortable it may feel, we need to stare death in the face. On the face of it this may not seem possible: how can we truly confront death without dying ourselves? Surely that would defeat the purpose?

There is an elegant solution: exploring death through the eyes of people who have been there and come back, exploring death through people who have undergone a near-death experience. Why them? Many NDEers no longer fear death.

In a study published in 2004 on near-death experiences and their impact on the  temporal lobe, Brown University’s Willoughby Britton made a startling discovery: people who had transcendent encounters during life-threatening events scored exceptionally higher on tests of overall life satisfaction than people who hadn’t. She referenced thirty years of research to show that while most people were negatively impacted and traumatised by their near-death experience, a subset who had experienced some form of transcendence had an atypical response: they exhibited off the charts happiness and life satisfaction, including feeling that their lives had meaning and a higher purpose.  By transcendence I refer to some experience that has the quality of being beyond the normal constraints we feel: linear time collapses; the well-defined sense of self dissolves; there is unity between the internal and external senses; there is reconnection back into a larger, collective otherness than the present life experience. Not all NDEers experience this transcendence, but a great many have.

Further research has demonstrated that this is not a one-off feeling that dissipates in the short to mid term. People who have undergone a transcendent NDE have had their brains permanently rewired so that they do not fear death. As long as a decade after such an NDE, those who have experienced it feel the same level of happiness, reverence and lack of existential fear.

Three years after my own transcendent NDE I can personally attest to this: yes, it took me a while to deal with the shock of my sudden cardiac death, there were moments of emotional turmoil along the way; yes, it took me a while to recuperate from my illness as only another major operation 10 months laterremoved the arrhythmia that had caused my cardiac arrest; but yes, I have absolutely overwritten and have no fear of dying whatsoever; and resoundingly yes, I have completely reinvented my life and have off the charts life satisfaction as I pursue a far greater purpose than my own selfish success or that of one organisation.

It would be impractical for organisations to only use transcendent NDE survivors as their leaders, but I would encourage dialogue with people like myself who are open to sharing our experiences and key learnings; people who are focused on improving leadership skills and helping executives to reinvent themselves with many of the traits that transcendent NDEers exhibit such as deeper compassion and wisdom.

There is also greater understanding of how to create an on tap emulation of the effects of a transcendent NDE and I encourage you to follow this growing activity more closely.  It is an area we are exploring at EXOscalr. There will be a lot to gain from having first mover advantage in being able to recreate altered states of consciousness.

How To Successfully Reinvent Ourselves

Do a google search on the phrase reinvent yourself and you quickly realise that this is a pervasive and perennial question: google tells us that related searches include how to reinvent yourself at 30; it seems we are still looking a decade later as another related search is reinventing yourself after 40; and again ten years later we want to know the answer to how to reinvent yourself at 50; and finally we ask the question how to reinvent yourself at 60?

Many people dream of a future that is radically different from their present: they want to quit the big city commute and live close to the beach; they want to get off the corporate treadmill and build a passion business as an entrepreneur; they want to move back to or away from family and where they grew up; they want to write novels rather than conduct endless business meetings or they want to leave a loveless relationship.

The challenge, though, is that getting to the point where they are fulfilling this dream can be tough. There are significant forces that contribute to this inertia and which can prevent reinvention. For example, we tend to exert more energy dealing with issues closer to hand: immediacy wins out over future concerns and dreams; we find it easier to simply deal with the day to day than plan for and progress towards achieving future-oriented goals. This is exacerbated when the future we dream of is very different from our present.

We may see a misty, day-dream-like version of ourselves doing something else, but we may have very little understanding of what it would take to actualise this dream. The stark reality is that we are likely to end up in an alternative, less fulfilling future before we know it: if we don’t achieve absolute clarity on where we are at today and where we want to be in the future ; if we don’t also implement an operating system that empowers us to crystallise goals, set clear objectives for achieving them and generate results-oriented data that ensures we are on target.

We all undergo some level of modification of our identities, both personal and professional as we traverse our lifespans. But there can be an underlying angst for people who are not fulfilled in their lives. They may want to make a radical change, but for whatever reason hold back on doing so. This increases their level of angst.

“What if I leave it too late?”

“I’ve been a software programmer for 30 years, it’s all I know, how can I now expect to become a musician?”

The good news is that it is never too late to reinvent ourselves. With sufficient intensity and resolve we can undertake significant positive change at any age. That being said, we do need to acknowledge that reinvention can take time. Learning a whole new discipline may take us years and we need to make allowance for the time it takes to get up to speed with our new goals. Being on the path to achieving such life changing goals will us new meaning, which in and of itself is a major benefit. After all, reinvention is more journey than destination.

Jim lost his son to an aggressive form of cancer and was then retrenched from his executive position at a multinational company. Instead of jumping back on the corporate treadmill, he drew inspiration from the fight his son had put up before succumbing to the cancer that ravaged his body; Jim decided to realise his passion for storytelling and wrote his first novel. Three years later he has published eight books and is well on track to publish many more.

There are four steps we can take that will help us achieve a successful transformation:

1. Finding Passion

In order to truly reinvent ourselves we need to find our passion. This requires a process of self-inquiry or self-evaluation: the aim is to determine our underlying drivers, strengths, fears, weakness; we cobble together our narrative, our story; we find out what intrinsically motivates us; we discard the blinding, extrinsic indicators of shallow success. We focus on what really drives us at the soul level: which unlocks a much higher probability of fulfilment, ensures we are less depressed; builds our resilience so that when things get tough and distractions and obstacles arise we can still achieve our goals.

2. Slogging It Out

And things will get tough. We have a tendency to be overly bullish about the future, overrate our abilities to make the necessary changes to reinvent ourselves and underrate the amount of effort this will take. We may think about the future for over 10% of our waking hours, but putting this into action is not something we necessarily excel at.

3. Connecting Before Committing

Once we know what area we will focus on in our reinvention we need to make a point of getting to know people in that space who are already achieving the kind of results we aspire to achieve. What do they see as the challenges, how would they go about entering that space if they were to do it again. Be inspired and then go ahead and commit.

4. Building a Reinvention Operating System

As we embark on the journey of reinvention we should implement a system that helps us change our habits, set objectives, track our behaviours and results so that we can determine how we are progressing. This can be a multiple year journey and it can be far from linear, we need to ensure we have the right practices and tools to assist us.

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