The Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, The Secret Garden, is the story of young girl whose parents die of cholera in India. She is sent to live with her uncle in a large British manor and when exploring the grounds of the estate, she discovers the entrance to a magical secret garden where anything is possible. Initially, the garden appears dead. But through her caring presence, she plants seeds, cultivates the soil, and eventually brings about a dramatic transformation of the entire garden within one season.
Stephen R. Covey used to say that we live three lives: public, private, and secret. In our public lives, we are seen and heard by the people around us. In our private lives, we interact more intimately with loved ones, family members, and close friends. The secret life is where our heart is and where our true motives and ultimate desires are revealed; it is where our authentic self resides.
Many leaders never visit the secret life. Their public and private lives are essentially scripted by everything around them and the pressures of their world. And so, they never find the key to the secret life: self-awareness. It takes courage to connect with our secret life. If we continually distract ourselves rather than seek the uncomfortable journey to the secret life, we distance ourselves from our true identity and the roots of meaning and purpose.
Leaders who attend our Authentic Leadership Academies have said, “This is the first time I’ve ever done any soul searching…” “This experience is the first time I’ve ever slowed down long enough to truly see myself…”
Most of us spend our busy days in our public and private lives, never pausing long enough to enter the secret life, the secret garden, where masterpieces are created, great truths are discovered, and every aspect of our existence is enhanced.
Everything moves in rhythm. Atomic particles, waves of electrons, molecules in wood, rocks, and trees, amoebas, mammals, birds, fish and reptiles, the earth, the moon, the sun, and stars… and we ourselves.
In a world alive with a myriad of rhythms, “entrainment” is the process by which these rhythms synchronize. Rhythmic entrainment is one of the great organizing principles of the world, as inescapable as gravity. And in the fast-paced era of technology, immediate gratification, and on-demand news and entertainment, the heart yearns to find its own rhythm away from the demands of consumption and pressures of the world. As the percussionist Tony Vacca once said, “If you can’t find your rhythm, you can’t find your soul.”
This summer, I experienced finding my own rhythm. I spent a day on the Bow River with Chas Waitt, an inspiring, caring, and human leader on our team, and Dana Lattery, a gifted fly-fishing guide (https://www.flyfishingbowriver.com). As a fly-fishing guide, Dana doesn’t just guide you to the fish. He guides you to yourself. The day wasn’t as much about fly fishing as it was about living connected to my heart, to each other, and to what truly matters.
And it was also a course in leadership. With the tag line, “Love People; Catch Fish,” love and service were integral principles in everything that went down: from the grace in the coffee shop to start the day, to the support, patience, and encouragement in learning to cast and untangling line, to his commitment to stewardship of the river, to how the fish were carefully handled before they were released, and to how I was treated in every interaction.
Here are a few of the lessons on leadership and life from spending a day on the river with Dana and Chas:
1. Leadership, like fly-fishing, requires a relaxed presence of mind. Fly fishing is an extremely complex process that takes time and experience. You don’t have to be perfect, but you miss opportunities if you aren’t present. You must, for example, wait and watch for any sign of movement in the water, mending when needed, and make sure the fishing line drifts naturally and effortlessly. This is the mastery behind guiding that enables Dana to make it look easy. But he’s paid attention for years so he can take his students to the fish with such accuracy it truly seems like magic.
2. You’ll never see a hearse pulling a U-Haul. No matter how many fish you catch, they all go back into the river. No matter what you accumulate, accomplish, or achieve in life, it all goes back into the river of life when it’s over. All that ever truly counts in life is the experience you have, the person you become, and the difference you make along the way. Life is lived in the present.
3. You won’t find ego in authentic leadership. Kindness crowds out arrogance. A genuine interest in others and what they care about replaces making yourself look good. Your self-confidence allows others to grow and flourish in an atmosphere of support because you don’t need the approval of others to evaluate yourself or make yourself look better than you are. Even the masters know they aren’t the smartest person on the boat.
4. Humanity is more important than the illusion of perfection. You don’t have to be perfect or create an appearance of flawlessness to be called a leader. Being human, creating a safe place to make mistakes and learn and grow and be inspired together, is some of what it takes to be a leader.
5. It’s all about showing up. None of this matters if you don’t show up. Accountability isn’t just about being able to be counted on when it’s easy. It’s about being there in the grind. It’s about embracing the suck. Showing up not only earns self-respect. Showing up inspires the respect and love of everyone around you.
6. Service is at the core. Servant leadership is a timeless approach that emphasises your priority as a leader: to attend to the people in your care. You won’t win in the marketplace until you win in the workplace. Take care of your people so they will take care of their people.
7. Fly-fishing is a call to simplicity that makes leadership and life better. The art of being authentic is really the art of being, of knowing and living in harmony with ourselves, connecting with the highest possibilities of our nature. And being connected with our nature requires being connected with nature. This requires stopping, disconnecting from the distractions and demands, and being present to the world around you. The good life and good work require good leisure: not just time that we are not on the job, but that is free from pressing expectations. Simple living doesn’t necessarily mean a quiet life. It can be filled with challenges and excitement. But it is important to take time to go slowly and to do things at the pace they are meant to be experienced – such as when eating a meal, talking with a colleague, returning an email, telling a story to a child, or walking the dog.
Discovering your authentic leadership concerns not the what and how but the who: who we are and the source from which we operate, both individually and collectively. We are clever people, efficient and high-powered, but in the zeal to get things done we can forget our humanity and the simple art of living. Let us make a resolve that we will begin to relax and saunter and be present, and take time to meditate and watch the sun go down behind the hill. Let us be good to ourselves. Let us s-l-o-w d-o-w-n to the speed of life.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Shortly after a good friend suffered a massive heart attack and survived an eight-hour surgery, I was debriefing the experience with him and asked, “How has all this changed your life?”
“It opened my heart,” he said jokingly. Then the conversation got real, and he went on, “It gave me renewed resolve to live life more fully, more present, and more connected to my feelings and to the important people in my life… This heart attack was probably the best thing that ever happened to me…”
There is something both horrible and potentially liberating about hard times. Adversity—the kind that finds you exhausted, depleted, laying on a cold, hard hospital bed wondering if you are going to be alive in the morning —strips you down, cracks you open, takes you apart, and sets you free.
Life is not the way it’s supposed to be. It’s not the way we planned it. Life is the way it is. The way you respond to life is what makes the difference. In the words of the mythologist, Joseph Campbell, “You must be willing to let go of the life you’ve planned so as to have the life that you are meant to live.”
In my leadership development programs, I ask people to reflect on the defining moments in their life, the significant experiences that helped shape and make them who they are today. A good number of life-defining experiences have to do with coming to grips with adversity. It only makes sense. We are meant to learn and grow and evolve in this brief human experience we’ve been given. As such, we can expect some difficult times on the path of life. That’s the beauty of it all. What’s the use of anything that’s too easy? Just as we develop our physical muscles by facing the opposition of weights in a gym, we develop our character muscles by overcoming challenges and adversity.
The adversity journey, the journey to your authentic self, describes the process of surrendering to a time of great difficulty, allowing the pain to crack us open, so that a stronger, wiser, kinder person will emerge.
Here are three lessons I learned through facing my own adversity:
1. Strip away the non-essentials.
When we’re exhausted and mired in the snake pit of depression, or facing an addiction, or carrying unspeakable grief, or coming to terms with a serious health diagnosis, or confronting a layoff or unexpected divorce, when we are trying merely to survive and make it through another day, we discover that anything not essential begins to strip away like old paint. It served its purpose, but it’s now past its shelf life. Our old identity, our expectations of life, our attachments, everything we thought we had control over – all begin to disappear in the dawning of the light of our true self.
When we abandon the outdated ways we used to define ourselves, we begin to compassionately appreciate the self that would not have been valued without the hardships. We can see what others and the world truly needs, and our unapologetic authentic self gets to work.
2. Embrace the hard stuff.
Life isn’t pretty when you’re in the trenches. Pain gets real when we are pushed to our breaking point and beyond. It hurts to come to grips with loss and fear and powerlessness, or give up hopes and dreams we had for our lives and for the people we care about.
Embracing the hard stuff means refusing to hide or escape. It means facing life on life’s terms. It means shedding blame and getting real with ourselves. It means finding a community who will hold the space to make it safe to be who we are. It means giving thanks for obstacles that became steppingstones, and for those friends, guides, confidants, and family members that helped – and continue to support us – along the way. It means reaching inside and finding a strength and a faith to help get us through and emerge stronger and brighter.
3. Ring the bells that still can ring.
Leonard Cohen famously said, “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Ringing the bells that “still can ring,” means bringing your whole imperfect self to whatever adversity you’re experiencing. Your contribution, however small it might feel, is vital. Know that the sound of your bell is needed today. And within our brokenness and imperfect efforts we find that the light of our gifts is our greatest contribution to the world.
Terry Fox lost his leg to osteogenic sarcoma at age of eighteen and underwent sixteen months of treatment. While in the hospital he was overcome with suffering. Not his own, but the anguish he witnessed in the cancer wards, many who were young children. He decided one morning to ring the bell that still could ring. He decided to set out to run across Canada to raise money for cancer research. He would call his journey the Marathon of Hope.
His last words were, “If I don’t make it… the marathon of hope must continue.” Continue it did. To date, over $800 million has been raised for cancer research in Terry’s name through the annual Terry Fox Run, held across Canada and around the world.
Disruptive times create an opportunity to get us in touch with ourselves and our world differently. They crack open the old to see a fresh view of living and working and leading. New movements are shaking up old norms. Reconciliation, restoration, and the common good are calling out for our attention. Let’s use whatever adversity or pain we might be going through to reclaim our capacity for meaningful contribution in our communities, workplaces, and institutions. Let’s do our imperfect best to make meaning out of our mess.
I walked a mile with pleasure, She chatted all the way,
But left me none the wiser for all she had to say.
I walked a mile with sorrow, And ne’er a word said she;
But, oh, the things I learned from her when sorrow walked with me.
Robert Browning Hamilton
American philosopher, William James, said, “there lies within every being a place where, when connected to it, we feel deeply and intensely alive. At such moments there is a quiet voice inside that says, ‘This is the real me.’”
After completing the Authentic Leadership Academy this week, I agree as it was truly an experience of being ‘deeply and intensely alive’ for me.
Over sixty like-minded leaders from all walks of life and from all types of organizations came together virtually for three days. We shared a commitment to make a difference in the world and to amplify our impact by supporting each other to connect with our authentic selves.
A diverse group of people who would not have been able to connect like this in-person shared a unique learning experience in a virtual space. There were amazing stories, tears, laughter, and pure joy as we built an authentic community. I left incredibly inspired by the humanity, courage, and wisdom that emerged during our brief time together. We all left knowing that none of us are alone.
When we departed, we weren’t just leaving a virtual event, we were leaving a community. I left inspired with a renewed belief that the work of a leader is to turn a group of people into a community. It’s that simple and it’s that complex.
COVID-19 has accelerated the evolution of work and the re-examination of our lives. The new workplace reality is that organizations need to be more flexible in their approach to work. Many workers are emerging from the pandemic with greater independence and autonomy over their career and life choices. To attract and keep the best people, organizations need to adapt to these evolving expectations.
But the Academy last week reminded me that whether we’re connecting virtually, in-person, or in a hybrid environment, people really haven’t changed much. They have the same need to belong, to be a part of something beyond themselves, to be working toward a shared vision, and to contribute something meaningful in the world. And our workplaces still serve as an important tool to make that happen.
Here are three strategies to re-engage, renew, and refocus your team in a post-pandemic world:
1. Integrate flexibility with accountability. People will undoubtedly be across the spectrum as far as readiness and commitment to return to the office. Some are yearning for the office environment where they have routine, work/life boundaries, and meaningful and creative connections, while others love being at home with the independence and freedom it permits. While flexibility will be the new norm in a hybrid approach, there must be accountability. The work still has to get done and some in-person interface will undoubtedly be required for creativity and collaboration. While lots of work can be done remotely, some work, to maximize potential, has to be done in-person. The key is to work toward a flexible, accountable structure that works for everyone. Remember: leadership isn’t about always being pleasing or making things easy for people. You have to push and challenge as much as you grant grace and respect the need to feel safe. As the old saying goes, “If it’s not good for the hive, it’s not good for the bee.”
2. Ensure values alignment. Historically, values have been driven from the positional leaders of an organization. The boss tells the employee what the values are and what the expected behaviors need to be. The new world presents an opportunity to collaborate more meaningfully with your team members. Listen carefully to what people’s personal values are and explore a win-win relationship so that both the organization’s and employee’s values are aligned. There is potential for higher engagement and inspired employees who know you care about their work and where it fits into their lives – and that you care about their lives beyond work.
3. Create a platform for authentic contribution. People ultimately aren’t inspired by what they get; they are inspired by what they give. We are all unique and have something important to offer. Rather than simply giving people a job to do, be committed to know the gifts and passion of every person under your care and devote yourself to supporting the expression of these unique abilities in a way that contributes to the organization and those you serve. Everyone has a story, and when you can create an environment that brings that story to life, that ignites their inner flame, you’ll never have to spend another day motivating anyone. If you aren’t empowering passion and building capacity in others, you aren’t leading. Every person needs to be able to answer the question: Why do you matter here?