On the Opportunity for Leaders

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In my last post, I referred to the three fundamental needs all human beings have: security, connection, and meaning. Security feels like the most immediate one, since the need for survival has been hardwired into our bodies through millennia of evolution. That’s why Abraham Maslow put it at the base of his hierarchy of needs.

Leaders have a special responsibility because they have the power to provide a sense of safety for those they serve.

I’ve learned that, in communications, when any of the following show up, it means that safety is missing and might indicate the presence of the following emotions:

  • Flight: If you see someone trying to avoid a situation or duck a conversation, it might mean shame is at play. Perhaps, that person doesn’t want you to find out about a mistake they made or something they did.
  • Fight: If someone gets really defensive or combative, it may indicate guilt. That person might know that they are in the wrong and using the fight to direct our attention away from that wrong.
  • Freeze: When a person is frozen or unable to take any action, it might indicate that person is uncertain about the facts of the situation or about what to do.

When any of these behaviors shows up, it means that safety is missing, and that as leaders, we have an opportunity to contribute to meeting someone’s needs by trying to create a safe space for them.

A Powerful Context for Leadership Development

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Much of the contemporary leadership development literature is framed in dichotomies: Either, you are an effective leader; or you’re not. Either, you’re skilled at something, or you’re not. … There’s very little room for gradations. As such, we relate to ourselves in very stark terms, when in fact, as human beings, our lives are anything but black and white.

It’s not that I am not the kind of leader that I aspire to be. Rather, the potential for leadership is continually unfolding and finding expression through me. I am already the leader that I wish to be, and it is a matter of degree to which where I am right now aligns with that aspiration.

What would it be like if let go of “being the way we want” or “not being the way we want” and gave ourselves permission to own where we are right now in our journey of evolution? What difference would it make for us to relax our high standards and to simply acknowledge where we are in this moment?

On Developing a Do-What-It-Takes Mindset

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On the way to the airport to drop me off after a brief layover back home, my Mom shared with me some of what her experience was like as an immigrant to the Philippines trying to make it in the United States in the 1970s. My father petitioned to have my mother join him in California shortly after he had gained citizenship fighting for the U.S. in VietNam. However, because he was establishing himself in the States, my Mom felt like she had to take matters into her own hands to ensure that she could fend for herself in her new country in case things didn’t work out with Dad.

So Mom ended up sucking it up and taking a job that she didn’t like, working long, nine-hour days in a dark lab, peering through a microscope. She stayed with that work until she could find a better job. Meanwhile, my father worked at the same lab during the day, and at night he would scrub toilets and mop floors in the hallways of UCLA’s Life Sciences Building.

Regardless of whether or not, by today’s standards, we consider this “healthy,” my parents did what they had to do to make ends meet. They were able to make their end goal – providing for the family – larger than whatever discomforts and challenges they might have confronted.

Developing a do-what-it-takes mindset requires that we make the end goal bigger than whatever challenges we might confront along the way.

And in doing what it takes, we develop our resilience, our capacity to effectively and skillfully be with whatever Life might throw at us.

On Leadership as Holding Space

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“The most important aspect of being a leader is holding the space for things to get done.” – Marianne Williamson

One of the most difficult lessons I’ve had to learn as a general manager is that my work is different from when I was responsible for a specific area of the operations of my organization. Whereas before it was my job to see that my operational area was being handled so that the organization is functioning effectively, as a general manager, my work is to support my senior executive team in doing their work effectively.

One does not have to wait until they are a general manager to explore how leadership is about holding space for others. This kind of leadership is bodhissatva leadership. The bodhissatva is someone who commits to rousing compassion in themselves to help alleviate the suffering in others. The bodhissatva leader is the one whose leadership sees and draws out the best in others in order for them to realize their potential to make a difference in this world.

Like the parent who stands back and allows a child to learn from their own risk-taking and mistakes, so too the bodhissatva leader wisely allows those they lead to step into their own power.

To hold space is to ask: How might I support you in discovering your own answer?

On Gaining Power Through Surrender

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Surrender is a paradox. When we surrender, we actually achieve real and authentic power. How is it possible that we are more powerful in surrendering?

The Buddha discovered that the mind enslaves us in conditioning that is reinforced through the repetition of habits. Jesus was a revolutionary precisely because he represented a break from the rigid and repetitive ways of thinking that dictated his society. Krishna counsels Arjuna on the battlefield that it is in the present moment that we must master our minds, which keep us trapped in the vicious cycle of samsara, of the past repeating itself in our present and future. Two days ago, our Muslim brethren began Ramadan, which involves fasting, a ritual break from those things that keep us apart from God in each and every moment.

We are slaves to our conditioning. Our habits define us. We don’t even realize the ways in which we are gripped by them: Our friend says something, and we already know what they are going to say. We make the same commute in traffic, and next thing we know, we have somehow guided ourselves back home without even remembering how we got there. Our partner says something with a bit of a tone, and the next thing we know, we’re fighting the same argument we’ve fought a hundred times before.

Surrender offers us freedom from this conditioning. It is a recognition that we are trapped in our conditioned ways of thinking, speaking, and doing, and saying, “I know where this is going to take me, and I don’t want to go there anymore. I choose to give up, trusting that I will be led to a place I’ve never been before.”
It is a surrender to every possibility made available by the unknown. It is in this infinitude of possibilities that we derive power, a power that can only be accessed through surrender.

On Knowing Myself as Love

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“We have come to accept such declarations of faith as commonplace and natural. We breathe, we eat, knowing that certain things will result. We turn on the lights, start the car, light a fire, plant a garden without a bit of hesitancy, fear, or doubt. We have faith. We know certain things work in a certain way and that is all there is to it.”

– Ernest Holmes and Willis H. Kinnear, A New Design for Living

Yesterday, I was feeling really confronted by the overwhelming frustration that I would never be able to let go of the addictive behaviors that have run me. I was relating to myself again as a limited being, as the powerless self to which my self-talk has taught me to relate. As I sat in meditation, I found enough space to remember that I am much more than that, … that although I don’t yet have the experience of being powerful in the face of my addiction, that that possibility exists and that the choice I have is between staying trapped in that self-fulfilling, self-defeating prophecy or to have faith that I am letting go of and recovering from my compulsions.

I must remember. I must know to the core and beyond my fears that I am the beautiful and unique expression of Love.

On Bearing Witness to Our Own Suffering

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The past four days have been the most emotionally-exhausting and challenging I have experienced in a very long time. I have had to confront the pain and suffering my actions have caused others, especially my partner. And more importantly, I have had to dig deep to find that place of compassion and love for myself that is necessary to not have this turn into bitterness and self-fulfilling failure, but rather as the bold and powerful next step to finally dealing with my own self-destructive behavior.

I deal with an addiction that has, each day, robbed my spirit of its dignity and driven me to do things for which I am ashamed. It would be easy to punish myself, engaging in Catholic self-flagellation for my sins. … And I do. … Yet, there is also something to be said about allowing my heart to break open further to the world, to let in the ways in which all human beings do things that cause themselves and others suffering.

We are hard-wired to draw back from suffering, be it our own or others. It is something that our biology had developed over the years to protect us from physical danger, but which has since also numbed us to the day-to-day pain and hurt that go on in and around us.

To win back our dignity as human beings, … to have any hope of rising above those seemingly insurmountable challenges that rob us of our own light, … we must learn to bear witness to the suffering of ourselves and others.

Through the love and support of my partner, family and friends, I finally see a different place to begin to safely bear witness. That place is my commitment and intention to have the love for myself and others be greater than the addiction. Each time I am confronted, it is choosing the love for my self and others above those patterns of behavior that stand in my own way.