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Leadership at “The Wall”

By: Dan Leahy | 30 Jan | 4 comments


I’m afraid that our efforts to understand and define leadership, its styles and types and characteristics, have not resulted in effective responses to the complex challenges we’ve created for ourselves. The field of leadership development not delivering on a central aspect of leadership—results—is a bit ironic, really. So I don’t want to suggest another definition of leadership. Instead I want to advocate that we use what we already know and choose to step into leadership “moments,” those instances that require you take a stand that inspires action, which contributes to the wellbeing of the commons.

For me, that advocacy begins with the image of “The Wall.”

My first encounter with "The Wall" happened during a marathon. I was told that somewhere around the 20-mile mark you hit a point where your energy reserves are depleted—the proverbial wall. This makes the final six-plus miles an adventure in determination. I had trained for this race with someone who finished fourth in the 1976 Olympic Marathon. I thought I was prepared. Although the race was 31 years ago, I have a visceral memory of the “moment” I met THE WALL.

Despite my diligent preparation, I could not avoid this meeting. I didn’t think I could finish and I was still six miles from home, where my wife and newborn son were waiting. And that fact made the difference. It allowed me to “meet the moment” rather than succumb to it. I made a conscious decision to finish as well as I possibly could as a leader of my new family. I don’t remember much about the next six miles except that it wasn’t much fun. I do remember the finish and seeing Betsy and Josh awaiting my arrival.

I had another more recent encounter with The Wall that deepened that early learning. I was a participant in the Ascent Institute’s “Centered Leadership” course led by John McConnell, a LIOS graduate and former student of mine, and his wife Virginia. The intent of the course was to shift the perceived sense of the source of personal power, or agency (i.e., leadership), from the cognitive arena to the physical, embodied realm. Early in the course, John asked us to reflect on what we are committed to and to evaluate what’s at stake in relationship to that commitment. The question of commitment was familiar. I often invite others to reflect on their “purpose on the planet.” But the question of what’s at stake seemed to give the commitment length, and breadth, and depth. For me, the commitment is to the ideal contained in the words “We the People.” What’s at stake for me in that commitment is the thought of my grandson Cole as a young adult facing a bleak future and asking me why I didn’t do more to make a difference when I could.

And then John took us to The Wall, a local climbing wall to be exact. In groups of three, we took turns climbing walls with increasing levels of difficulty. When we weren’t on the wall, we were holding the climbing ropes of the one who was. As we took our turn on the wall, we were asked to reflect on how we wanted to embody our commitment as we climbed. For me the first two climbs were relatively uneventful. My “moment” with The Wall came on the third climb. I looked at the wall and decided I was too tired, it was too hard, and that it would be “better” for me to hold the ropes for another.

When I encountered The Wall in the marathon, I met it alone. This time I had the advantage of meeting it with a former member of my Family Group/I-Group who was willing and able to invite me to see this as a learning “opportunity.” I wondered for an instant if this was “payback” for all those times I had invited John into similar reflections. And in the very best sense of the word, it was. We had experience climbing The Learning Wall that is LIOS. He reminded me that I have a pretty well-developed “helper” capacity and could probably become relationally attuned to a rock. He asked if that was the capacity called for if I am to embody my commitment to Cole’s future. It wasn’t, and we both knew it. I roped up, faced the wall and began to climb. Getting half-way up seemed easier than I anticipated. I began to think, “Hey, this isn’t so bad. Just add commitment and up you go.”

And then my “moment with The Wall” arrived. My hands began to cramp. Foot and hand holds seemed impossibly distant. I thought I could go no further. I had given it my best shot, and I came up short. I was ready to call it quits when I heard John’s voice: “This is it, Dan. You’re in the national debate and the other guy is kicking your a**. His arguments are making you look like a fool. The nation’s watching, your family’s watching, your grandson is watching. It’s your choice. Do you quit or do you go on? How strong is your commitment?”

John had cut to the heart of the matter in this moment of choice. What’s at stake? I decided I was going to make it to the top no matter what.

I wish I could say that I found some burst of energy that allowed me to scale the remaining distance, like a Bruce Willis character in a Die Hard movie. Alas, I was still just me, and I was still a long way from home. I realized it would take more than my arms and legs to succeed. I needed to use my knees and elbows and hips and any other body part I could bring to bear to climb that wall. There were places where I had to make what felt like a leap from one hold to the next. Twice I fell, was caught by watchful colleagues, and forced myself to claw my way back to where I had been. Three times I thought I could go no further. Each time I recalled the image that John had evoked, and I chose to rest on the ropes my colleagues held while I caught my breath. My journey seemed long and ugly, but I finally reached the top. I made it with the help of others because there was something at stake—something that mattered for which I would succeed no matter what.

If I translate this metaphor to the “real world,” I reflect on my experiences serving as the president of LIOS. As I stepped into that role, I was committed to the stability and integrity of the institute, but lacked a clear commitment to its evolution. Although I pointed to the need to “live into the name” and become an institute that focused on leadership development, I did not embody that stand. So, when the “moments” on that “wall” showed up—and they did—I failed to hold my ground. Ironically, that failure helped me discover something to which I could commit. I finally realized that what LIOS needed to “live into” was being a graduate school that is respected in both the hallowed halls of academia and the frontlines of day-to-day living. With that clarity, I began to climb The Wall. When it become clear that we would need to get our own accreditation or find a compatible university to join, I knew I had neither the credentials nor the skills required to finish the climb. I needed to make room for others who led the effort that resulted in LIOS becoming part of Saybrook University.

Although we are now an accredited graduate program embedded within a university, we have yet to make the transformational contributions called for by the conditions of our time.

Globally and nationally, We the People are engaged in fierce, often ugly and sometimes deadly, debates that highlight our differences and our injustices. The rate at which we are building walls between our perceived differences brings a whole new meaning to the word “a-mazing.” While this may serve to clarify diverse positions revealing the complex nature of the evolutionary challenges we face, it won’t help us learn to climb the walls we’ve built. It won’t help us turn the maze into the labyrinth of learning we need if our grandchildren are to have a future.

I think LIOS knows a thing or two about transforming a-mazing walls into learning labyrinths. A critical aspect of our work with students is designed to help them create learning connections with the walls they erect between themselves and those they deem “different”; the walls between their authentic selves and their families; the walls between who they are and who they are called to be. In the cauldron of the learning community, they learn the difference between certainty and confidence and that curiosity often leads to compassion and connection. And they learn that walls are much more than barriers that protect us from our fears, real and imagined. They are bonds that bind us together in tension-filled relationships. They are beacons to relationships out of balance and in need of redress. They call us to the work at hand.

The Western, or Wailing, Wall in Jerusalem is a monument to an old and festering wound between sacred ideologies in a land where the 436-mile Israeli West Bank Barrier is being built. The Vietnam Veterans Wall is a memorial to the wounds of loss caused by simple-minded responses to complex conflicts by a country that is once again involved in foreign wars that seem to lack clarity and commitment. And the land whose president once called out his counterpart by declaring “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” is now building the “U.S.-Mexico Border Fence/Great Wall of Mexico,” a 700-mile barrier between our two countries. These walls call us to the work yet to be done.

To climb these walls we will need more than the heroic leader. We will need to remember the kind of leadership espoused in the first three words of our Constitution: “We the People.” This declaration of a dream evoked a revolution and created one of the richest learning labs the world has ever known. We are a grand social experiment born out of the audacious belief that we each have the right and the responsibility to lead, that our ability “to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense,” to provide for our collective well being, is up to each and every one of us. This is the heart of what we refer to in LIOS as “leadership with a small L.”

I think we the people are fast approaching our “moment with The Wall.” The intersecting walls we are erecting between the rich and poor, conservatives and liberals, the powerful and the vulnerable have paralyzed our ability to address the disintegration of our social and ecological systems. In our quest for conviction, it seems we have sacrificed our curiosity to the point where our survival is at stake. Will we give into to our fears and fatigue? Or will we choose to live into the dream of We the People? Will we put our skin—our arms and elbows and knees and legs—on the wall? Will we hold our truths lightly so we can be open to understandings that may be just beyond our reach but may allow us to move forward? And can we have faith that these understandings are more likely to emerge in communion with others, especially those we find most challenging?

The walls we build are rarely erected as decorations. They are a logical response to perceived threats. Yet this approach to protection also keeps us from confronting our fears in ways that might evolve a relationship into one that is mutually beneficial. The task is daunting. It will take all of us whether we’re on, or holding, the ropes. It will require us to take leaps of faith, risking the fall and the long climb back up. It will mean developing networks of relationships that will hold us in the moments when we need to rest and catch our collective breath. It will likely take more than all we have. “We the People” have work to do.

I’ve learned that the intersection of “moments” and “commitment”—of “opportunities” and “dreams”—can evoke capacities I didn’t think possible. It can pull us beyond being and into becoming.

The founders of this nation gave us a dream worthy of commitment. Our grandchildren’s future is at stake. It’s time we stop building walls to divide us. It’s time we host our fears, together, in search of what unites us. It is time we became a beacon again. This is our moment. These are our walls. Will we climb?

Read other posts by Dan Leahy

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Comments and Discussions

embodied leading

Thanks for this Dan. It reminds me of my own 'lessons learned' while stoically maintaining the illusion that I was leading a small NGO group in Bosnia and Herzegovina. No longer strong or athletic, perhaps my best position is at the bottom, holding the ropes and shouting encouragement. This would have been a better stance to take when I was operating outside of my own culture within a traumatized population. I really resonated with much of your essay. From my own experience, I found leadership in a foreign culture to be an exceedingly lonely post. But it didn't have to be. Somewhere halfway up my own metaphoric wall, I was too burned out to be conscious of the help at hand. Perhaps I had not cultivated - or encouraged - skilled help in my own resource pool, enough, to have confidence in it.

Although you didn't wish to offer another definition of leadership, this is a great reminder and illustration of embodied wisdom - a most important resource for grace in governance.
I'll watch for the continuing narrative...

Reflections at the Wall

I find your reflections very useful, Alpha, in at least two ways. One is your acknowledgement of role you see yourself playing now, "holding the ropes and shouting encouragement." I find myself curious about the specific "ropes" that you use, i.e., the particular and unique way that you support others on the "wall," the kinds of encouragements and/or challenges that you offer.

The second area of interest is your particular "wall" story. Another aspect of the training experience that I referenced was the stories that folks shared about literal and/or metaphorical walls they had faced, which they shared as we roped up and as we debriefed our experiences afterwards. Each "wall" is different, and yet each is a "wall". So, how might we share our stories in ways that both highlight the uniqueness while revealing the commonality? Perhaps we create a "place" where we can share our different reflections at the "wall" and see what we might learn. (Personally, I envision a sort of virtual French Cafe of Irish Pub.)

In any case, I suspect that you have a story to tell that may contribute to our collective learning. So, please continue...

Be Well,

Exploring the limits of our leadership


Thanks so much for sharing these reflections on leadership, the limitations we face when we see it as an activity we much do alone and the ways in which all of those who surround us can help us climb the walls we face. I agree with you that We the People have incredible challenges before us and our task is to find a way to meet those challenges together. Learning to hold and appreciate multiple perspectives and engage those differing perspectives in dialogue is an important path forward. And, as your reflections indicate finding out how we can partner, support, and lift up each other during challenging times.

Nancy Southern

Continuing Reflections

Thanks Nancy,

I had a hunch these ideas might resonate with you.

I find myself beginning to ponder just what it might take to the "meet" and climb the walls before us. If I use my climbing wall experience as a metaphor I come up with the following:

• What walls am I called to and what capacities do I need to develop in order to successfully meet them?
• Harness: What is the theoretical/philosophical framework that will “hold” me on the wall, in the work?
• Rope/ “On Belay”: Who are my fellow “climbers” and do I trust them to hold me, both as support when needed and to hold me accountable when needed?
• Footholds/handholds: What are the events and/or people who “stick out” or who have “made an impression” that will allow us to get a ‘handle” on the wall, the wicked problem, and to move towards the summit.
• The topography of the wall: What is the “lay of the land”, the “political landscape” of the wicked problem in question? Can I be in a dialogue with the wall that will allow or evoke a path through to emerge?

I begin to wonder what it might be like to develop a "climbing school" to help develop the "climbers" who might guide "We the People" to face and climb our collective walls... Hmmm...

To be continued...


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