The Third Journey of Leadership

The first journey of leadership is about confidence and achievement. It involves understanding and applying personal gifts, consciously and unconsciously. The first journey establishes a unique worldly contribution and results in the strength of personal pride.

The second journey is about tipping over the edge into the darkness of blind spots, from overuse of strengths and underuse of other powers — coming into contact with unacknowledged and often difficult emotions, events and actions: anger or jealousy, for example, failure and pettiness. The second journey helps a person develop a healthy respect for the shadows and underlying patterns of conditioning that balance the personality but erode the confidence gained during the first journey. The second journey, if fully taken, results in humility and compassion.

The third journey is about the essential story of a life that extends the learning of the first two, a trajectory of personal growth that leads to a powerful meaning. The person’s story has a point — it isn’t just a matter of strengths and weaknesses. It’s a greater lesson, redemptive in scope, creating a foundation for a wisdom that belongs to no one, but comes through the leader to do its work in the world.



To use the familiar metaphor of the river, the first journey gets your feet wet — you learn to stand up in the current. The second journey sweeps you off your feet as you learn the deeper, colder aspects of the river. You get thrown against the rocks of the rapids, but you also learn to float — your ego isn’t enough to hold you up. In the third, you learn to swim with the current toward a greater, more restorative purpose. This isn’t the purpose of an external cause; but the purpose of your own life, wisdom and soulfulness.

My observation is that much of what is taught about leading focuses on the first and sometimes the second journey. Occasionally something touches the third journey, but usually doesn’t even acknowledge that there is anything beyond the first two. This is one of the reasons, perhaps, that people resist the second journey and are afraid of it. It’s full of conflict, after all, both inner and outer, and where does it all go beyond diminishing us? The second journey may have some subjective value, but it doesn’t seem to connect with a world that overvalues the passage toward competitive confidence and tangible accomplishment. As leadership consultant, Jane Perdue, recently lamented, “When did humility fall off the leadership agenda?” Our culture is all about pride hoping and pretending to trump the necessity of the second journey. It’s no wonder, we have so many stories of fallen leaders like these.

How negative feedback is dealt with is indicative of these journeys. In the first journey it is mostly rejected and dismissed, returned as blame and aggression, or transformed after temporary demoralization as the will to keep standing. Either that or the person is overwhelmed and gives up. Standing tall against the flow may have a heroic appeal, but if the defenses harden too much in the name of self-confidence, the result is delusion. On the other hand, some hardening is necessary so that a person can enter the second journey, doing so when he or she is strong enough and has met enough walls to become willing to enter the darker cave of her or his own spirit. A person, for example, must have a certain strength of character to learn in an open way from the world’s feedback, especially when it is anonymous, ambiguous, pointedly harsh and embarrassing. It takes fairness and radical self-honesty that doesn’t bleed into excessive self-criticism or self-pity.

By comparison, the third journey, because it is about the story of a person’s character, makes feedback from people and events simply a part of the river’s destined flow. It has its place, part of the narrative and the shaping of an individual toward an inevitable destination and end. The destination may not have firm words attached to it, but as the third journey unfolds, its extraordinary nature and dimension become clear.

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  • Dan, I hope that you know of a leader, or more, who have been able to embark upon the third journey and make some headway. That kind of story about such a leader, if shared, truly can compel the rest of us lagging behind!

    I realize that the third journey is “fluid” and not static. And perhaps some of us have tipped our toe in it. What you describe is a way of being in the world. I look forward to reading more on this!

  • Hi Deb

    Actually, I’ve had the privilege to know quite a few leaders who I would say have embarked on the third journey — who were able to look at their world through the perspective of their life story, their “destiny,” so to speak — at least for a little while. But I’ve not always described it that way, either to myself or to them; I just felt it.

    I think of one person in particular who had no way to put feedback into context until he came to a workshop some friends and I were conducting. There he explored his life in view of a decision whether or not to accept a new, much bigger job. He had done a great deal of self-reflection by nature, but he had also minimized himself and was listening to opinions from others that perhaps were not helping him anymore. One of the other participants somehow unlocked a pattern in the feedback and what was behind it in terms of his conditioning as a child. Suddenly — you could see it on his face — he was free. He understood the trajectory of where he was going, and why, and there was no more doubt. He took the bigger job and has been very successful. What it took was just an instant to cross the border between some kind of logical analysis of himself that was going nowhere, based solidly in the second journey, and the moment when he could see how he was meant to live, who he was meant to be. After that I don’t think the feedback and opinions of others were so controlling. They had a context, and he had an answer.

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