WE BEGIN FROM HERE...
Leadership can often be conceived of as a series of ‘practices’ by which to evolve, grow, flower and flourish.
One of the most powerful of these ‘practices’ is beginning with reality. It is launched fairly simply.
We first face ‘what is’ not only by being present to what we are facing in all its fullness – where necessary its seeming brutality or even its almost giddying potential -- but also to all our feelings about this reality.
Denying we have those feelings, we can stifle the very passion that can be fossil fuel as we aim to move on from and beyond this current base-line reality.
This requirement above, of being present to all of our feelings about the way things are, is far from easy. In fact, to fully engage in this practice, we have to go still further. We have to not only be present to all our feelings, not only accept they are there, but we must do so without resistance.
That means if we ‘resist’ our feelings, or resent them, we miss the opportunity of exploring the range and depth of their potential enabling power.
So the aim is ‘Presence without Resistance’. The capacity to be present to everything that is happening without fighting the fact (if it is already in existence), liberates possibility.
The struggle shifts from coming to terms with what has already happened and onto re-inventing the landscape of reality and potentiality.
As a skier I’ve experienced what happens when I tense up and try to ‘avoid’ icy patches. Down I go! When I relax into those patches and let them carry me forward, let them teach me how to use them as a conduit, I frequently find myself moving quite elegantly forward.
This extends to mistakes we ourselves make. A fellow skier once commented: ‘Mistakes are also like ice, we have to let them carry us forward.’ Once we include mistakes in our definition of performance, we can admit them faster, not perpetuate them, and then at least ‘stumble forward’ if we must, rather than backward.
In fact, in our lust for acting as if we ‘have it all together’ we forget the uphill glory that attends all types of genuine contribution. The great composer Stravinsky once turned down a bassoon player who was too good at rendering the opening to Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring. That music is seeking to convey the ‘first crack’ in the icy grip of the Russian winter; it is constructed as a heart-stopping and perilous moment of expression. This player, while technically perfect, couldn’t convey that exquisite yet aching moment. When hearing of a difficult moment in the violin concerto, Stravinsky said: ‘I don’t want the sound of someone playing this passage; I want the sound of someone trying to play it!”
Leadership is like that. Leadership is frequently the ‘sound’, and ‘sight’ and ‘feeling’ of someone trying to play it – seeking to live it, yearning and stretching to better fulfill their potential for contribution.
Another compounding complication is we often treat our ‘assumptions’, our ‘projections’, and our ‘conclusions’ as reality. Therefore we potentially ignore the multi-faceted tapestry that ‘reality’ so often actually is.
A persistent rain we face on a trip can sour our journey while being a God-send for the local crops. A forest fire may injure an ecosystem, only to later allow it to renew itself with vigor. A tempestuous argument with a spouse can create ‘space’ for fresh feelings that can both excite and empower our relationship. A flight delay can have us late for a meeting, while allowing us to find and spend time with a book that sparks a breakthrough for us in some facet of our lives.
So we often have to restrain ourselves from investing our rush to judgment with too much credence. The student goes to his Rabbi. The Rabbi instructs him that when you get good news, thank God; when you get bad news, thank God. The student thanks the Rabbi. But then mulling over the instruction, he asks how he is to separate out ‘good’ news from ‘bad’ news.
Smiling with delight, the Rabbi says, ‘You are wise my son. So, just to be safe, always thank the Lord.’
We can state this in slightly less exalted language for today’s leader: ‘Look at everything with the eyes of possibility, grateful at least for the opportunity to do something with it.’ But get to that moment as directly as possible, without shadow-boxing with defensiveness and rampant rationalizing.
A colleague describes a therapeutic session with a family. The father continued to complain that his son had built a ‘wall’ around himself. The son said nothing. ‘See?’ the father said. And on he went to rant.
Facing reality means distinguishing between ‘what is’ and our own conclusions, beliefs and assumptions. This father had characterized his son’s silence or diffidence as him having ‘constructed a wall’. You can almost sense the wall being erected in the passage above! As the son didn’t respond, the ‘wall’ was confirmed in the father’s mind.
The son’s reality may have been that his father was an overbearing, domineering taskmaster. And the more the father rants, the more true this becomes in the young man’s perception.
Imagine if the father had decided to ‘dismantle’ the wall in his perception, and had simply noted ‘what is’: ‘My son is being silent and I’m frustrated that he won’t communicate with me.’
Imagine if the son not being viewed in a diminished way, simply observed: ‘Dad wants to communicate, I’m not sure I know what to say, or how to say it.’
And what if both of them had said that to each other? Imagine the richness of a conversation that began with a real sharing of ‘what is’ for each of them, the emotional realities above. We can almost sense the importance of the ‘bridges’ that could be built.
An even greater danger is that as we keep reconfirming our own untested assumptions about the ‘obstacle’, ‘the problem’, we then tend to pick those perceptions that are either easier on our ego or which conform to our prejudices.
The mind being like a heat-seeking missile, the more we look at the world with this bias, the more ‘evidence’ we will locate for our perception of choice. This is also why we notice a flood of Honda Civics on the highway soon after we buy ours or a bumper crop of young infants the week after we’ve wheeled our own out of the hospital. ‘Seek and ye shall find’ is as perceptual a truth as it is purported to be a spiritual one.
If we fall into this trap, we run the risk of either creating strategies that don’t address what is really needed, or else we begin to emotionally confirm a conclusion that the problem is more intractable than it really is.
In fact, as we openly sift the evidence, and allow “what is” in dynamic alliance with “possibility” to begin to turn the tumblers of our mind and heart, we also must change our frame of what constitutes progress.
We have to get away from ‘all or nothing’ and onto rejoicing in hitting all the ‘runs’ (including singles and doubles) we can, posting whatever ‘quick wins’ on the score-board that are meaningful. This helps build momentum and increasingly affirms pragmatic faith in the potential for fresh design.
When recently grappling with these insights, I realized you can join the crowd bemoaning the inevitable decline of audiences for serious theatre, or you can celebrate the sold-out performances of Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman at the National Theatre in London and the critical and popular acclaim for the audacious Doll’s House Part Two in New York, and join those conversations instead.
You could engage with others at these shows, and emerge renewed and hopeful that your own artistic crusade might be able to find patrons, enthusiasts and mavens, that perhaps under our pop cultural veneer, the same human passions and dreams and hungers, still abound.
If demoralized by what you perceive as the decline in classical music interest, you could join the throng of thousands that converge upon Mozart’s lovingly preserved Baroque home-town of Salzburg, and then re-enter the world fully revitalized by the alternate reality of classical music interest that this most prestigious of European musical festivals conveys. And then…you have the option of helping to enroll others in a more makeshift community for musical activists, friends who rejoice in promoting, celebrating and immersing in classical music.
Select the context you want to immerse in and begin from. Choose the stimulus you prefer to have your faculties challenged by and ignited by.
So, once we accept reality, and our feelings, as leaders we can then empower ourselves to create fresh milestones that take us towards an enhanced, enriched and more spiriting reality. We realize that all real leaders work with their collaborators and stakeholders as constructive co-conspirators to create the framework for life and reality to unfold in a fresh direction.
Martin Luther King intoned for all of us: ‘I have a dream!’ When we don’t first face and interrogate reality, we corrupt this to, ‘I have a pipe-dream…a wishful fantasy at best.’
Equally, when we don’t accept our accountability for co-creating what can be by engaging perceptions and feelings and frameworks (ours and those of others), we mutate this into, ‘I have a nightmare.’
It’s our paintbrushes and canvas though. Whatever we help paint as potential -- respectful of reality but not constrained by it indefinitely -- that’s the context we provide for our colleagues, our organization and ourselves to build performance from.
Great business leaders have one thing in common with those visionary humanitarians that we revere. Both have the ability to be abundantly present to the way things are both in times of uplifting beauty and revitalizing joy, and also during periods of immense challenge and debilitating frustration.
Both understand that we have to face, embrace, and then transcend what we experience and find ourselves facing. To be alchemists, we may have to be ‘chemists’ first.
Such leaders and such visionaries can look at the full range of both our challenges and our potentials, and never position themselves in any way that presents a barrier to creativity or to hope.
This is why we must allow our sadness, sorrow or anger to be expressed to some extent too. We may otherwise solve the problem, but duck the lesson, thereby setting ourselves up for a future repetition of the problem.
M. Scott Peck once said: ‘The truth will set you free, but first it will make you madder than hell!’ So be it! As long as we then enable and generate, on the wings of that outburst, enough humility for true perception, enough courage for genuine willingness, enough audacity to move tangibly forward.
Leadership is ultimately about growth and transformation with ourselves as kindling. But we cannot transform what we don’t first accept.
We learn to lead in an enlightened way then by first coming to not only ‘accept’ but even to imaginatively appreciate ‘what is’. What ‘can be’ then shimmers all around us.
And so, we begin from here…