Mindfulness, the power of inner work, and finding the purpose you’ve already got.

In this interview I chatted to mindfulness coach and leadership specialist Sally-Anne Airey, of Dream Valley — where our annual retreat Alptitude takes place, in the French Alps. Sally-Anne also spoke at Summercamp last year, and has just developed a program of deep dive coaching for leaders.

What do you do?

I’ve developed a platform called Skilful Leaders, where I help leaders to be themselves in a way that creates sustained wellbeing for the people they lead. In the past year I’ve got a lot clearer on the work that I want to do for the next 10 years, having realised that all the different things that I had been doing, that felt somewhat disconnected, are actually quite interrelated.

It’s about authenticity — because it’s important that we show up as ourselves, feel as if we’re being ourselves and not putting on a mask. That’s not sustainable.

So this is for leaders, but it’s also for anyone with a responsibility in their working environment to make things happen through people. If they can do that in a way that brings a sense of fulfilment and wellbeing to the people they’re working with, then they’re doing their job well.

Then, if they can then walk away and the work still gets done, even better.

The work I do now is bringing together my one-to-one coaching and short executive retreats into a 9-month leadership program which is a deeper dive into all that. It’s a guided journey for a group of eight people, to work together and individually. The really exciting thing is that all of that’s happening here, in this place that we’ve created.

This work feels much more coherent and cohesive, and it’s this place that’s really brought all of that together. I’ve been here six years and it’s taken me that long to figure this out. The sense of purpose and meaning is clearer now.

Can you remember the moment when you realised that this was going to be the shape of your next project?

Yeah — something got clear in January, out of the blue apparently.

Once I’d had the idea I had to think about how to make it happen, and that took a while! I first voiced it (to someone other than my husband) to the happy startup group that came snowshoeing and stayed with us in March and again at Alptitude in June, when I’d already started working on it.

Now the program is starting next March so it’s very exciting. To have had the idea and then bring it into being with a lot of help, a lot of conversations, is very rewarding.

Whoever cares to listen or give me feedback every time I write or create something, is valued. It’s all part of that learning journey.

I say it’s taken six years…it’s more like it’s taken that long to bring out the potential of this place. Getting to this point has been way longer than that — it’s been my whole life! Everything we’ve done up until now has brought us to today, so it’s a much longer journey than that.

So what are those ingredients that have brought this all together?

What I’ve managed to reconcile is the type of person I was in my first career — I was in the Royal Navy for 23 years — with the person I thought I was moving into when I left the Navy. This other side is a kind of alter ego that I wanted to explore when I left the Navy. I went into that for a while.

Now I’ve come back into some sort of centre place, where these two apparently completely different aspects feel totally joined up.

An example of how this plays out is in the final module of my program which I’ve called Developing Mindful Command.

There’s what we call in the Navy ‘Mission Command’, or commander’s intent, which is the classic leadership structure of clarity, engagement, action — making it happen. It may sound awfully conventional, but its basic ingredients apply to every successful leadership scenario. When you join the Navy you’re doing that from day one — so it’s something I took for granted, and didn’t realise how special it was for a long time.

Then there’s the mindfulness side — mindfulness has been this lifesaver for me for the last 10+ years. An opportunity, but more than that, a decision to understand and become more aware of all the habits and energies that I’ve accumulated over the years. To feel more choiceful around them, and befriend them, actually.

So ‘Mindful Command’ is this quality of being that we need to have as leaders — to show up with purpose, clarity and the commitment to do what needs to be done.

That’s the sustaining part, that’s how we manage all the mess of the world!

To do that work in a nourishing and helpful way, we need to show up, be compassionate towards it, not disengaged from it, engage, and be OK. It’s a tricky one! It’s a real challenge, but I feel that’s what we need to do.

Was there one person who’s inspired you along the way to finding this purpose you have now?

There have been different people at different stages. My Dad died when I was young, so my stepfather was a massive influence on me. He brought sense to our lives, it was a bit of a mess before. He re-engaged me with stuff, in a very unusual way. I really respected him.

Then in the Navy I worked for a man who believed in me again, and listened to me. Interestingly enough they were both quite off-hand, both my stepfather and this guy, Sandy Woodward. He was the operational commander in the Falklands War and in his following job I was his right hand. So I spent a lot of time with him, and we had all these long conversations — he listened but he also really challenged me! And my stepfather was the same, he challenged me all the time. So they were very inspirational, and hard taskmasters too, but I probably needed that.

Then, latterly, I guess my inspiration has been Thich Nhat Hanh — the master of zen buddhism and the father of mindfulness, to me. I just love his teachings, I love the simplicity. How he brings the complex into extraordinarily simple form. I’ve read loads of others but he always stands out for me, in terms of his ability to get to the essence of what matters.

So I think in their different ways, those people helped me to see more clearly. And my family, my husband, obviously my kids — they’re amazing. All of that love.

What do you think has been your greatest challenge in getting to this place?

Oh, it’s ‘the demons’ isn’t it. In all the work that we do with others, in all the challenges that presents — the most challenging of all is ourselves. I can’t speak for everyone, but that’s certainly my experience.

It’s to do with how we do this work within ourselves, at home, with the people we love. How we are true to our values and our beliefs. For me those are the challenges — being consistent, coherent, authentic, all the time. I mean, maybe that’s impossible, but I think that’s where the challenge is.

It’s so difficult. Maybe it’s got something to do with believing coherence and authenticity will come back when you’ve lost grip of them, and sort of being OK with it?

Yeah maybe. Knowing that nothing stays the same. But also we need to live with ourselves so I think it’s important that we are honest with ourselves. That’s one of the seeds of happiness, that self honesty. Certainly a seed of peace, inner peace. Being OK with it. So I think it’s important that what we do, how we speak, the actions we take, are those that feel OK within ourselves. We know whether they’re right or not.

It’s important to listen to that voice, but it can be a very challenging voice to hear and also very inconvenient. That’s probably something universal in that, but it’s also very personal.

That definitely speaks to me. So, on the other side of that, what’s been the greatest reward for you so far, in terms of this work?
Whenever I have a conversation with someone, a coaching conversation or some random conversation where something that I hear, and have the courage to voice, lands with someone, and opens up something, and changes something because of it. That’s where the reward is for me.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Simplify. That was my stepfather. ‘Simplify.’ That was years ago, you know, and I don’t think I heard it very well then, I hear it better now. It rings in my ears a lot.

What do you want to learn or gain from the Happy Startup School?

I don’t know what I want to gain… I’m genuinely curious, I love coming to the events, I love being part of it, I love engaging with it. I find the stimulus of it very interesting, the purpose and the startup mentality. And the curiosity, all those qualities make me want to be part of it.

I think I gain joy, actually.

You can catch up with Sally-Anne in person at Alptitude our annual and now legendary retreat in the French Alps.