Authentic leadership is both active and reflective. One has to alternate between participating and observing. I am in the midst of navigating my own way through that journey and feel compelled to share my experiences and perspective with you.
What in your life is calling you?
When all the noise is silenced,
the meetings adjourned,
the lists and agendas laid aside…
what still pulls on your soul?
In the silence between your heartbeats hides a summons.
Do you hear it?
Name it, if you must, or leave it forever nameless,
but why pretend that it is not there?
― Adapted from Mevlana Rumi
In 2017, days before my brother’s passing, I found myself in the familiar place of sitting at his bedside holding his hand. Hal’s breathing was labored, and his eyes were closed. I rubbed a moistened sponge gently along his chapped lips. My hand on his heart seemed to help relax the strained movement of his rising and falling chest. In those long moments with him, I learned that caring is more than simply being open to experiencing the anguish of another’s suffering. It is the willingness to live with knowing that we can do nothing to save another other from their pain. On this particular afternoon, in a feeble attempt to relieve my restlessness, a question arose within me with no expectation of a response.
“Well, Hal, what advice do you have for your younger brother before you die?”
His eyes opened and he squeezed my hand, surprising me with a response.
“Find your voice,” he said clearly.
“Find your voice? What do you mean?” I asked.
That was all he had. His hand relaxed; his eyes closed; and he drifted back into unconsciousness.
After months of disabling aphasia, these were the first words he was able to string together in as long as I could remember. And, as it turned out, they were the last words I ever heard him utter. I spent considerable time after Hal’s passing reflecting on his life and considering carefully the significance of his guidance to “find my voice.”
I wrestled with the meaning of Hal’s words and the meaning of my life. Amid the grief, I began to fear that my life was somehow being wasted. Was I making a difference? Having any impact? I needed to look this dragon in the eye. I needed to face honestly the haunting prospect of my own insignificance. As the Scottish hero William Wallace says in the movie Braveheart, “Every man dies; not every man lives.” Hal’s dying inspired me to live. And to live authentically.
Hal, as an extraordinary medical doctor and remarkable human being, left a legacy of generosity, love, and wisdom to his patients, his staff, his community, and his family. He had unknowingly created what anthropologist Ernest Becker called a symbolic “immortality project” – a noble cause of enduring value beyond one’s life. I have come to understand that an immortality project is an integral facet to authentic leadership. I’m not sure Hal ever fully understood his impact. Perhaps that is the reality of a true contributor.
In the midst of my grieving the loss of a brother, something was being born within me: an immortality project of my own – a cause that would outlive me and bring meaningful work and membership to a noble and ethical community of like-minded leaders. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote, “When a leader demonstrates that his purpose is noble and the work will enable people to connect with something larger – more permanent than their material existence – [then] people will give the best of themselves to the enterprise.”
Like so many leaders I work with and learn from, I struggle between having confidence to live a life of purpose and yielding to the daily demands of others. By too easily yielding to what is pressing, practical, and popular, I can sacrifice the pursuit of what is in my heart. Hal’s dying became a gift to my living. It became clear that I needed to take action, gather my courage, and offer a public workshop for authentic leaders. Thus, The Other Everest Retreat was born.
I didn’t know how it would be received, but I needed to walk through my fears and listen to my voice. Regardless of how many people registered, it was vital that I kept walking on this journey. Thus far, we have filled four retreats as well as two Alumni sessions for those committed to go deeper. I have facilitated learning forums for participants who complete The Other Everest. I now have a partner who shares my passion and vision and will assist with future retreats. We are establishing a coaching program for participants to stay on track and further their leadership development. We are planning to offer more retreats and in more locations. We are also in the process of setting up a foundation, so finances are not a barrier to participation. My mother used to tell me to “shine a light on what you desire. Whenever you set a goal there is an unseen force, an energy, that moves you toward that goal.” Nowhere in my life have I come to know the truth of this statement more than from the response to The Other Everest retreats.
I hope you will join us and take this leap together to create authentic workspaces and authentic lives for those we lead and those we love. If you are interested in knowing more about this retreat or to register, please visit: www.davidirvine.com or contact us at email@example.com or 1-866-621-7008. I look forward to having you join us.
Are you ready for the journey?
Last Friday — Black Friday — I delivered the closing address at a conference in the Fantasyland Hotel in Edmonton, then walked through the attached West Edmonton Mall to the food court for lunch.
I was shocked by what I saw: deal-hungry consumers jammed this huge shopping center wall to wall.
I couldn’t help but contrast the frenetic shoppers with the committed group of family and community support services leaders I had just presented to. I realized the mall was too crowded and crazy to enjoy lunch. I ended up, instead, in a quiet restaurant away from the mall with space and peace to reflect on my experience at the conference.
In the quiet I thought about the leaders in my presentation. They exemplified what I would call authentic leadership: men and women who are committed to substance over superficial, character over charisma, and service over self-interest, people whose inner compass guides their daily actions and who inspire trust and confidence by being honest and real. Being with them was such a contrast from my Black Friday experience, a sales bonanza that now marks the start of the holiday season.
My musings led me to reflect on the holidays, a time of demands, expectations, and obligations. But authenticity — the commitment to be piloted by an internal guide rather than solely by the expectations of others — asks us to stop and reflect on the question, “What does this holiday mean to you?”
In response, here’s my list. As you read it, think about what’s on your own list.
1. Renewal. In the dark of winter, the holiday lights are a wonderful reminder to stop and let them brighten us, both literally and emotionally. Even a small moment of noticing can be renewing and sustaining. This is a time of year to s-l-o-w down and find restoration where you can. It’s a time for revitalization, not depletion. What nourishes you? What gives you energy? What replenishes you?
2. Presence. A friend winters in Mexico. I spoke with her shortly after she arrived. “Mexico is so beautiful!” she exclaimed. I wondered if it was Mexico that was beautiful or if she was just noticing the beauty. When my wife, Val, was unpacking Christmas ornaments this week and hanging up her beautiful collection of bells, I stopped for a few moments to be present to the beauty of her joy, which in turn brought joy to me. Life is only lived now. What makes a task valuable and life meaningful is the quality of the attention we give to whatever we are doing in the present moment. Allow this time of year to remind you of that. While presents are appreciated, the best gift we can give is our presence in this moment.
3. Connection. Who do you want to spend time with? Who enriches your life? I plan to share this holiday season with Val, my daughters, my grandchildren, and very close friends. Connection is ultimately about love, and expressing and experiencing love. By being present in the moment, you can feel the love within yourself and those around you. Love is a state of being. You can never lose it, and it cannot leave you. When you share this connection with those you truly care about, you are nourished and fulfilled.
4. Reflection. One of the keys to making the most of your life is developing the ability to reflect. Go back over your day, your week, your month, and your year. Look back through your calendar. Whom did you see? What did they say? What happened? How did you feel? Reflect on your experiences, your choices in the past year. What were your successes and failures? What is there to celebrate? What did you learn? How will you apply those lessons? What are your intentions for the coming year?
5. Service. You will never experience joy if you are perpetually waiting until everything is okay with you, or the rest of the world, to feel thankful. You must catch joy as it presents itself, even in the midst of sorrow or suffering. In the craziness of life, gratitude inspires meaning and joy. The best measure of a person’s character is their capacity for feeling and expressing gratitude. And service awakens us to appreciation. Wherever you go, and whomever you meet, bring them a gift. The gift may be a compliment, a flower, or a prayer. Reach out to someone less fortunate than you. Pay it forward. Service is vital to a life well-lived.
I hope my list has inspired you to articulate what you truly value, and that you will live this season in close alignment with those values, rather than being driven by the tyranny of obligations. Happy holidays.
The past few weeks I have noticed just how much caring there is in the world around us. Perhaps it is because I have written a book on caring and I believe that what you focus on is what grows. It’s the simple acts of kindness that have a powerful impact on the people around us. As Maya Angelou, the American poet, singer and activist reminds us, “People may not remember what you did, or what you said, but will always remember how you made them feel.”
- S-l-o-w d-o-w-n. Caring isn’t a program. It’s not a technique or a strategy or a ploy. Caring is who we are. Caring, like beauty, is all around us. But we have to pause long enough to see it, to let it come through us, to bring it out to the world around us. On my bookshelf is a book I inherited from my mother at the time of her death. It is book written in 1930 by Nellie L. McClung, and signed personally to her family when mom was nine years old. Nellie became an inspiration to Joyce all her life. Within the pages, Ms. McClung makes a most profound statement: “We are clever people, efficient and high-powered, but in our zeal to get things done we are forgetting the simple art of living.” The simple art of living requires us to slow down enough to observe what is around us.
- Everyone has value. Years ago, in a university class taught by the late Dr. Stephen R. Covey, we were given a mid-term exam with a question, “What’s the name of the person who keeps this building clean?” While we all failed the test that day, I didn’t fail to get the lesson. People are what matter. Caring transforms the “bank teller,” the “restaurant server,” the “janitor,” or the “customer,” from an object into someone with a name and a story, with needs and wants, goals and aspirations, and a desire to belong and to feel good about their contribution. At Moxie’s that night, it wasn’t about the free meal or the champagne or the gift card. It was about someone taking the time to acknowledge another’s pain, even in the midst of a busy shift. It was about taking a few brief moments to listen and thus nourish the human spirit. It was about the value of human goodness. It was about taking the time to care.
- It’s about passion and purpose. Last week I had the good fortune to speak to a group of school teachers in an elementary school in my community. Before my presentation, Greg Woitas, the principal, took me around his school and shared the love that his teachers put into their work and their students. I was struck, as I am by so many leaders in education, by his passion and sense of purpose. He beamed when he introduced me to his staff and spoke so highly of their efforts and their deep love for children. It was an old building, but on the inside it shone brightly with the power of caring.
This week I visited my dear mother-in-law who now resides in a care facility in Edmonton. With her dementia, she has become, sadly, irritable, depressed, and apathetic about her life. As I sat with her at lunch, she spit out her food and complained profusely about the most cheerful and loving aide that sat beside her feeding another resident. I reminded Mom to make an effort to be grateful for the dedicated caregivers that surround her. She looked away in disgust, and continued to complain about the staff. I smiled at Jennifer, the caring caregiver across the table. “Some people have a bad day,” she said softly and graciously. “And some people have a bad day more often than others.”
Charles Dickens said, “I have always thought of Christmas as a good time, a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time. It’s the only time in the long calendar of the year when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely and to think of people around them as fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
While it’s undoubtedly noble to stop this time of year, to reach into our pockets and give of our time and money, the real caregivers are those who care all year long, day in and day out, including those who care for the elderly, for the sick, and for the troubled, who work tirelessly and humbly behind the scenes day after day. Here are three things I learned from caregivers who care for Mary and other residents with daily diligence and relentless attention. May these ideas inspire us all to care more – not just this time of year, but all year long. Caring, after all, is not done in a day. Caring is done daily.
1) S-l-o-w D-o-w-n. Speed is not conducive to caring. Jennifer and her colleagues move slowly with the seniors and they care slowly. Like good artists, good caregivers see the world more slowly. The pace of our lives does indeed impact the quality of our lives. Everywhere I go people are insanely busy all year long, spending hours looking down at phones and devices, driven by the incessant tyranny of the urgency, struggling to keep up with it all. Even the holiday season has become another frenetic whirlwind of parties and shopping and trying desperately to meet ever-increasing demands. I find it very interesting that in the midst of climate change, disruption and global warming, the philosopher Piero Ferrucci says we are simultaneously in the midst of a “global cooling.” Human relationships are becoming colder. Interactions with others are becoming more rushed and impersonal. Values such as commercialism and efficiency are taking on greater importance at the expense of caring and simple presence. Have you ever tried to be efficient and “hurried” with a person in need? How does continual “hurriedness” affect your kindness, your connections, and your ability to influence and care about others?
2) Be Present. It’s been said that the best present we can ever give anyone is to be present in the present. There are countless opportunities to be present to those around us – whether at the grocery store, in the hallway in our office building, or around the kitchen table. Being presentto life brings quality to life. How often have you been stressed, simply because you’re not where you want to be right now? Most of us are creatures of movement and noise, agonizing about the past or worrying about the future. All spiritual teachers remind us that the present moment is the only moment where life is lived and can be enjoyed. If we live in the past or the future, we will miss the very experience of life. There is no stress in the moment. Stress comes when we start thinking about the future or tormenting about the past. The only way to thoroughly and enjoyably appreciate life is to become truly and deeply present.
3) Stay grateful. We would all do well to take Dickens’ advice to slow down and attend to the people and the beauty and the life that surrounds us. We enrich our lives when we appreciate what makes it possible for us to have what we have, to be where we are, to appreciate what surrounds us. Open your eyes to the caring around you, not just this time of year, but all year long, and you will discover that caring is who we are at our very core. We simply have to pause long enough to notice it and be a part of it. Be thankful and filled with awe and appreciation, even if what you desire hasn’t arrived yet. Whatever holiday you celebrate this month, what we all share is the need for light in the darkest time of year. Gratitude brings light wherever you go. What we appreciate appreciates.
You don’t get in life what you want; you get in life what you give. Or, said another way: be careful what you fill because what you fill will one day spill.
I found the following quote, written by an English writer, Elizabeth Bibesco, on a Christmas card hand-delivered to me by a good friend last week: “Blessed are those who can give without remembering and take without forgetting.”