A Leadership Challenge, Part 2: Lessons from Action, Surrender, and Vulnerability
The first part of this leadership challenge explored the concept of “unveiling the illusions of the true professional.”
The concept behind the exploration came from Margaret Wheatley's poem "The True Professional," where she challenges the reader to seek a “reliable truth” that will “let the human heart rest.” I would now like to focus on the “action” and “surrender” sections of the same poem.
In "The True Professional," Wheatley wrote: "Action like a sacrament/is the visible form of an invisible spirit/outward manifestation of/an inward power.” Is she saying that a leader's actions should be religiously executed as sacraments are and perhaps driven from within, anchored in values that are or can be operationalized?
In his 1994 book, A Higher Standard of Leadership: Lessons from the Life of Gandhi, Keshavan Nair asserts that “operationalizing values transforms them into action… and ... by operationalizing our values we take personal responsibility and are willing to be held accountable.”
The type of action Wheatley speaks of in her poem is action realized from values as opposed to action based on a reaction to external elements. It is action birthed from within, as Wheatley wrote: "An expressive act is not to achieve a goal outside myself/but to express a conviction/a leading, a truth that is within me."
Wheatley warned that when we choose not to act from our "inward power," we are "denying" our "own insight, gift, and nature." When we act from our "inward power," she wrote, "we not only express what is in us/and help give shape to the world" but "we also receive what is outside us/and we reshape/our inner selves… when we act, the world acts back/and we and the world are co-created."
Wheatley speaks of our interconnectedness with others and the world emphasizing our relational nature—a state of being that enables us to co-create our experiences and challenges us to embrace new thinking.
The way we view our role in this dynamic is reflected in our calling to leadership.
If we are to "co-create" and "reshape our inner selves," we should seek meaningful connections with others. In this space, we would find less need to control, command, predict and fruitlessly strive to create certainty. In this space we surrender to life, letting life become and letting our "human hearts rest."
In surrendering to life, we let go of the fear that drives our need to mask, silence, and deny who we really are. In this sphere, we seek “a new story that is emerging,” as Wheatley discussed in her 2007 book Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. She further explained:
"...Leaders who live in the new story help us understand ourselves differently by the way they lead. They trust our humanness; they welcome the surprises we bring to them; they are curious about our differences; they delight in our inventiveness; they nurture us; they connect us. They trust that we can create wisely and well, that we seek the best interests of our organizations and our community, that we want to bring more good into the world."
The themes in Wheatley’s writings echo themes in a 2010 TED Talk given by Brené Brown, a researcher and professor at the University of Houston's Graduate College of Social Work where she studies human connectedness. Saybrook instructor Nancy Southern shared this video during our continued class dialogue on transformative learning.
In the video, Brown discussed her research findings and made a strong case for why we all need to be "real and authentic"—why we need to embrace courage, compassion, connection, and vulnerability. She emphasized the “power of vulnerability” in finding deep meaning and purpose in our lives. Could this calling to embrace vulnerability be the action leaders need to take to make that ever-important and much-needed connection with others?
Brown said that, when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we are able to hold the tension created by the "fear and shame" that "unravel" our ability to connect with others. She noted that in making meaningful connections with others, "we are willing to let go of what others think we should be in order to be who we are."
Brown's findings challenge us to “expand our perceptions” of vulnerability by viewing vulnerability as something that "makes us beautiful" and is "necessary" for our individual growth even in the face of "no guarantees." She explained that we should "let ourselves be seen, deeply seen," because "when we allow ourselves to feel vulnerable, we know that we are alive." What could leaders possibly accomplish if they are unable to connect with others?
In 1994, Nair suggested that "leadership is a way of life, and a courageous life is the life worth living."
If being in leadership is being in service, "service must be conducted within the bounds of moral values—it must be truthful service," Nair wrote. "If you are committed to truthful service, you may not always tell people what they want to hear."
And, I add, that we should in turn be ready to hear from others what we do not want to hear because, as Brown so eloquently stated, we are imperfect but wired for struggle and worthy of love and belonging.