Profound learning experiences are rarely planned or announced. They mostly arrive uninvited, even unwelcome, delivering their glittering gift and disappearing from whence they came.
Leadership theory fills us up from the head down and can be deeply significant, but it remains disembodied until integrated with feelings, intuition and practical experience. When studying for my MSc in human resource development, I was excited by the theories of leadership we explored and debated, but epiphanies were rare. In a field in Devon, I had a breakthrough.
Since early childhood I have enjoyed digging deep, vertically-sided holes. A few years ago I had the opportunity to dig again. This time the holes – 1 metre square and 1.3 metres deep – were for compost toilets. Above these holes we placed a small wooden hut, and visitors to our fledgling enterprise would invariably contribute to filling the hole. Over a few months the hole would fill and the shed would be moved to a fresh site. It wasn’t a sustainable practice and painfully aware of this we hurried to replace our latrines with a practical, sustainable alternative.
That summer it was hot and busy. One afternoon a group of us gathered to lift the small but heavy wooden hut to a new site. Confidently deploying leadership theory, I organised the work and assigned tasks, arranging for several sheets of corrugated iron to be placed over the unsightly hazard as we negotiated the shed into position. What happened next I can only explain on the basis of what we have sensitively come to know as senior moments. With a crowd gathered around the hut, I happened to glance sideways and observing a pile of corrugated iron sheets dangerously close to the distracted team, I called a halt, leaned down and cast the pile of sheets aside while also stepping forward.
No words can convey the horror that assailed me in that moment. I experienced the shocking phenomenon of time standing still, poised above the bubbling, warm and corrupted outcome of countless meals. I experienced dread, self-pity, mind-numbing fear and humiliation. I knew with absolute certainty that I was going down. I descended into horror and the inevitability of my fate.
What happened next confounded science. Yogis and ascetics study for decades to achieve what came to me in one brief and appalling second. Like a phoenix I appeared to levitate from the foul depths and landed neatly on the ground beside the hole. I saw my friends gaping with disbelief and horror. I knew in that instant that beyond anything else, they longed to laugh. And I knew I had a choice.
To my enduring relief, tearing off my clothes, I stood naked on the Devon field and laughed. My loyal and conflicted friends shrieked with mirth, I think themselves profoundly relieved. Whirling the sodden clothes above my head, they scattered. I was last seen running naked for my cottage and the shower, where I remained for a very long time.
My epiphany that day was that leadership never has been and never will be an education had. It is a choice, and that choice becomes most apparent when we are pressed by difficulty and challenge. What was unfocused becomes clear.
To make the choice to become a true leader then, there are three questions anyone must ask themselves. What do I most profoundly love? Aligning our work towards what we most profoundly love allows access to our full potential. Motivation becomes irrelevant. To follow a career that is not located in what we love is a form of betrayal that will eventually sadden. Most of us are only too aware of our shortcomings even if we choose to pretend bullish self-confidence.
What are my most profound gifts? Searching and eventually discovering our true gifts equips us with the means to powerfully influence what we love.
What are my most profound responsibilities? Deep inquiry into our responsibilities takes courage and may lead us to uncomfortable places, but authentic leadership isn’t possible without taking account of this least popular question.
Viewed from the vantage point of our desired sustainable future, we are descending into the shit. No one can save us from ourselves except ourselves. It is our choice. We are poised at a threshold. Behind us the flawed assumptions of a compromised past, ahead the certain smell of cause and effect. Our descent is under way.
As managers in business and wannabe leaders, what choices are we called to make? When we ask all three questions, use the answers as a navigational tool, and commit to action, our leadership will have the capacity to move a mountain or two.