Advocate of Mindfulness, Influencer: Women Leaders in Technology Series Ellen Petry Leanse

“The Intuitive Mind Is a Sacred Gift and the Rational Mind Is a Faithful ServantAlbert Einstein

Meet Ellen Petry Leanse, an early Apple and Google alum, Tech and Leadership Advisor, Author and Entrepreneur. Companies Ellen has advised include Facebook, Microsoft, Oracle, Intuit, and Samsung, as well as entrepreneurs worldwide.

According to her website, Ellen coaches and writes on innovation, mindfulness, and product design. A member of the Macintosh launch team, Leanse was also Apple’s first User Evangelist and forged the company’s pioneering steps into online communities. Tech journal PandoDaily has named her one of tech’s top five marketers; she has also been honored as a Silicon Valley Woman of Influence.

When I phoned Ellen she was leaving the Google Campus where she had been in an exploration meeting with other great minds. We spoke for 45 minutes – how generous of this sought-after advisor!

Ellen is a master of mindfulness. She captures audiences like those at the Mindful Culture Summit and changes company culture. She believes in our ability to humanize and expand our set of options rather than construct to measurement.

What’s the biggest leap of faith you’ve taken during your career? Ellen replied, “There have been a few. The biggest, committing to this work of leadership and human intention, is happening right now. In my 35 years in Silicon Valley I have seen there are few short cuts to success for those looking to create real impact. The lessons that happened in my career led me to do this leadership development.”

What gender workplace topics have resonated with you over the last year? Ellen reflected, “I feel our gender challenges stem from our adoption of gender-driven roles – ways of being that are defined by external influences and role models rather than our authentic selves. The past years have challenged these roles and the people associated with them, so we’re on a very confusing playing field. We’re all confused: men and women alike, and to be honest we’re confusing each other. That leads to polarization, and to avoidance of the REAL issue: that most people have to check some of their identity at the door before the go to work.

Research I’ve done at Stanford reveals interesting and concerning themes around “what people fake and what they hide” in order to fit in at work. When we examine the time and energy “faking and hiding” consume and look at that impact across the world of business it points to a costly, needless waste of resources. My ideal “gender” scenario is one that moves beyond gender (and race, and culture, and physical ability, sexual or gender identity, and more) and into the simple logic of people working together, bringing their whole selves to work.

Until we find or shape that path, we are all paying the price inherent in exclusion. As Albert Einstein said,

‘No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.’

What an opportunity we have to shift this level of consciousness! Fuller polarization, though, won’t get us there. In fact, that traps us in the existing level of consciousness.”

What is the diversity of “The Art and Science of Leadership: New Tools for Organizational Design,” one of the classes you teach at Stanford? Ellen said, “We have a host of different countries, multi-decades, career professionals, and job descriptions represented. We’re diverse across gender, professional experience, life and cultural background, and much more. There is diversity exhibited in ways graded students participate when given a loosely-defined problem.”

“This is what I care about, seeking the sum of our potential and awakening people from their dreams and getting them out of their comfort zone. This is how consumers become producers, when they can answer the why and have others align with the why.”

What developing trends do your students reflect/express in the “Enlightened Innovation” course you teach at Stanford? To this Ellen replied, “This course is based on cognitive neuroscience, design thinking and a range of wisdom practices, including Buddhism and mindfulness. Above all, it’s an invitation to “think different,” as Steve Jobs would have said. I was fortunate to learn from his example and witness what was possible as he challenged teams to bring their full selves to their work experience, and reach far beyond everyday thinking.”

What do your students seek? Ellen said, “The course description is something of a filter for those who put themselves out on a limb. They know they’re in for an unconventional ride. They want to know how to develop not products, but extraordinary products. The students are eager to deconstruct the differences that consumers value. My students believe that through this thinking they can become better product designers, trust themselves more, and unleash their full creativity.”

What is your perspective of technology leaders navigating today’s political environment? Ellen expressed, “I have a strong sense decision makers look to tech for too many answers. They look to tech for problem solving when having mindful debate is better. The trouble is we don’t look at situations long term. Without applying long- term thinking to decisions, many solutions ultimately turn into problems. We have not designed what we really want.”

Further Ellen noted, “We need to understand bias and design subsets of human experience through conversations. We need to foster human potential for long term thinking. Our assumptions deserve more attention. We must decide what we want long term, open our minds, and focus.”

As Yuval Noah Harari says in his international bestseller, Sapiens, – and I’m paraphrasing – we humans tend to lock in to our solutions without stepping back and looking at the tradeoffs or problems they might introduce. Because we’ve never come to an agreement on what we really want – collectively, as a species – we’ve been creating solutions before we all agree on the problems. We’re all living with the result of this tendency and the unforeseen complexity our “answers” have created. His assertion makes me wonder what might be possible if we applied design thinking to envisioning our future on a global, human-centric scale.”

What culture change do you feel needs to happen? Ellen notes,“One must avoid impulsive decisions. An artful way to respond can be by increasing our use of questions rather than jumping right in to answers. It’s a way to learn more and thus offer more worthy answers. I encourage students to be expansive – to ask more questions, not to avoid answering but to expand their comfort zone.

We also have to remember that not everything can, or should be, evaluated through the lens of technology. We must remember that our innate technology – our minds – includes a unique capacity for critical thinking. We can’t simply outsource our judgment to data or algorithms or AI. Our opportunity now is to open our eyes to the power of balancing tech’s offering with our own human potential – not falling for the shiny object of tech as a replacement for our unique human capabilities.”

“Art does not solve problems but makes us aware of their existence. It opens our eyes to see and our brain to imagine.”

Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930 – 2017)  

I read in a Silicon Valley Business Journal interview that you are an “art geek”. Can you tell me more about a project or two that you have in the works or recently completed? Ellen replied, “Art is universal across domains. That has been true for millennia. During the late 1800s art evolved from conceptual to more abstract blossoming of science/consciousness. Science followed suit.”

Why do you consider yourself a working artist? Ellen said, “Tech professionals connect with fuller pictures that bridge creativity. Art brings opportunities that open doors for design thinking through neuroscience. The integration of complex thought rather common modalities in varying conceptualization is universal across domains, and at the core of innovation and reiteration.” (View Ellen’s handmade collages)

Have you realized your then 5-year goal of publishing a book written during and after your 2007 trip to Africa when you and your son found yourselves in the middle of a political upheaval and the ensuing civil disruption? “No, that book never came about. It was quite an amazing story with so many wonderful characters, but life took over once I got back. Maybe someday I’ll return to it. So much has changed since then; the book is like a little time capsule. But I do have a book coming out in November entitled The Happiness Hack. It’s a brain aware guide to finding more focus, purpose, and satisfaction in life. It’s designed to help anyone understand the brain and see new ways to direct it, mindfully, toward more of what they seek in life.”

If there was one person you could spend one hour without distraction on a bench by the sea, who would that be? Why?

That’s a great question. I think it would be Carl Jung, so I could absorb his genius on consciousness and the interdependence of all things. But there’s a young artist at MIT, Ani Lui, who would also be on the short list. Thanks for the great idea. Maybe I should do that. 

Please leave a comment of how have authentic discussions have changed the culture in your company. Thank you for sharing this interview in STEM communities.

Evelyn Asher is a mindful mentor to IT professionals with a fierce desire to gain bigger perspectives, change, and be ready for their next adventure. She meets with clients in person, via phone or Skype.

Aubrey Blanche, Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Atlassian, a world of thanks for suggesting this interview.

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