Leading Beyond the Great Disruption

Nelson Mandela had many teachers in his life, but the greatest of them all was prison. In the words of his biographer, Richard Stengel, “Prison taught him self-control, discipline, and focus, and it taught him how to be a full human being – the things he considered essential to leadership.” In other words, it was the solitude, degradation, devastation, and inhumanity of his time in confinement that made him into the leader we admire. It was his journey away from the world and into his soul that allowed him to lead in the world.
The pandemic turned our world upside down in a short span of time, and its impact is wider spread than we might acknowledge. Offices, communities, and families have been divided. People have been hurt. We’ve all experienced loss. Our mental health has been affected. The residue of the collective trauma we experienced lingers. The enormous health, economic, and humanitarian challenges of the past two-and-a-half years have led to a great disruption that challenges leaders to reinvent their organizations with an orientation toward renewed and sustainable growth, resilience, and purpose.
May Nelson Mandela’s courageous long walk to freedom be an inspiration to us all to make this great disruption our greatest teacher.
We can start this holiday season by pausing, getting our bearings, resetting our personal and collective compasses, and opening our hearts. It’s a time for healing, caring, and forgiving as we move forward together.
Here are three ways we can be part of creating a new world:
  1. Clarify a vision. Mandela’s dedication to the African people and the ideal of a free and democratic society where all people would live in harmony kept hope alive for the South African people. It also kept Mandela’s own hope alive during his years of unjust confinement. Hope is not a guarantee of a desired outcome, but a deep and sustaining confidence that our contribution will make a difference – regardless of the outcome. What is your personal vision that inspires hope?
  2. Open your hearts. Divisiveness, exclusion, and dissention have been a part of the places where we live and work the past two+ years. Vaccine mandates, corporate policies, religious views, and political opinions have divided families and workplaces like nothing I have experienced in my lifetime. Ask yourself who in your world needs to be listened to, heard, and truly understood. Where might apologies be needed? It’s not agreement but respect, understanding, and compassion that is required. It’s naïve to think that we can just return to work and personal relationships, and everything will be back to normal. Healing from the impact of the pandemic will take time, patience, and much caring from everyone.
  3. Let go of bitterness. “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom,” said Nelson Mandela, “I knew that if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Forgiveness is not some bleeding-heart, Sunday school platitude. Forgiveness is having the courage to honestly face the emotions that come from being unjustly injured and then letting go of the right to be resentful. It takes maturity to be able to bear an injustice without wanting to get even. Forgiveness does not abdicate the importance of justice; rather it removes revenge from the justice process. Forgiveness transforms vengeance into freedom. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “Without forgiveness, there is no future.”
To quote Lady Gaga: “The really fantastic thing about kindness is that it’s free. And it can’t hurt you or anybody else. It is the thing that brings us all together. In times of chaos and crisis we start pointing fingers at where we think the bad guys are, where the evil is. We all start arguing. Everybody has different opinions… The solution is that we need to build a stronger, braver world. We need to get rid of the labels, the different factions… none of this can matter anymore. We are unified in our humanity. And the only thing we all know, the one thing we all appreciate in one another, is kindness. This must come before all things. And you must operate relentlessly this way. With everything you have.”

CRACKED OPEN – Finding Your Authenticity in Adversity

“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

CIVILITY AMID DIVERSITY  How To Rebuild Trust in A Fractured World

As Canadians, we were collectively shocked and dismayed at the spate of divisive behavior across this country recently. And now, the crisis in the Ukraine has given our situation in Canada a new perspective. The disunity in our country appears to be indicative of the divisions in our communities, our workplaces, and even our families. It’s been said that a crisis doesn’t determine a person; a crisis reveals a person. Although I’m not sure that we are not any more divided today than we have always been, the dissection has been exposed and amplified.
We used to be able to leave our political, religious, and personal value differences at our office and front doors. But in the pandemic, policies that govern our behaviors with the intent to protect us, have inadvertently divided us.
In short, politics and personal values are now in our face. As teams are balancing a return to the office with remote work, the challenge in front of us is how to rebuild trust in a fractured world.
To rebuild trust requires deep understanding of each other without the need to correct, fix, or “straighten out.” You must get beneath the surface of opinions, positions, views and even values, and connect with the deeper emotions to begin healing what divides us. It’s critical to shift the goal from agreement to understanding. You don’t have to have the same values to value someone. What you do have to do is separate the person from the issue.
Here’s a little model I learned from teams who are debriefing and recovering from trauma. It’s called the SELF model:
Story. Everyone has a story from the pandemic. Let’s take the time to understand each other’s stories that are coming out from the past two years. We just don’t know what people have been through.
Emotions. The past two years have been a form of collective trauma. What emotions have been a part of your experience over this time? What have you had to give up? Where have feelings such as self-doubt, loneliness, fear, excitement, clarity, or anger been a part of your reality? What have you done with these emotions?
Loss. Since the beginning of the pandemic we all lost something and are going through the grief process to some degree. Here are a few losses: our health, a loved one, some of our freedoms, spontaneity, rituals in gatherings like funerals and weddings and church services. I’m not making a judgement. I’m simply stating the obvious and facing reality.
Future. The future depends on the decisions we make today. How will we rebuild? What do we need to feel safe and supported? What needs to be let go of so we can create an opening for change? What do we need to say good-bye to? What decisions need to be made? (e.g. to let go of blame and judgement and resentment; decide to be a contributor instead of a consumer, a builder rather than a destroyer)
A crisis is too significant to be wasted. Let’s embrace this time of difficulty and allow the pain to break us open so a stronger, wiser and kinder self and a better world can emerge.

WHAT ARE YOU DOING FOR HUMANITY?

At the end of WWII, the United Polish Relief Fund appealed to the Canadian government to deliver penicillin to Poland. In October and November of 1945, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) managed to deliver five tons of penicillin to Poland, the only humanitarian flights the RCAF would be able to make into the Soviet Bloc until after the Cold War.

On one of these humanitarian missions, the Fortress 9202 crashed into Eggeberg Hill, near Halle, Germany, killing all five RCAF members on board. My mother’s first husband, and father of my dear sister, Kate, was one of the pilots on that fateful flight. They sacrificed their lives for their country. They died for humanity. Watch a short video recounting their story. (Flt.-Lt. Donald Forest Caldwell, Mountain View,AB; Flt.-Lt. Edward Pattern Harling, Calgary, AB; Squadron Leader Alfred Ernest Webster, Yorkton, SK; Flt.-Lt. Norbert Davis Roche, Montreal, QC; Sergeant Edwin Erwin Phillips, Montreal, QC)

Martin Luther King Jr. once said that an individual has not started living until they can “rise above the narrow confines of their individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” Rising above our self-serving desires and problems and looking toward a contribution to the community isn’t just good for the community; it’s good for your own well-being and mental health.

As we approach another Remembrance Day in Canada, may the memory and honoring of our veterans serve as an inspiration to rise above the “narrow confines of our individual concerns” and to lift our eyes to the horizon of humanity. Let the death of these five men, along with all who served and sacrificed, serve as an inspiration as they placed the call of humanity above personal danger. To expand on the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Let’s make a career of humanity … and you will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country and a finer world to live in.” The ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand in times of challenge and controversy.

We remember and we will never forget. But let’s not just be touched on this Remembrance Day. Let’s be inspired to act differently. And then let’s look around, roll up our sleeves, and get to work making this world a better place.

Staying Connected: Making The Beast Beautiful

Learn the alchemy
True human beings know.
The moment you accept
what troubles you’ve been given,
the door will open.
-Rumi
Some people break during difficult times, while others break open and lead us into a better world. As this pandemic wears on, it is time to examine how to allow the pain of it to break us open so a stronger, wiser and kinder self can emerge. If we can use the present reality as an opportunity to clarify our values and grow into better people, we can inspire others to pull out of their despair and fear and trade distraction and denial for deepening and connecting.
In other words, if we can open our hearts to ourselves, with all our shortcomings and all of our beauty, we can then open our hearts to others and do our part to create a new world.
And we can begin to do that by taking the authentic journey, which I suggest starts with the following:
Be Real
There’s something attractive about realness. We are drawn toward what is real, like sunsets, beauty, and honesty. There’s an unwritten rule in the speaking profession: Don’t give a motivational speech at a funeral. It might be a good message but the timing sucks.
Being real means we respect ourselves enough to be honest with ourselves and the people that matter to us. We have to be willing to face our fears honestly before we can call ourselves courageous. And the most courageous thing we can do is ask for help.
Being real means it’s okay to not be okay, and trust that we’ll get through this and move forward together – with honesty, grace, and compassion. We have to grieve before we build.
Find a champion
An inspiring cornerstone of the Calgary Catholic School District is the commitment to every student having a champion. Every child deserves a one-on-one relationship with an adult in the school who believes in them unconditionally, who knows they have their back, and who is in their corner. In order to ensure that every child has a champion, every employee must have a champion.
The journey of transforming difficulty into an adventure that opens us to growth may be a lonely journey, but it can’t be done alone. The lone-warrior model of leadership is heroic suicide. We all need champions in our lives – confidants that hold space for us while we hold the space for others and allies that stand beside us and behind us. We all need at least one person in our life who believes in us when we can’t find it in ourselves.
Choose a growth mindset
Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor, has done extensive research on mindset.  She has found that our mindset exists on a continuum, from fixed to mixed to growth.
People with a fixed mindset are attached to the comfort of their current perception of themselves and others and to not failing. People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, don’t let their fears determine their choices. They are less attached to the opinion of others and thus are more willing to step into the possibility that comes from uncertainty. A growth mindset – a willingness to be vulnerable, learn, grow, and be up for challenges that are ahead – thrives in periods like the pandemic. When difficulty or obstacles arise, instead of, “Why is this happening to me?” a growth mindset asks, “How is this happening for me?”
Get stronger
After recovering from polio meningitis when I was four, my father took painstaking efforts to incrementally build my strength each day. He would lift me up on the parallel bars and have me practice holding myself there. We had a daily routine of 5BX exercises and time on the tumbling mat. He was a nationally ranked gymnast and he encouraged me every day to get stronger.
Even today, forty years after his passing, I can hear him say, “Don’t pray for life to get easier. Pray for you to get stronger.” Both his wisdom as well as his health habits have stayed with me through all kinds of difficult periods in my life. It’s a reminder that resilience and security don’t come from the world; they come from my capacity to access resources from within. Strengthening habits – like weight training, meditation, yoga, relaxation, rest and opening up to others – have sustained me through all the difficult times of my life.
Clarify A Compelling Vision
A friend of mine works for an organization called AAWEAR, a group of people in Alberta with a history of hard drug use. Through supporting each other, educating others, and raising awareness of health issues, AAWEAR strives for an improved quality of life for those in the drug using community.
My friend meets daily with people who live in tents and on sidewalks in the city of Edmonton. His vision is to help those who struggle with drug abuse and homelessness recognize that they deserve respect and understanding within their community. No matter how dark things get around him, Tyler is inspired by a vision to help others live a better life.
What inspires you in the difficult times? What gets you up early? What keeps you up late? What inspires you to keep walking through the rough terrains of your life to see you through to the other side? We all need a vision – beyond our own self-interest – to keep us moving forward through inevitable doldrums and disillusionments of life’s journey.
We all have the capacity to inspire and empower others. But it takes a devotion to our personal growth and development to embrace times of change and difficulty, such as this pandemic, and reach within so a better person can emerge. Hard times can motivate us to embody the hero within us. The psychologist, Carl Jung, believed that “the privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” This journey is described in my book, The Other Everest: Navigating the Pathway to Authentic Leadership, and the journey we go through in our Life In Transitions course. It is the journey to the deeper aspects of our nature that awaken us to who we are meant to be. And that is how we can use this beast of a pandemic to find what is beautiful in ourselves and the world around us.

HOW TO BUILD COMMUNITY IN A TIME OF ISOLATION

A research project from the 1980s, documented in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that male heart attack survivors who were socially isolated had more than four times the risk of death than men with strong social connections. And a study of more than four thousand men of Japanese ancestry living in Hawaii found that social networks guarded against coronary artery disease (independent of known health hazards such as high blood pressure and cigarette smoking).
Over the past four decades, there has been a sizable body of evidence documenting that being socially isolated significantly increases a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk equal to that of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
Simply put, people are nourished by other people. Research suggests that belonging to a tightly knit community is a significant predictor of health and mental well-being. Living beings yearn for the proximity of other living beings. Humans are happiest and healthiest when around other people, working together and helping each other. For much of history, humans have banded together as a matter of survival.
Even with pandemic fatigue, where we are weary of social distancing and isolating for the sake of our community’s health, our need for community has not changed – we desire to be heard, to be connected, to belong. Social distancing is not the same as social disconnecting. Isolating is not the same as detaching. Working together for the good of the whole is not the same as living in fear and withdrawing from each other. In our current conditions, we are called to develop a renewed connection to ourselves, to learn to enjoy solitude, to appreciate smaller spaces, and to be creative and intentional about sustaining our relationships with each other – thus finding innovative ways of sustaining community.
Living with a propensity for depression and having walked through some very dark periods in the course of my lifetime, I can suggest five strategies for fostering community during this pandemic that have worked for me:
1) Develop self-awareness. When a Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council was asked to recommend the most important capability for leaders to develop, their answer was almost unanimous: self-awareness. But how do you develop self-awareness? Self-awareness starts with checking in on yourself in the present moment. Are you afraid? Stressed? Inspired? Exhausted? Angry? Renewed? All of the above? Self-awareness comes from introspection and feedback from others. It takes time and intention but is a journey worth taking. You can only connect with others to the degree you connect with yourself.
2) Find a confidant. A confidant is a person with whom you can be real and honest. Confidants provide a space for those who are busy holding a space for everybody else. At this point in the pandemic, as fatigue is settling in for so many of us, we all need at least one confidant who can put us back together at the end of the day. Confidants are friends, spouses, coaches, lovers, or trusted colleagues that provide support, perspective, and accountability in the midst of our frustrations and challenges.
3) Practice kindness wherever you go. We are all doing the best we can to get through these challenging times. Let’s make it a point to grant each other a little grace. Even while wearing a mask we can smile with our eyes, offer encouragement with a hand gesture, and practice patience with our tone of voice. We’ve never been more alone, but we have also never been more together, sharing this experience with eight billion people on this planet. Community is developed one kind act at a time.
4) Find a reason to get out of bed in the morning. In a world preoccupied with problems, community is about discovering our gifts and finding ways to bring them into focus. Community is ultimately about being needed, belonging to something beyond yourself, being inspired with a reason to face the day. It is the task of leaders, indeed the task of every citizen, to shine a light on the gifts of those in the periphery and bring them into the centre. Especially in the midst of a pandemic, we need to find a reason to put our feet on the floor each morning.
5) Get comfortable being alone. Loneliness and being alone are distinct. A desire for solitude is a defining characteristic of an authentic person. A quest for community can be one more form of manic activity if it is not rooted in a continual practice of silence and time for reflection. If you work on creating a balance between reaching out to others and enjoying what the Finns call hiljaisuus, or solitude in one’s being, you’ll strengthen your sense of self-worth and find more meaning in your life.
Our intention, in our upcoming Authentic Leadership Masterclass is to do our part to help build communities with like-minded authentic difference makers. While we show how authentic leadership presence can be applied to the leadership practices of fostering trust, building accountability, navigating change, and engaging talent, a major part of the program is to connect leaders with each other to sustain their growth, connections, and sense of community. We work with accountability partners between sessions to support each other’s growth, help each other stay on track, and sustain the insights you glean from the class experience.
We still have a few seats available for our January and February programs for those of you committed to renewed leadership development this year in a community of incredible like-minded difference makers. I hope you will join us.
To mark the passage into the promise and hope for a safe and prosperous new year, I want to borrow from history and visualize an ancient and meaningful ritual. For 2,500 years, the Japanese have been making and drinking sake, a type of rice wine brewed from fermented rice. Throughout all that time, sake has been used to mark special occasions with the people that matter most. In most celebrations involving sake, a glass is placed inside a masu cup and the host pours sake until it overflows like a waterfall. The overflowing is an act of kindness and generosity to show appreciation for the people around them. It also works as a little act of celebration, to lift the spirits and to enjoy the present state of life. Watching the sake overflow and not knowing whether it will tip over presents a beautiful moment of suspense, when time seems to slow down. By introducing a moment of suspense, the ceremony keeps your mind in the present moment, focused only on the beautiful waterfall of sake.
As a message of appreciation to all my readers over the years, I’m taking the liberty to borrow from this little Japanese ritual and overflow some sake with you. My hope is that the image of this overflow will remind us all to bring presence and generosity into this new year. May we all experience the overflow of kindness through our actions as we build community together and navigate into 2021.