Every day I work with leaders who ask me how they can find great leadership, great leadership in themselves, and great leadership in those around them; and they’re not asking how they become the next Mandela or the next King or the next Gandhi.
They’re asking how they in their own lives can find the moments of greatness that enable them for example to insist those who work with them, bring the best out of themselves that enable them to make a dangerous career transition.
This is what I hear them asking for; and they know that great leadership does not depend upon a few people, great leadership does not come from the person sitting next to you, great leadership comes from each one of us, and that’s what they are calling for.
What makes a leader!
what makes a leader: For the last 20 years, the biggest question that I have worked with is how does great leadership happen? And I think I’ve realized something; what I have seen is that the essential qualities of leadership compassion, courage, humility, fierceness come about through turning towards our experience in contact with others and turning away from it. So effectively you’re telling me the great leadership is about turning towards our sorrow, our pain, and our grief; I think I will turn to the person next to me and ask them to be the leaders; unfortunately, it doesn’t work.
Life throws challenges at us over and over and over, we are affected by the world over and over; we feel fear in response to danger, we feel grief in response to loss, we feel shame in response to the harm that we cause, we feel anger in response to injustice. And in those moments we have a choice; if we turn towards our experience, each of those emotions can be transformed.
So our fear can be transformed into courage, our grief can be transformed into compassion, our shame can be transformed into humility, and our anger can be transformed into fierceness. But if we turn away we are diminished; so how; it’s not just to say “all right I choose courage instead of fear” it doesn’t work like that; so how does it work? It works through contact and connection with others through our openness to that experience in relation to other people.
How do you transform fear into courage?
So how is it that fear transforms into courage? it transforms through connected moments of vulnerability; I’m thinking about a CEO who I worked with who had built an extraordinary company, and I knew after about seven or eight years that her position was more than she could handle, that in some way she could not cope with the position that she was in, and turn to her team in a moment, and a carefully organized moment and said “tell me about my leadership, what works about what I do and what doesn’t work”, and in that moment she heard the truth, the team realized that the organization was going to have to change, they had to let go of the form that they were in, and the identity that you’re in, and let it go in that moment of courage, she wasn’t courageous just for that moment, she was courageous forever, she had built courage inside herself and it was staying with her.
How do you transform grief into compassion?
I’m thinking of the day when I heard that one of my best friends, his own life had been taken, and I was with a group of friends. and little by little they encouraged me and allowed me to open to the grief that I was in, little by little they held parts of me physically, and each time I turned towards my own self-blame for what I should have done to have changed it? This was a turning away from my grief, each time I did that they allowed, they encouraged me to turn towards the grief, and I know that after that I experienced loss in a different way, I just understood loss in a different way.
How do you transform our shame into humility?
I’m thinking about how is that we transform our shame into humility? These turning towards happen not just at a personal level but also at a national level.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa is an extraordinary example of a whole ritual of accountability that a country went through, in which the horrors of apartheid were laid bare in which those who had perpetrated crimes; crimes owned to what they had done, and in which those who had been perpetrated were able to restore their dignity; the whole country was different after that; the understanding of how we connect, how we share our shame in relation to others; there’s a different understanding in that country now.
How do we transform our anger into fierceness?
Well strangely a great example is good marriage therapy; in good marriage therapy we have an opportunity to be fierce, to express the anger that we feel if we stay connected to our anger and if we stay connected to the other; in those moments our fierceness grows that relationship has built its capacity, and in moments of healthy conflict we respect the dignity of others, and we do not turn towards violence, so this seems so risky! yes seems so risky to bear ourselves so completely; but think about the alternative; the other risk is that we don’t turn towards it; if we don’t turn towards our fear we lose our confidence, if we don’t towards turn towards our grief we become depressed, if we don’t turn towards our shame for the harm that we’ve caused we feel alienated, and if we don’t turn towards our anger we become resentful
what makes a leader: we all know that great leadership is not inevitable; it is not inevitable that we speak truth to power, it is not inevitable that we have creative breakthroughs, it is not inevitable that a marriage is saved from an affair, we know that we each individually have to turn towards it
So if leadership is about turning towards those qualities inside us and developing turning towards our experiences, if leadership is about finding those essential qualities, yes it is often uncomfortable sometimes terrifying often heartbreaking; but we know it is what gives us life, and we know that is the only thing that has ever made a creative constructive difference in the world.
So what do you think about what makes a leader? Go ahead and leave your comments or even questions below and I’ll do my best to get to them in a timely fashion. After you’ve posted that comment, go ahead and click the share button as well, assuming of course that you enjoyed this article.