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.
- Care enough to stop blaming and criticizing. Life is more than simply growing old. It means growing up. Growing old, any animal is capable of. Growing up is the prerogative of human beings. Once you decide that all criticism and blame are a waste of time your life will change forever. It’s far easier to be a critic than to be a player. That’s why there’s always more critics than players. In an NHL game, for example, you’ll find eighteen people on the ice at any one time if you include the referees and the linesmen. What do you have in the audience? Eighteen thousand critics. 1000:1. That’s about the proportion of critics to players in our society.
- Take ownership. One thing I’ve learned is that no one will ever think less of you for raising your hand and saying, “I’m responsible for that.” Explaining his error in judgement over a photo taken eighteen years ago, our prime-minister initially blamed his privileged upbringing for blinding him to the offensive reality of such images and how they are viewed as racist. My response is, “What’s wrong with simply fessing up to a mistake and misjudgment?” Take ownership. A leader’s responsibility is to model maturity and display what ownership looks like. And as citizens, it is our responsibility to take ownership by expecting from ourselves what we expect from our elected officials. It’s a whole lot easier to see the shortcomings in others – particularly if they are as visible as politicians – than it is to see our own blind spots and deficiencies.
- Don’t wait for your leaders. Another way of expressing ownership is to give what you expect from others. Waiting, as most of us know, is not a good strategy if you are after results. Indeed, we often wait for, or expect, our elected officials to legislate policies and practices that suit our own interests and in the process abdicate personal responsibility. What we expect from others, especially those placed in a position of leadership – contains a seed of opportunity to bring that to the world. If you want a visionary, benevolent leader with strong character, start by developing these qualities within yourself. If you want politicians to have more integrity, bring greater integrity to the world. Wanting your political leaders to be accountable starts with you being accountable.
“Whether at home, at work, or at play, the human heart seeks to be known, understood, and connected. If you do not connect, the ones you care about will find someone who will.”
Dr. Henry Cloud
In 1980, when I was in graduate school, I was inspired by a study from Ohio State University where researchers were studying heart disease in rabbits. Rabbits were fed diets extremely high in cholesterol and, to the scientists’ amazement, one group did not get high cholesterol levels despite being given the same diet. They found that the only difference between these rabbits and the ones who developed atherosclerosis was the technician feeding them. Instead of throwing feed at them, he took them out of their cages to pet them, cuddle them, and kiss them. He would sing and speak to them. The researchers discovered that this touching resulted in a change in the peptides and neuro-peptides and they would, in fact, shunt the cholesterol into a different metabolic pathway, so they did not get heart disease, even though they were consuming diets that were high in cholesterol.
Countless studies since then have shown that health is impacted by being close and connected with other people, a sense of belonging, and whether we can give and receive love, care, and support. Caring actions impact the lives of those around us. Authentic leadership requires an ability to communicate caring to others. I suggest the following ways to start:
1) Disconnect to connect. Put down your devices. Pay attention and take the time to listen to what matters to people. There has never been a generation so riveted with mental health challenges and so starved for nurturing relationships. Devices have become substitutes for the more constant real human contact that parents used to provide when they worked near home or on the farm. These electronic sources of entertainment are also used as replacements for the sense of community formerly provided by large extended families or the clan, tribe, or village.
2) Attune to the emotions of others. Attunement means being “in tune” with another’s emotional state. Attunement is the language of caring. The quality of a relationship is measured, in large part, by one’s ability to be present with each other in such a way that the other feels understood, valued, and accepted. Attuning to others can be as simple as acknowledging their frustrations, their fears, or their enjoyment. One of the ways that our ability to attune to others gets impaired is when we approach the interaction with a belief that we have to “fix” the emotions that arise. People primarily need to be listened to and acknowledged. There is a time for problem solving, but not when people are in an emotional state.
3) Stay in love. There lies within every person a place where, when connected to it, we feel deeply and intensely alive; a place that says, “This is the real me.” Staying in love means staying connected to that place, then bringing more of that passion to what we do. It means letting go of resentments, valuing life and surrounding yourself with life-giving people. Staying in love means focusing on what we have in common rather than what divides us; underscoring our shared humanity, that which unites us. Staying in love means staying in love with life, thus igniting the fire in others.
From my mother’s library I inherited The Art of Loving by Eric Fromm. The lessons in it are classic: Learning to love and express caring, like learning to be authentic, is not easy. It requires concentration, solitude, thought, knowledge of one’s self, listening, living in the present, and patience.
Above all, to lead is to make learning to care your supreme concern.
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, because what the world needs is for you to come alive.”