What Makes You Come Alive?
The movie Gandhi has a powerful scene called The March on the Salt Works. Row upon row of men, filled with fierce resolve, step forward, defying British rule. Hour upon hour, standing in the harsh sun, awaiting their turn to get clubbed and kicked. Where did they find such courage?
The question led me to read Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. It was a preposterous experiment: using non-violence to defeat the most powerful empire on earth. That they, by not striking a blow but receiving them, could reveal the injustice and bring the empire to its knees. Individually, their head, heart and hara (guts) sought the same – freedom. Collectively they were indomitable.
Howard Thurman, an African-American leader who met with Gandhi and later mentored Martin Luther King, was also influenced. Thurman captures the essence of what it means to be internally aligned this way: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.”
Your Leadership Voice
We are often internally divided. The head wants that promotion, but the heart hesitates. Or the head and heart are all in, but you doubt you can really do it. When our attention is divided, our energy is split, and we lose power.
Finding your leadership voice means articulating your deepest purpose and values, and crafting your model for how to lead people and change. It is a profound and invigorating quest, guided by a few simple questions (see TouchPoints).
Ed Catmull is a great example. Drawn by the search for understanding, he began his career as a physicist. In Creativity Inc. Catmull reflects eloquently on what makes people flourish, “Human interaction is far more complex than relativity or string theory, of course, but that only made it more interesting and important; it constantly challenged my presumptions.” He has arrived at some insights, and both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios have prospered.
As we direct our attention to “what makes us come alive,” we focus our energy. When we “go do it,” we test our resourcefulness and resolve. We become more visible and increase our impact.
The Elephant Did It
I’m becoming really curious about elephants.
Our mind is like a rider on an elephant. The one percent of the mind that is conscious thinks it's in charge, though it serves at the pleasure of the 99 percent that operates without our conscious awareness (1). Still the rider persists in the illusion and becomes annoyed when the elephant gets spooked or distracted.
The secret to training elephants is to work directly with our bodies. To notice the physiological alerts, calm ourselves with slow breaths, and redirect attention. This requires physical intelligence, but how do you train that? My way is to study with three brilliant teachers, each connected to a centuries-deep tradition of embodied learning.
I first met Wendy Palmer, a tiny woman with a silver mane and a sixth degree blackbelt. She can toss men half her age and twice her size, and she is the founder of Leadership Embodiment. Then Javier Recio, a Spanish tenor and biologist, came on the scene; an intense and incisive teacher on finding one's voice. And finally came sessions with Master Yang Yang, who trained with 18th generation Chen masters in China and holds a Ph.D. in Kinesiology. His research and practice focuses on nurturing the life-force, a deep reservoir of energy (Qi).
With each teacher I started so far outside my comfort zone that my elephant would get agitated. To settle it down, they all used similar methods. Break complex tasks down into very simple parts, and drill each movement over, and over, and over again. And soon the elephant would relax, feeling “Oh! Now I get it.” The creature is also surprisingly responsive to humor (makes it feel safe) and positive feedback (“almost there,” “good, now try this,” “that’s it!”).
At work we move between two forms of energy: being open and inclusive (taking in information) and directing attention (advancing the agenda). An effective way to animate your goals is to craft a pithy sentence and say it out loud many times each day. The movie Moana shows how such a statement can strengthen one’s resolve, resourcefulness, and resilience. More.
(1) Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU Stern School of Business and author of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.