A person may be said to be “solid at the core” if he or she is able to endure stress, challenges, shocks, even failure, without being demolished. Difficult events penetrate, perhaps even wound, but they are also inevitably a source of growth and permanent learning. Someone with core strength steps into power gracefully, with a genuine sense of openness toward others, not dominance, and with as much a capacity for vulnerability as for holding firm.
My sense is that such strength exists in varying degrees in all of us, the product of every variable in life and experience. Those who truly have it don’t flaunt it. It is felt simply as part of an interpersonal presence. The best leaders I’ve known have all had it.
And this is a dangerous thing because to highlight this quality can take us back to a notion of leading that implies personality as the central issue and a “some have it, some don’t” bipolar perspective that reinforces dependency by followers and arrogance in those named the leaders. And neither dependence or arrogance have to do with being solid at the core.
Yet, it is also impossible to ignore exactly the factors that are associated with central, centering strength — the ability to decide in the midst of chaos, to be influenced by others on the basis of what is true more than what is self-protective, to care for others and willingly sacrifice ego to vision and the genuine needs of followers. The ability to acknowledge mistakes.
I was sitting in a room of about a hundred people recently when one of the executives in the room described the cost of his own failure to speak up about an important staffing decision. The scenario involved “the tide of the organization going a certain way” and his feeling of not being able to buck that tide. The consequences of that decision, as he explained them, turned out to be disastrous for the organization, causing many people pain, embarrassment, frustration and anger, and ultimately resulting in the high level separation of another executive, who of course had also suffered. There were many costs to his decision not to speak up, not the least of which was a cost to his own sense of integrity. Only someone with a certain strength at the core could have shared so openly and been so vulnerable about dropping a very important ball, and without show or artificiality of any kind. You could have heard a pin drop as he explained his role. If we all felt stronger as a result of his reflections in front of the group it was because, I believe, we recognized ourselves in him and because we admired the courage and honesty he exemplified in that moment. You wouldn’t think that a story about a mistake could be inspiring, but that is exactly what it was.
To say, “solid at the core” tells us nothing of how he was able to stand up and so openly share his story. Nor does it tell us how we might become more solid ourselves.
Recently I’ve been reading Gabor MatÃ©‘s beautiful book about addiction, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. One might wonder what a book about life-threatening addiction to drugs has to do with being “solid at the core.” Well, to begin with, the title of the book expresses the very opposite quality. And MatÃ©, in his own way, also exemplifies someone who is willing to share a deep vulnerability, his own mistakes and triumphs, his own addictions, and in doing so also expresses central strength. He knows well the “hungry ghost” side of himself. He does not place himself above the people — hard core drug users in Vancouver, Canada — who he serves so well. Instead he sees their humanity, and by extension, in the way one mirror reflects another, he also sees and expresses his own.
Man at the Gate/Morelia
It’s a curious paradox, isn’t it, that vulnerability is strength. We tend to see things in reverse: we view our strengths as our vulnerabilities — and so we’ve learned to hide them. Rightfully so, perhaps, because our strengths do open us to attack, and once our strengths are attacked we can be most deeply hurt. But the irony is not complete without seeing things from the other side as well; that it is our soft stuff that actually makes us strong.
Once that has been deeply experienced, I sense that a certain affirmation comes forward, an affirmation like a sword that may cut all the way to the heart of a life. Wordless, maybe not something that can be taught. Something that just comes because we are it and it is truly of our nature.