Lili Powell



Lili Powell

With a background in rhetoric and performance studies, Elizabeth Powell might not have the traditional experience in the economic world you would expect of a professor at the Darden school of business. But she sees her previous work with language and the performance of self as deeply connected with her current work preparing students to become business leaders, because “as a leader, you’re always on stage.” In her courses, Dr. Powell encourages her students to ask themselves “How do you tell a story about yourself that is truthful and authentic, but is also designed to get a perception of you across? That’s really the core of public speaking.” As a part of teaching students to present authentic stories, Dr. Powell incorporates contemplative activities as important components of classroom exercises. While everyone might not feel that rhetoric and public speaking are necessarily contemplative activities, Dr. Powell disagrees, explaining that they “certainly involves contemplation—deciding how to frame ideas, positioning an argument, deciding about what metaphors you want to use, what language you want to use. You must decide about the change you want to see and then persuade people to join you in that story.”

After teaching the course Management Communication for several years, Dr. Powell became interested in a topic called Leadership Presence, leading her to “wonder if I could develop a course that goes at public speaking and presentation of self in a different way.” She attended a workshop with Boston’s Ariel group—which workshops leadership presence—and “became enamored with their methodology, because it is much more physically-based, much more reflective.” Combining techniques from yoga, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction program, and theater techniques, Dr. Powell created the course Communicating through Leadership Presence for Darden’s Executive MBA program. She explains that “a lot of what we’re doing in the course is creating social safety in the class so people feel free to explore the things that make them vulnerable and to try things that frighten them…one of the things I found is that, in spite of all their success and apparent confidence, my students are really lacking confidence and in some ways bad habits of communication get in their way.”

To create the sense of social safety which works as the foundation of her class, Dr. Powell offers students a variety of contemplative techniques. She leads them through MBSR-inspired body scans and breathing practices, because “the first thing is just to become aware of yourself and your breathing, becoming situated in their bodies and becoming present to themselves….the idea being that if you can cultivate that on the interior of your being, you have a better chance of being able to project that externally with an audience.” Over the course of three weekends, Dr. Powell works with her executive MBA students to demonstrate “the many ways we communicate, not just through language—the power of nonverbal, the power of context and proximity.” The course culminates in a final exercise, where students utilize the skills they have learned to present a piece for the class—sometimes a poem or monologue, or a business pitch, or an improv exercise, or a report on how they introduced a contemplative practice into their everyday communication. Dr. Powell explains that this can be the most satisfying part of the course, because “students are often exploring a range of expression they don’t normally permit themselves; some of the most satisfying moments are when a shy guy will choose a very bold monologue or something he might not normally say.”

Relying on being vulnerable with peers, Dr. Powell’s course is not easy for many students; she continually tells her students, however, that “struggling with these practices is part of the work. We learn through that struggle.” Dr. Powell’s passion for her students is apparent, and she is eager to talk about what difficulties they have overcome while in her class. Throughout her discussion, however, Dr. Powell is clear that the contemplative practices she teaches aren’t there only to achieve an end-goal, but rather “just like with meditation, the object is not nirvana or achieving a blissful state. The object is continuing to exercise the muscle of catching your mind wandering and bring it back to some intentional place. So you build the muscles, so they are always there when you need them. Just like we condition the body by lifting weights, we train the mind with contemplation.”