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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