I have been thinking about a phrase I used in my last post about self-trust. Symbolically, I said, I have “a god at my back,” meaning simply that there is an energy that supports me from within when I meet difficult circumstances. Many people report having this sense, and know it has gotten them through hard moments or hard times. I think of Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame and her recent TED talk on creative genius. In this short, inspiring presentation she talks about the “glimpse of God,” the inner genius that is expressed through art, the product of gifts that are only “on loan” to the artist. We know them when we see them in others. And I would add that we feel them come through ourselves with a deep sense of flow.
I am reminded of a colleague, I’ll call her Linda, who worked for a very tough, demanding CEO. After the holiday season, company managers and their teams got together for what promised to be a celebration of a highly successful sales effort. Linda’s team had surpassed all their projections and they were riding high. However, instead of recognizing these accomplishments with praise, the CEO chose instead to publicly criticize members of Linda’s team in the meeting for their lackluster performance. In that moment, Linda stepped between the CEO and her team and immediately asked the CEO to direct his remarks to her, not her team members. If he had a problem with the team’s performance, she said, he should plainly address it to her. She also asked the CEO directly why he felt a need to criticize a team that just surpassed its projections — a question for which he had no answer. Later, and after a long series of conversations covering many months, Linda and the CEO decided together it would be best for her to leave the firm. It was more than clear to her that the CEO loved his opportunities to grandstand and hook people into confrontational meetings through outrageous criticism. I think of this story because I know Linda well and I can see her there standing her ground calmly, asking for respect. To listen to her tell the story is to experience her profound genuineness, her real truth and authenticity. This is a classic case, as is the story I told in this post on leadership as a calling, of someone willing to move into tense, uncomfortable space in order to change the status quo. When such demanding moments happen and we have the privilege to see someone leading, it is exactly this same “glimpse of God” that Elizabeth Gilbert eloquently described in her speech. We have all seen and felt that divine energy come through.
I believe this is one of the most challenging thoughts I could possibly put forward about leading. Because what I am not doing is presenting a formula for how actually to respond when the tough moments happen. I am not sharing a list of key phrases to use with people in power, suitable for Powerpoint. I am not catering to intellectual solutions that please the ego and attempt to use slick interpersonal technique to replace truth in the moment. And I am certainly not telling anyone to go back to church to learn more about all this simply because the language sounds spiritual. What I am saying instead is that unless a person wakes up to their own source of this energy, the leadership they might bring will always be bounded and their presence diminished.
Perhaps you feel some anger, as I do, for the situation Linda was placed in, or some anger that in the end she decided to leave without any particular change or new understanding by her boss. These are the shoulds of the situation and they are precisely what trap us and victimize us, along with fear of letting out the force within. If I were to speculate, I would say that Linda was larger than the situation and she did what she was destined to do. No one speaks easily of this reality — that once the sacred energy has learned to express itself, the leader’s path becomes unique and therefore alone. This does not mean that the leader has no friends or community or cannot sustain difficult relationships. To the contrary. But it does mean that the inner strength that moves people out of conformity and compliance also causes them to see differently and to take paths that they alone can take.
Over all the hilltops
There is silence.
In the tops of the trees,
Hardly a breath.
The birds have fallen silent in the woods.
You too will be silent.