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.
“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
When I was in elementary school, one of my classmates was a girl named Laura. Laura came to school with uncombed hair and old, tattered dresses. I didn’t think of her as living in poverty; I only saw her as “different.” She suffered from epileptic seizures, which freaked everyone out. Halfway through a class, without warning, Laura would fall on the floor; her body would stiffen, her arms and legs would jerk and shake like a rag doll, and we would all circle around and watch. Back then we just waited it out. After a few minutes, Laura would open her eyes, slowly stand up, and wobble alone down to the infirmary. We wouldn’t see her for the rest of the day.
Laura was a loner. You would see her off by herself in the corner of the lunchroom or the playground. She was the target of frequent tormenting, harassment, and bullying. On one occasion, a group of boys were making fun of the stains on her blouse and the way she walked. Another boy, who himself wasn’t very popular, stood in front of the bullies and told them to stop bothering her.
For his courage, the poor kid got punched in the nose, thrown on the ground and five boys pummeled him. His face bled for the rest of the afternoon, and he had a black eye for a week. That “poor kid” went on to be the high school student union president, a talented quarterback, and eventually a successful lawyer and crown prosecutor. And after the incident, I don’t remember Laura ever being bullied again.
To this day, I wish I’d had the courage to stand up to those bullies the way he did.
Moxie. Courage. Nerve. Determination. A force of character to contend with. A quality of great leadership.
Leading can be treacherous. With or without a title, exercising leadership means shouldering the pains and the aspirations of those we serve, while failing or frustrating others. Facing resistance to changes we initiate, working in systems that go against our values, or standing on unpopular principles, leading means putting yourself at risk. It means stepping into the path of potential betrayal, rejection, discomfort, and unpopularity. Leaders get attacked, dismissed, silenced, and sometimes assassinated. Who wants that?
The root of the word courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. Leading means the courage to follow our heart. It means, at times, the courage to stand alone as we stand up for something or someone we care about. It means having moxie.
Moxie teaches us to honour our true self and worry less about how we look or how we conform. Here are three methods to finding your moxie:
1.Be willing to stand alone. To lead and belong fully in this world, you must be prepared to stand unaccompanied. Having moxie means having the courage to do what’s right rather than doing what’s popular. There is no path to moxie. There is no path till you walk it.
2.Stand for something. You can’t stand alone until you know what you stand for. Whether you have a well-defined set of principles that guide your leadership or your life, an intuitive sense of purpose, or a clear vision for your life and your work, moxie comes from clarity.
3.Care. Moxie comes from caring. Caring about your people. Caring about your work. When you care, moxie surfaces in times of need. As I say in my book by the same title, Caring Is Everything.
In the poem “A Memorable Fancy,” William Blake enters into an imaginary conversation with the prophet Isaiah: “Does a firm persuasion that a thing is so, make it so?” Isaiah replies, “All poets believe that it does, and in ages of imagination this firm persuasion removed mountains.”