I did an inventory the other day of the kinds of issues clients have brought me over time. Here are some of them:
- Survival in the role of leader
- Effectiveness in working with others, particularly troublesome personalities, other people who are in denial, and those who have more power
- Living in high control, high risk cultures
- Trying to shift these cultures through personal actions and modeling; being a change agent
- Feeling good about oneself in a role and job, whether it involves leading or not
- Getting things done against the tide of others’ agendas and lack of resources
- Living out personal potentials in a particular way (becoming an entrepreneur, a manager, a writer or artist, a social activist, etc…)
- Overcoming self-esteem or self-confidence barriers
- Rebuilding damaged or challenged credibility
- Getting through the life ‘funnels” (big decisions), wake-up calls and life shocks
- Addressing shadow issues such as negative feedback, mysterious relationships, disconnections, lack of attention, being treated impersonally, not having personal power; misuse of personal power
What struck me as I looked back over the list was this: they are all issues of a person, a leader in distress — issues related to the ego we are all given, issues of the hubris and self-doubt or self-criticism that attends the ego — and the need to move outside that ego completely. Essentially these are the issues given to us so that we can learn how to fully take on the emotional challenges of living who we are, of living ourselves well, and of finding out in a very personal way what it means to lead toward a vision for a better world.
In this work, although we often wish it were not so, there are few real guides. We mostly learn from experience, and from coming to trust in our own unique paths as individuals, especially as individuals who have assumed a mantle of responsibility. “Our own unique paths as individuals” is an important phrase because it testifies to the need for deep diligence and awareness in spite of the difficulties that might come our way. The natural thing is to run and hide, for example through denial or projection of our dilemmas and problems onto others, but honoring a unique life path demands something more.
I was speaking with a friend a few days ago, and I asked her, “Where do you see your path taking you? In the end, what do you think is your destiny?” She was thoughtful for a moment with this big question, while I sipped my coffee. “I don’t know exactly,” she said, “but it is someplace spiritual. And it is something I cannot not do. I am on that path, and no matter what I do, it seems to further it.” This reminds me so much of William Stafford’s poem, The Way It Is, and how he says that we really cannot let go of our individual threads as we get older and pass through experience after experience. Without knowing too much about Buddhism, I might say that this is the actual Zen of leading — being a follower along the path right in front of us.
This is no new thought. People have known it forever. But it bears repeating, doesn’t it, especially when that path is difficult or scary, when we find ourselves facing something very challenging in our lives and our work? We have to remember how to come down to the ground of being, of mere being, in order to keep going. We have to remember that this is exactly what is meant by leadership, this willingness to follow the path, to go around or through the obstacles as we must, to learn from them as we go, and to approach it all without pretense, with an open mind and heart, even when the path seems to end in a rock wall, or we must ford a treacherous river, or it turns sideways and goes beyond the edge of the cliff. That makes every challenge essential and the most creative edge of our work.
Five years ago in a post I concluded:
What is the problem? self.
What is the answer? Self.
Today, going back to read these words (which also show up on my leadership poster), the meaning keeps revealing itself. (Was I so smart? No. The words appeared — they were given to me — and I wrote them down. I’ll probably be trying to understand them for the rest of my life.)
And although we will always want to know what the steps are — as if a numbered list of tips and techniques would do — the real lesson, hearing those words again, is in acceptance of the path and listening for the wisdom that comes from a place well beyond ego. For whatever reasons the path I have followed has asked me and allowed me to help people by facilitating a small part of their journeys, and I’ll tell you something, I feel quite humbled by this charge. And if I feel challenged in my own path from time to time, well, what they say is that you can’t help anyone else with a disease you haven’t already been ill with yourself.
And, oh boy, looking back over the inventory list I started from today, do I know what that means!