On Alchemy

I find myself emphasizing intra-personal learning for corporate leaders because time and again I’ve noticed that the interpersonal or competitive risks they voice can mask a deeper interior risk, one where there is a reluctance to move beyond the person’s established sense of identity. They may be skillful in their conversations and relationships, and they can argue any business rationale they please, but they still are hungry for an inner kind of satisfaction. They are still vulnerable — to themselves — and to the hunger that drives them to conceal themselves in ever more skillful ways.

Yet there are those who break out.

One of these is a CEO acquaintance of mine who many years ago had an awakening about how he was inadvertently robbing his organization of its implicit power. When people asked him for decisions he made them; when they asked for advice, he gave it. He did this in a spirit of service, but what he awakened to was how much his own voice dominated in rooms, on projects, in conversations where another’s voice and judgment would do as well or better than his own. He went another step. He began to ask for feedback generally from employees and peers, assembling the information into his own elegant self-appraisal. This was an appraisal he had not been asked to do. He did it really only for himself. But he then presented his assessment to his Board, openly sharing areas where he felt he could change his own behavior, identifying what he saw as key blind spots. The Board agreed with his self-appraisal and commended him for his work. He then took another step, asking his board in an inquiring (not defensive or aggressive) way why members had never talked openly to him about these blind spots, when in fact they all seemed to see what he was now seeing, too. There was no answer. It was simply something that was a little too far out of the norm for that particular group. This experience opened his way further — to experiments and changes in the culture of his organization by fostering the outright leadership of others in an open and trust-based way. The intra-personal nut had been cracked the only way it could be: from the inside out.

I have asked myself a million times how this occurred; how did this leader come to his insights about himself? He was a member of a peer group of CEO’s for a very long time (and I saw him in this context a time or two), and I sensed that his presence in the group was absolutely compelling to the other members. There was something about him that supercharged their conversations. Universally compassionate, his genuine smile after another’s comment might be the greatest challenge that person had faced, presented in a way that expressed no ego at all, only the willingness to notice in a friendly way a telling moment.

My answer to that question of how these insights occurred — and you can see that this is where my own personal edges are, and my interests — is that he willingly took the inner risk, one that had been like going over a waterfall from which there can be no return. It left him changed. When asked about this risk, he may tell you something of his personal life, but the essence in his own words was that he “lost a dream of himself.” And this so strengthened him and gave him such insight that exterior “risks” seemed to have less valence than they once did. He had gained — my words — a certain trust, not only in himself and others, but in the foundations of a beneficent universe. He learned to trust his life. I see people try from time to time to act that out from an intellectual perspective, but I’m sure you too have seen those whose experience is so real their daily presence changed, perhaps the result of finally allowing themselves to come to the truth.

The dream my friend lost of himself caused him regret and pain, that is certain, but much of that energy was ultimately transmuted into a profound gift to all those he leads.

This is the kind of alchemy I am most interested in.


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  • Dan: thanks for sharing another inspiring post about the way that true leadership often unfolds through mistakes and failures.

    I don’t know if you’ve been following the controversy stirred up by Amy Chua’s provocative article in last week’s Wall Street Journal on Why Chinese Mothers are Superior, but given that context, I’m reminded of the parallels between parenting and leadership, with the risks and vulnerabilities that both roles often entail .. and the crucial importance of differentiating our dreams from those of our children (or employees). Awareness of the tension between promoting our dreams and cultivating the development of others’ dreams – which may [also] be unfulfilled – reminds me of the difference between the “drill sergeant” or “helicopter” approaches to parenting and the more consultative / facilitating approach that fosters greater self-sufficiency in children (and employees).

    On a separate, but related, note – relevant to this and your preceding post – I just came across a tweet by Tim Ferris (@tferris) retweeted by John Hagel (@jhagel):

    The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places. – Ernest Hemingway

  • Thank you, Joe. I took a look at Amy Chua’s article and the follow-up in which she explains the distortion in the title of her article (which she did not approve) and the incorrect impressions left by the excerpt. What seems clear is that for her parenting was also a journey, and one also where she “lost a dream.”

    And, oh, yeah, I’ve always liked Hemingway….

  • Dan, I come back to your blog to find this beautiful story. This is really an example of personal transformation that comes from a deeper / higher awareness — an awareness of our interconnectedness with those around us and with the universe as a whole. I didn’t fully understand what you meant by saying “lost a dream of himself.” I interpret these words as saying that the CEO was able to go beyond personal ambitions, and feel a sense of genuine responsibility — a process through which ambitions of the ego are tested and purified in fire to become more noble.

    Thank you Dan, and I look forward to more of your writing and photographs. — JJ

  • Jolly

    I owe you an email and have been a bit overwhelmed lately!

    You observation itself is beautiful — and right on target, Jolly, regarding the interconnectedness.

    I’m sorry if I was a little obscure about the phrase “lost a dream of himself.” In a way it just reflects the CEO’s own private metaphor: those were his words. But if they have a more common meaning it would be that we all project an image of ourselves into the future — defining how we expect life will turn out and who we will be within it. But it is always possible to lose that set of images, that “dream.” Things happen suddenly, or little by little over time that show us how far off our expectations can be. Without disclosing too much of the CEO’s private story, it would be fair to say that at a point his life was not turning out as expected. He had to face an unexpected harshness, disappointment, and time of reassessment. And having moved through that time, also had to find another (more fulfilling) dream.

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