I’ve just come home from one of the intense little globe-trots that have become so important to my life and my joy and my growth over the past few years. Started in Oslo, spent a week in Croatia, a week in Belgium, and then a day each in Amsterdam, Copenhagen and New York en route to Austin. I’ll tell you all about it in a bit, as I wave a few “it’s about to get real up in here” flags.
For now, the key kernel is that I spent the last few days at the Conscious Capitalism CEO Summit, in the woods outside of Austin. This was no ordinary conference. For me, it was one of those times in life where you magnetically attract into your life exactly the teachers and experiences you need at exactly the moment you need them. My deepest work lately has been around vulnerability, revealing myself, peeling back the layers of decades-old polish and soul protections to be fully who I am in every single area of my life, including work, which is challenging for me. #understatement
The whole time I was traveling, my Morning and Evening Pages had been processing this vulnerability issue, using the actual word “vulnerability”. I make sense of the world through pattern-spotting, and I’d processed some life lessons down into the a-ha that my deepest connections and most meaningful moments were forged in the fire of realness and openness. When I’m the most vulnerable with people is when I connect with them the most. And it was also dawning on me how my struggles being vulnerable in certain relationships and contexts has been the source of some of my most painful patterns, feelings of being misunderstood, and a sense of disconnection and isolation.
So, then I walked into the Summit with that emotional backdrop. And it turned out that the first session was a four-hour workshop with the world’s leading vulnerability researcher and teacher, Brené Brown. No joke. There are only 225 attendees, btw, so four hours with Brené Brown blew my wig entirely back. (To be crystal clear, I don’t wear a wig, I just mean to say it was mind-blowing.)
We broke down into groups of 5 and started doing this work, this work of learning to value vulnerability. The work of identifying stories we tell ourselves that have created disconnection and disturbance, and the work of retelling those stories. And, heyI’ve done a lot of work with others around retelling their stories. But I have mostly done that work around how to tell the most powerful story, how to retell your fail points and messy moments as preludes to triumph ad victory.
This is something many people who get stuck in the mess need to be able to do, for themselves and for their careers. As someone once said at church, the Psalm says “Yea, though I go through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” Through. It doesn’t say to pitch a tent and set up camp in the Valley. But that’s what a lot of leaders I’ve worked with do, when it comes to telling their own story, because we humans have a negativity bias that causes our brains to alert to and fixate on and enlarge our failures and painful events. So, I’ll often ask someone to tell me their life story and all I hear about is the one time they got fired, versus all the opportunities that opened up once they did, and versus all the brilliant business they led before and after the fail-ey fact.
People come to me for this, because I’m very good at helping people retell the story from a power perspective. With a tone of victory. You want a Hero’s Journey? Give me your story, and I’ll give you back a Hero’s Journey, with you as the Hero.
But Brené (note that we’re on a first name basis in my mind) took this retell-your-life-story thing to new levels of depth. In the process, she triggered two big shifts in my thoughts and feelings on the matter.
1. Left to their own devices, our brains will oversimplify our story. When we look back on a moment in our lives or careers when we fell flat on our faces, we tend to tell that story to ourselves as: “I fucked up.” “I was lame.” “I failed.” “It was all his fault.” Etc. and so forth.
Even if we are able to tell about how we stuck the landing and recovered beautifully, we generally tell the fail-ey parts of our stories in very black and white terms, because our brains like it simple. I belief that for executive thought leaders, this can occasionally be appropriate. But when we’re taking a hard look at how we’re telling these stories to ourselves and our loved ones (including our families, colleagues, teams and sometimes even our customers), this sanitized, fast-forward past the failure version of the story also fast-forwards past the substance.
2. The messy Act 2 of the Hero’s Journey is the good part. As a marketer, I’ve studied and taught extensively about the Hero’s Journey story archetype that is so core to the human experience: Act 1 is a call to adventure, Act 2 is the part where the Hero fights the good fight, and Act 3 is the bit where Hero comes home, changed, victorious and with a bounty for her loved ones. (This is a vast oversimplification, fyi.) In fact, my new book is built on this narrative arc, so when Brené brought it up, I was 100000% sure I’d be the teacher’s pet on this point.
But she took this in a very different direction than I’d expected her to. She said that the whole part that’s the most interesting to our brains and spirits about the Hero’s Journey is Act 2, while I’ve always focused getting to Act 3. She said the messiness of the Act 2, the valiant efforts and battles and failures, the part where it looks like the Hero might not make it, that’s the good stuff. That’s the part where, if we can dive deep and understand it with nuance and complexity, and then share that nuance and complexity with wisdom and boundaries, that’s the part where a vulnerable, conscious leader integrates lessons learned and creates connection and confidence with the people he or she leads.
Alors. This was a lot of a shift for me, and it was not easy to begin doing in the workshop. But it resonated. I could feel a little space open up in my chest, and I knew this was right. I knew it was right from thinking about my own journey, my own stories.
I knew what I’d learned at the moments when the struggle was really real, and I had this insight of realizing this was why I must practice vulnerability. It’s bigger than just expressing myself or “personal branding.” It’s about fully integrating the lessons I’ve fought for and learned, not just for my own path so that I can present myself to my teams and clients as a perfectly honed and ready-for-action leader. But it’s about fully integrating the lessons I’ve had to learn, the nuance and complex ones, into my community, from my teammates and colleagues, to my partners and vendors, to my clients and even, in some cases, through to their customers.
And outside of work, it’s about showing my soul, which is deep and rich and imperfect, as an invitation for deep and rich and imperfect love and connection.
Conscious leadership is no joke. You’ve got to cultivate personal and life practices to stay grounded in the face of all the things that other leaders do, so you can show up in every hard conversation, make every hard decision, with grace and using a much more complex rubric for decision-making than profit-first. Conscious leaders expose their insides, reveal their deepest visions for the world, and risk ridicule, in a system that doesn’t always value their soul-level motivations for participating in it.
But we, we conscious leaders, are so needed. So necessary. Humanity needs us. To heal the world and the workplace, and to create the visions that were put in our spirits. To build the edifices of (to steal Charles Eisenstein’s phrasing) the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.
So, consider this a call to action, a call to adventure. I’m issuing you a challenge to do the deep, personal work it takes to put your soul on deck and living into your boldest, most vulnerable, fullest capacity as a conscious leader. To get concrete, you can start by joining my 30 Day Writing Challenge. It will cost you nothing but a little time and care. A little exposure of the ‘ole soul.
But I’ve found that the biggest shifts it takes to go down this path are not shifts of strategy, or even shifts of story. They are shifts of state, of spirit, of mindset. It’s like in yoga or cycling or bowling (don’t hate – I’m a fantastic bowler, quiet as it’s kept!): where your eyes go, your body, or the ball, will follow. Same with your mindset and spirit and state: where they go, the rest of your life and your leadership will follow.
So, in the interest of igniting a deep spark in your spirit, creating a crack in your current state, I’ll close here with an excerpt of a piece by Clarissa Pinkola Estés that is intensely influential in my current daily journey, in life and as a leader:
“For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement. I cannot tell you often enough that we are definitely the leaders we have been waiting for, and that we have been raised, since childhood, for this time precisely.
I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able crafts in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind.
I would like to take your hands for a moment and assure you that you are built well for these times. Despite your stints of doubt, your frustrations in righting all that needs change right now, or even feeling you have lost the map entirely, you are not without resource, you are not alone. Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you. In your deepest bones, you have always known this is so.
. . .
Though we are not invulnerable, our risibility supports us to laugh in the face of cynics who say “fat chance,” and “management before mercy,” and other evidences of complete absence of soul sense. This, and our having been “to hell and back” on at least one momentous occasion, makes us seasoned vessels for certain. Even if you do not feel that you are, you are.
. . .
In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. Do not make yourself ill with overwhelm. There is a tendency too to fall into being weakened by perseverating on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.
We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we will know them when they appear.
Didn’t you say you were a believer? Didn’t you say you pledged to listen to a voice greater?
Didn’t you ask for grace? Don’t you remember that to be in grace means to submit to the Voice greater? You have all the resources you need to ride any wave, to surface from any trough.
Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts — adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take “everyone on Earth” to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.
One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. A soul on deck shines like gold in dark times.
The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of the soul in shadowy times like these — to be fierce and to show mercy toward others, both — are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.
Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.
There will always be times in the midst of “success right around the corner, but as yet still unseen” when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it; I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate.
The reason is this: In my bones I know, as do you, that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours: They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here.
In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But … that is not what great ships are built for.
This comes with much love and prayer that you remember who you came from, and why you came to this beautiful, needful Earth.
P.S.: Read Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Letter to a Brave Activist, in full, here. Probably be the best 10 minute investment you make this week.
Excerpt “Do Not Lose Heart, We Were Made for These Times,” (a/k/a “Letter to a Young Activist in Troubled Times”) Copyright ©2001, 2003, 2004, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, All rights reserved. This particular work is released under a Creative Commons License by which author grants permission to copy, distribute and transmit this particular work under the conditions that the use be non-commercial, that the work be used in its entirety and not altered, added to, or subtracted from, and that it carry author’s name and this full copyright notice. For other permissions, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.