Today, I want to offer a suggestion that I’ve not yet encountered in the leadership trainings I’ve taken or the leadership development theory I’ve read. It’s out there, I’m sure — probably usually in the subtext. It’s a tool I’ve used with my coaching clients, and with my colleagues at Pacifica Graduate Institute. And it works. LEADERS NEED TO LISTEN TO THEIR DREAMS.
I’m not talking about those strategic, waking visions that lead us forward with ambition and help us tell a consistent story to inspire our organizations. I’m talking about those messy, half-remembered, illogical, uncomfortable messages we get from our sleeping selves, our dreams and nightmares. Here are three reasons dream messages make us better leaders.
1. Dreams reorganize the details of the day to make sense of what we’re doing in the world.
They bring us a lot of information. When we listen to that information, we can take action to fix a problem before it becomes a crisis.
For example, last night, I dreamed about a clutter-filled journey with all my disruptive friends, who kept leaving a mess almost as bad as the mess I myself was making. Most of the time, I was cleaning up to make sure we didn’t get in trouble. My friends tried to help, but 99% of the mess was mine, so all they did was reorganize it a little.
My inner coach says the interpretation is simple: It’s time to clear out the baggage I’m dragging along with me so I don’t lose track of my goals. It’s my responsibility, not anyone else’s. Anywhere I’m blaming other people for the things in my way, I need to let go. In my leadership work, that means it’s time for self-reflection and setting clear goals to take care of my responsibilities and move forward.
2. Dreams offer us the keys to our core stories, our mythic selves.
In leadership terms, that’s one way of connecting with our authenticity, by connecting with the stories that drive us and keep us focused.
For example, one of my clients had a nightmare that his house was full of huge, wild animals. Everyone in his family was in danger, and he somehow felt that only he could save them. The problem was, he was up in a turret of the castle (his dream home) and couldn’t get down the stairs to save his children because an angry bear was blocking the way.
When we talked about the dream in our next skype session, first we considered ways of getting past the bear, and then what he might have done to get the animals out of the house or under control. Once the tension and fear left the dream, he was able to play with the story, and decided that he would rather be a Dr. Doolittle than a Hunter or a Victim. In other words, he preferred to understand, feed and tame the wild animals than kill and stuff them for trophies to prevent being eaten himself.
When we used that core story to look at the difficult situation in his company, he came up with three new leadership strategies to “tame” the angry managers in his team. One of them made it possible to keep his most gifted and frustrated vp as the core leader of a profitable new initiative.
3. Dreams tell us what we really want, on a deep level.
With all the conflicting responsibilities, ingrained personal and professional habits, and intuitive roles we play, most of us lose track of the reason we became leaders in the first place. When we figure out our truest motivation, we make better, clearer choices.
Another client, a successful business woman, dreamed one night that she lived in a small cottage in the deep woods, with all the fairy-tale details, including a garden that sustained all her needs. She felt totally at peace, and woke up, disappointed to find herself at the start of her usual hectic Monday.
When she reflected on her dream, she wasn’t surprised at its message to “simplify, simplify, simplify.” We’d been talking about that for months. But until she felt that total peace and the utter disappointment of waking, she hadn’t realized how much she wanted to disconnect from technology and her responsibilities. My prescription: take a vacation in the woods. (Sometimes we tell ourselves exactly what we need!) When she came back, she was finally able to start restructuring her business so she could have space in her life for quiet, and even a small garden. With that time away, she was a better boss and leader for her rapidly growing company.
Not all dreams are this clear, and even when they are, it’s not necessarily easy to take clear action until you’ve explored them fully. But they connect us to important self-knowledge, sometimes even giving us insights beyond our own experiences. It’s worth paying attention to this dream wisdom. The stories we tell ourselves waking matter, and so do the stories we tell when we’re sleeping. These stories can help us be better leaders, if we listen.
The stories of my clients’ dreams have been modified to preserve confidentiality. On the other hand, I really did dream last night about stuffing red suitcases with clutter on my crazy dream journey! I’m off to reflect a little, draw a mind-map or two, and set some new goals for the new year.