Solid at the Core

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 Maté‘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 Maté, 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.

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7 Comments

  • What an elo­quent way you have with words. The top­ics you choose are “sol­id to the core” as well. Read­ing this post gives me encour­age­ment not to run from my vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. If I can be lighter with my weak­ness­es, I won’t have to hide and defend them as much. Thanks for writ­ing about things that real­ly mat­ter, Dan.

  • Your response, Deb, rais­es the ques­tion of how much we actu­al­ly must pro­tect. We need some bound­aries, lest we be washed away, yet I sense we do need to ask our­selves more thor­ough­ly what and who we are pro­tect­ing our­selves from. I sense that I can be lost pro­tect­ing me from me, from see­ing, as much as I might want to pro­tect myself from oth­ers “out there” who some­time may wish to do me harm. And if we are all liv­ing togeth­er inside our fears, would­n’t it then also be clear that there is a much bet­ter way?

  • Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty as strength — how “un-Amer­i­can”, but how deeply true…

  • You are right, Greg, that invul­ner­a­bil­i­ty seems to be the Amer­i­can cul­tur­al stance — which is why, in my opin­ion, our rep­u­ta­tion for lead­er­ship has dimin­ished. For fol­low­ers to come there must be inspi­ra­tion not defensivensss.

  • Dan I love this note and had a sim­i­lar thought about vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty last week­end. Thank you so much for voic­ing it so well. I fin­ished school and would love to catch up! Love to you and Carmen! 

  • You are most wel­come, Pat­ty. Give me a call to catch up when you get a chance.

  • […] Sol­id at the Core (Unfold­ing Lead­er­ship): The advan­tages – and dis­ad­van­tages ‑of inner strength and confidence. […]

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