As a parent, I have learned that children are great imitators. The key is to give them something great to imitate. Michelle Skene, principal of The Ridge at Kanata Montessori School, where my daughter teaches, sent an inspiring note to parents as they prepare to send their children back to school this week. Her message reminded me of what it takes to be an authentic leader right now. Not just in the home and in the school, but also in the workplace.
“During challenging times,” wrote Michelle, “children of all ages look to their parents and adults for guidance. They observe carefully how we act and take their lead from us. They learn from what we do far more than from what we say. If we are patient and positive, they will be patient and positive.” If we are critical and negative, they will adopt the same approach. If we are fearful and hesitant, they will be fearful and hesitant. If we are courageous and decisive, they will follow suit.
Michelle then challenged her students’ parents to begin the new year with a renewed commitment to serve our children by role modeling the people we want them to become. “Your children and our students need us more than ever to be at our best and we will not disappoint them.”
This is the work of an authentic leader. You can inspire the people around you by being the change you want to see in others.
While our public health leaders are asking us to do what’s best for society by following public health protocols, no one is asking us to be afraid. Of course, it is natural to be fearful in new and unfamiliar territory. But we can decide to be courageous even in the midst of anxiety and uncertainty. We aren’t born courageous; courage is an inner muscle we strengthen by learning to deal with difficult situations. Growth lives outside the comfort zone.
This is a time when we are being sorely tested. And courage can be displayed in ways large and small every day. Courage is not the absence of fear. It’s learning to overcome it. Courage is also about accepting that we can’t always get everything we want and have things the way we want them to be. Nothing is ideal for anyone these days. Hardships are a part of life. Coming to grips with all this will be good for us – now and in the long run.
What we are dealing with today, at least in this country, is mostly about inconvenience and annoyances more than anything else. Sure, there will be severe economic and mental health challenges in the days ahead, but with our courage and compassion we will get through this in our own imperfect way.
Authentic leadership is about modeling the way. Let’s choose courage. Let’s lean into what we are afraid of. Let’s show ourselves and those around us that we can do this – and do it together
I was lamenting with a colleague about how we all have areas in our lives and our leadership that drive other people crazy, cause damage to the world around us, and hurt the people we care about. And we are blind to them. That’s why we call them blind spots in our leadership development program. So much of what we bring to the world causes harm and requires intentional work to improve our leadership, and yet has become so habitual that we aren’t even aware of it. It all seems fine to us, but we are blind to how destructive it can be.
So it would appear that perhaps the eruption of anger toward inequality and discrimination in our society is a reckoning of our own blind spots around the issue of racism. Professional athletes this week have reminded us all that there is something more important at work here than winning games, making money, and the achievement of goals.
It seems to be human nature to avoid problems and dodge the truth. After all, who wants to look at the financial ledger of our businesses or our lives? It’s easier to procrastinate a visit to the doctor than face lab work results. It’s easier to avoid facing the difficulties in a marriage than confront what’s really going on. Who wants to admit they have an addiction and actually do something about it?
It’s easy to criticize leaders in an organization for not facing reality or confronting brutal facts and acting on the implications. But how many of us do this in our own lives? And it’s easy to judge the racism we see around us, but what about the unacknowledged prejudice within us?
I recently spoke to a high-ranking public service leader who publicly made a statement that there was systemic racism in the culture that she led, and she was taking action to rectify it. She opened herself to much criticism from her employees, but her courage to face reality demonstrated the strength of her character. It also deepened her credibility and the respect of her best employees.
We all have our prejudices. Only when we own up to them and face this reality will we begin to heal the world – and heal our lives. Helping people see their blind spots is a large part of the work we do in our retreats and online programs for developing authentic leaders (see www.davidirvine.com).
There are specific actions you can take to change the world by facing some of your own racism blind spots. Let’s do our part to heal the world by taking personal accountability:
- Speak to someone you know well who is different from you – in gender, race, ethnic background, or sexual orientation – and ask if they have experienced you being prejudiced, disrespectful, judgmental, or insensitive – and how. Say thank you and listen carefully to what they have to say. Be sincerely open to learn from them.
- If the level of honesty about these questions may be in doubt, invite the people you work with to provide the answers to these questions anonymously.
- If they honestly don’t perceive you as prejudiced, then still take time to listen to what they have to say. If something in you gets triggered, resist the human tendency to get defensive and instead use the trigger to open a new door to learn something. It’s important to begin the dialogue.
- Treat all diversity as an opportunity to learn and face the truth. It’s a life-long endeavor, and one worth pursuing – for the sake of a good life and for the sake of the survival of our species.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.