The Power of Lived Experience Leadership: Navigating the Dimensions of Lifeworld Existentials

As I walk down the street amidst a sea of human beings rushing around, each carrying their unique stories, and bearing my own lived experiences, I find myself reflecting on the ever-evolving landscape of leadership development. In this bustling amalgamation of existence, one approach has been steadily gaining momentum for its authenticity and transformative potential, and I’m here for it: Lived Experience Leadership. It’s a paradigm shift that not only recognises but also reveres the profound impact of personal experiences on leadership effectiveness.

What is Lived Experience Leadership?

Lived Experience Leadership is a leadership style rooted in the belief that our personal experiences shape our values, perspectives, and ways of being. It is a way of leading that is authentic, empathetic, and inclusive. To better help us understand the concept of Lived Experiences and how they can be used in leadership, I like to use the four lifeworld existentials by Van Manen as building blocks. So let’s start by exploring them.

Understanding Lifeworld Existentials:

Van Manen (2002) defines the lifeworld as the world of lived experience. It is the everyday world in which we live and experience naturally and pre-reflectively, through our daily interactions and activities. Laverty (2003) agrees, stating that our lifeworld and the world of lived experience are what we experience before we have begun to label or conceptualise it.

It is within this lifeworld that we find the foundation for understanding and operationalising Van Manen’s (1997) four lifeworld existentials:

Lived Space: the physical and social environment in which we live.

Lived Time: the temporal dimension of our experience.

Lived Body: our embodied selves.

Lived Relations: our relationships with others.

These four existentials provide a framework for understanding the Lived Experience Leadership. By understanding the lifeworld of leaders, we can better understand their motivations, decisions, and actions.

For example, a leader’s lived space may influence their decisions about where to locate their business or how to interact with their customers. A leader’s lived time may influence their sense of urgency or their willingness to take risks. A leader’s lived body may influence their ability to connect with others or their ability to withstand stress. And a leader’s lived relations may influence their style of leadership or their ability to build consensus.

By understanding the lifeworld of leaders, we can better understand the challenges they face and the opportunities they have. This understanding can help us develop more effective leadership strategies and create a more supportive environment for leaders.

Let’s dive deeper into the four dimensions of Lived Experience Leadership:

1- Lived Body: The first dimension, the lived body, emphasises the physical and emotional sensations that shape our understanding of the world. Our bodies are the vessels through which we experience life, and they carry with them a wealth of knowledge. The diversity of lived bodies becomes strikingly apparent when we consider how experiences vary based on factors like gender, age, ethnicity, and size..etc. For instance, a woman’s experience in a corporate leadership role may differ significantly from a man’s due to the gendered expectations and biases that persist in many organisations. Similarly, the lived experience of a young, ethnically minoritised leader navigating a predominantly older, Caucasian leadership team can be vastly distinct from their counterparts. Lived Experience Leaders acknowledge these differences and use their unique perspectives to drive inclusivity and equity in leadership.

2- Lived Relations: Leadership isn’t a solitary journey but a collective one, deeply intertwined with the relationships we forge. The dimension of lived relations emphasises the impact of our interactions with others. Lived Experience Leaders understand the importance of building meaningful connections, and leveraging their experiences to foster trust, empathy, and inclusivity. However, lived relations are not universally defined; they vary across cultures and communities. In individualistic cultures, leadership may emphasise personal achievements and autonomy, while collectivist cultures prioritise group harmony and collaboration. Lived Experience Leaders navigate these cultural nuances to bridge gaps and create inclusive leadership spaces that respect diverse perspectives and understand that the richness of lived relations fuels innovation and growth.

3- Lived Time: Time isn’t just a linear progression; it’s a canvas where our experiences are painted. The dimension of lived time asks us to reflect on the past, present, and future as interconnected threads of our leadership journey. Lived Experience Leaders draw wisdom from their history, live mindfully in the present, and envision a future shaped by their experiences. Recent global events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, have highlighted how lived time can drastically shape experiences. Those who lived through the pandemic may carry with them the trauma and resilience forged during those challenging times. Their experiences and lessons learned will forever influence their leadership styles and decisions, setting them apart from those who, for example, will only read about the pandemic in books. Moreover, the concept of time differs across cultures, with some embracing linear progressions, others adhering to cyclical patterns, and still others delving into deep time theories. Lived Experience Leaders navigate these diverse temporal landscapes, bringing a deeper understanding of the past, a keen awareness of the present, and a visionary perspective of the future into their leadership.

4- Lived Space: The final dimension, lived space, encompasses the physical and metaphorical environments we inhabit. Lived Experience Leaders consider the spaces they occupy and how these spaces influence their leadership style. The nature and resources available in lived space, coupled with the political and economic climate, shape the lived experiences of those who inhabit the space. For example, leaders in resource-rich urban centres may face different challenges and opportunities compared to their counterparts in rural areas with limited access to resources. Additionally, different cultures attach varying perceptions, meanings, and values to place. Lived Experience Leaders recognise these differences and leverage their understanding to foster equitable leadership practices, ensuring that no space is marginalised or neglected. They create inclusive environments that respect the diverse lived spaces of their teams and stakeholders.

How do the dimensions of Lived Experience Leadership interact?

The four dimensions of lived experience leadership are interconnected and mutually influential. For example, our lived body can shape our lived relations, as our physical appearance and mannerisms can influence how others perceive us. Our lived time can also shape our lived space, as our memories of the past can influence how we interact with the present environment.

The Power of Lived Experience Leadership

I see lived experience leadership as an immensely influential catalyst for change. When leaders harness the power of their own life experiences, they have the potential to foster environments that are profoundly inclusive and compassionate. In these workplaces and communities, the intrinsic value of diverse narratives is not only acknowledged but also celebrated, ensuring that no single story or perspective is considered more valid than another. Moreover, lived experience leaders contribute to a global landscape where no single race, background, or political entity dominates the world stage or sets itself as the standard against which all others are measured. They are attuned to the structural barriers and inequalities that persist in our world. They leverage their influence and insights to advocate for substantial changes, striving to transform the world into a more inclusive and just place for all.

These visionary leaders serve as inspirations to others, encouraging individuals from all walks of life to recognize the potency of their own experiences and embrace the opportunity to effect meaningful change in the world. They are beacons of hope, guiding us towards a future where empathy, understanding, and unity transcend divisions, creating a world where everyone’s unique story is not just acknowledged but also cherished as an indispensable thread in the tapestry of the collective human narrative.

How Can You Become a Lived Experience Leader?

Well, we all have our own lived experiences, but we’re not always fully aware of them, and certainly, we don’t always utilise them in our leadership. Whether we possess a lived experience of privilege or have experienced marginalisation, recognising our positionality is crucial. It’s vital to practice humility and avoid assuming that our own lived experience represents the one and only valid, ultimate, and worthy truth.

If you aspire to become a leader who harnesses the power of lived experiences, both your own and those of others, there are several key practices that can serve as a starting point:

  1. Reflect on your own experiences: Begin by introspecting and gaining a deeper understanding of your own lived experiences. Reflect on how they have shaped your perspectives, biases, and values.

  2. Share your experiences: Be willing to share your personal experiences with others in an open and authentic manner. This can create connections, foster empathy, and encourage others to do the same.

  3. Recognize the diversity of lived experiences: Understand that lived experiences vary widely among individuals and groups. Recognise that no single experience can encompass the complexity of human existence.

  4. Listen actively: Practice active listening when others share their lived experiences with you. Avoid judgment or comparison and instead focus on empathetic understanding.

  5. Value multiple perspectives: Embrace the richness of diverse perspectives and lived experiences. Understand that these differences can lead to innovative solutions and more inclusive decision-making.

  6. Challenge bias and discrimination: Be proactive in addressing biases and discrimination that may exist within your organisation or community. Use your leadership role to advocate for equity and justice.

  7. Create an inclusive environment: Foster an inclusive and compassionate environment where all individuals feel valued and heard, regardless of their lived experiences.

  8. Commit to ongoing learning: Lifelong learning is essential in leadership. Continually educate yourself about different lived experiences and social issues to deepen your understanding and effectiveness as a leader.

By incorporating these practices into your leadership journey, you can harness the transformative power of lived experiences, promoting inclusivity, empathy, and positive change in your organisation and beyond.

The Future of Lived Experience Leadership:

I believe in a world where lived experience leadership is the future of leadership. As we become more diverse and interconnected, it is becoming increasingly important for leaders to be able to understand and appreciate the experiences of others. Lived Experience Leaders are well-positioned to lead us into a more just and equitable world.

In embracing the four dimensions of Lived Experience Leadership, leaders can transcend traditional paradigms. It’s a leadership style rooted in authenticity, empathy and a deep appreciation for the multifaceted nature of human experience. As we explore the power of Lived Experiences in leadership, we recognise that our stories, our bodies, our relations, our time, and our spaces all converge to shape the leaders we become. And when we stay curious about how these dimensions shape our realities and other people’s realities, we can start building meaningful connections, not only with people who share our lived experiences but also with those who don’t.

By harnessing the wisdom within these dimensions, we can unlock the full potential of Lived Experience Leadership, fostering a more inclusive and compassionate world.

It’s a journey that celebrates the richness of our individual stories while uniting us in a shared mission of positive change.

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