Leading From Within

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the statesman
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the statesman

Many powerful people have discussed and described leadership. The hallmarks of leadership include creating a vision, establishing a direction, and demonstrating by example how to pursue the path. As I reflect on those I consider great leaders I think of people such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Mahatma Gandhi. Certainly they were vocal, strong in presenting and pursuing their visions and voicing their passion, most definitely important aspects of leadership. However, they each learned leadership through the crucible of life which honed and prepared them for their mission. They first had to lead from within, so that their integrity shone forth and their personal power established. Without first mastering themselves, and demonstrating leadership of themselves, they would not have had the same power to shape nations.

Imagine spending over 20 years in a prison cell. The courage and the conviction required to abide the appalling conditions Mandela suffered enabled him to emerge as the statesman he is. Gandhi’s did not invent his ideas on nonviolence on a whim but as a result of years of struggle, including imprisonment, and demonstrated conviction to his values. Martin Luther King grew up with a full understanding of oppression, and knew it was dangerous to seek change, but had a vision, a dream, and was willing to back it.

To achieve leadership greatness one must, I strongly believe, lead ourselves first and foremost through and out of our own darkness. All through our life we have built up layer upon layer of programming, training, behaviours, attitudes, beliefs, addictions, emotional responses, social expectations etc. These cover up and detract from our clarity over our life purpose and the values that are core to us. We establish protective mechanisms that keep us safe, maintain security and levels of certainty, but which also rob us of the ability to align with and act in accordance with our core purpose. Cutting through the façades we have built around our soul so we can shine forth in the fullness of who we are is a powerful process and requires deep commitment to self, and personal leadership. Success in this endeavour provides the substance for and basis of our personal power. It enables us to manifest leadership to others because we have triumphed within ourselves.

Fundamentally it is pain and pleasure that motivates us to action. We avoid pain and seek pleasure, with pain taking precedence over pleasure. We grow up with experiences shaping our beliefs, attitudes, values and perceptions. We learn who we are and what behaviours are acceptable, and which are not, from our primary care givers. We associate pain with non-conformance, from failure to work within norms and social boundaries. We associate with groups (friends, colleagues, gangs etc) and learn of the rules for reward by these groups. Obedience to norms carries rewards. Breaking from the norms, being odd or different, carries penalty and pain. But a leader cannot work in the norm, as an average person, as part of the group. At some point they must assert themselves, separate from the group, and come into their own space.

Most people start learning this as teenagers, rebelling from parents and choosing another tribe to belong to. They move from one social group to another, establish different patterns and norms, and feel they are closer to being themselves. Later they discover it was their desire to belong that motivated them so they were still being managed by groups. Some never get over this, looking outside themselves to satisfy their need for acceptance and belonging rather than from within themselves.

When pursued further, the maturation process eventually leads us to question who we are, why we are here and what greater purpose we serve. The recognition of our individuality, our uniqueness, and the possibility that we have value enables us to seek within for our gifts. Discovering and being true to who we are becomes important. There is a shift from seeking love and acceptance from outside to a place where we provide that to ourselves, and become less bound to the whims of our “tribal” groups and roots. However there is also pain in this process.

Shifting our focus from outside to inside us requires us to meet and confront all our fears, insecurities, debilitating attitudes and behaviours, and find ways of putting them behind us. Some of us have powerful inner critics that berate us as our parents may have. We hear the piercing criticism from within with greater clarity than the scolding we may have experienced in younger days, which can stop us in our tracks. Whether it is the voice of our inner critic or the rigid walls of protection we have erected over the years, they stop us shining, and to truly emerge we must overcome them. If we stay bound to our insecurities we shun the opportunity to change and to transform ourselves from part of the pack to the leader we can be. If we seek to change ourselves through coercion and internal aggression and anger we have simply substituted the voices of our experience with our own tormentor. We emerge when we have found ourselves to be lovable, acceptable and perfect as we are, and truly believe that. That is not saying we are perfect. Goodness, what is perfection and who can judge that? It is saying that we are entirely acceptable as we are, that we have our own uniqueness based on who we are and what we have experienced, and everything has brought us to this point in life, and all of this is perfect and right as is.

To lead others we must lead ourselves. We must be able and capable of dealing with adversity, the naysayer, and find ways through and out of those difficulties. Our ability to deal with and manage external adversity and opposition is much greater when we have mastered the opposition that comes from within us. Our ability to lead with clarity and conviction in public is greatest when we have already managed that within ourselves in isolation. Perhaps being in prison for 20+ years is something that could benefit everyone. Certainly it provides time to reflect, see ourselves more clearly and deal with our personal demons. However not all of us need to change whole nations. We have good we can accomplish by remaining engaged in the world, but the battle within is just as real. A growing number of people are learning the benefits of meditation, yoga etc for stress relief. Some find it painful because they slow down a little and start to see themselves more clearly, and find things they judge as unacceptable or wrong with them. If we wish to lead others effectively then we must have already learned to lead from within. We must have confronted ourselves and been victorious in engaging with and being comfortable in the presence of our own voices and messages from within. We must have learned about tolerating and working through the issues that surface from our past. We can be hampered by insecurity and doubt or develop a powerful love of ourselves, warts and all. None of us can become entirely free of these things, but we can develop comfort for and appreciation of the fog we create in our lives, and find ways of charting through them. For as we move through our own internal fog we develop the capacity to lead others through theirs.

I have always found the following an inspiring statement:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Marianne Williamson, “A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles”

The more we connect with ourselves, and manifest the greatness within, the greater our capacity to work through life, deal with issues, and exhibit personal power that will inspire others. If you wish to lead others, then first lead yourself.

Where are you in the process of developing personal power and governing yourself? What barriers have prevented you achieving the success you desire? What behaviours and attitudes diminish your ability to lead others and create change within your organisation? As you learn to lead from within you also gain greater understanding of the issues and barriers faced within organisations and how to work through them.

Ouch! That Hurt!

Communication can be rife with misunderstanding and hurt feelings!
Communication can be rife with misunderstanding and hurt feelings!

It amazes me sometimes the things that are said and done by people, supposedly for the help and benefit of others, but which are frankly rude, hurtful and/or damaging. I have recently been a witness to a very unpleasant exchange that has arisen between two “friends” and it is a stark reminder that intentions, motivations, values and perspectives can be very different and play a powerful role in our communications with others. In an exchange of emails one of the participants sought to take a rational path, clarifying perspective by stating their intentions, explaining their motivations, and seeking open dialogue to work through any misunderstanding. Everything was written from an “I feel…” or “My intention was…” perspective. The response was condemning and written as “It is obvious you felt…”, “I know your intentions were…” and fascinatingly accused the first person of being aggressive. I was involved as a coach to the first person, in this instance not to help the relationship but to work through the issues and achieve some positive personal outcome for the hurting individual.

Communications with others is full of opportunity for misunderstanding. In entering a dialogue with others we bring a wealth of personal experience, cultural and personal values, aspirations and intentions, and personality styles. We may be quiet and aloof, bold and brash, warm and welcoming, or any number of other possibilities. And then there is how we view the other and what they have to offer a given situation. Even on a good day, when we put real thought and effort into what we are communicating, and in thinking through how best to present our message, there are misfires, and there can be major breakdowns and misunderstandings. If we fire off messages in an emotional frenzy the likelihood of a positive outcome is LOW.

Relevant to the example I introduced, some principles in communicating that can help create a positive outcome are:

Choose the appropriate medium for your communication. Is it appropriate? Will it maximise your chances of sending a clear, unconfused message that will be understood by the recipients. Do not fall into the trap of believing that sending a clear message means it will be understood. Breakdowns in communication can and do occur with the sender and/or the receiver at any given time.

When communicating the message we send is conveyed 55% non-verbally (i.e. through body language), 38% vocally (e.g. our tone and where we place emphasis) and 7% through the words we use. How many of us resort to using email as our primary means for communicating? We have already reduced our bandwidth for information to 7% of what is possible, assuming we send the perfect message. If you consider the TXTing mentality that is now so prevalent, with its encrypted messages, short forms that are not equally understood, and lack of punctuation, the ability to communicate can only be reduced further still.

If what you need to convey is important or there are sensitive issues or emotional issues around the content, carefully consider a face-to-face meeting which maximises the possibility for understanding, or a phone call that at least maintains verbal content as well as the words.

We live in an information age AND we are really appalling communicators. Don’t let technology lull you into a false sense of comfort about the message you are sending or that the recipients are receiving. What you send as a message IS NOT necessarily what they receive!

Neutralise Emotion – internally and expressed. When hurt or angry, walk away and wait a day to respond, if possible (not so easy in a face-to-face situation, but still may be a valid option). As a minimum, take a deep breath, find your own centre of balance and consciously choose the outcome you want from a message you are sending before speaking or writing.

Own your own feelings and express them as “I feel…” There is no condemnation of the other person if you own your feelings and express them as yours. Of course if you state they made you feel something you are hitting a difficulty. Remember: no one else can make you feel anything. You choose your feelings. The choosing may not be obvious but it is true. For example, someone hits you. How do you feel? It depends. If the person is or has a history of aggression towards you, says “I hate you” and punches you in the face the result may be anger. If a person is thrashing around on the floor in an epileptic fit and in the throes of their fit their fist hits you in the face, you may feel startled, possibly some compassion, but are less likely to feel angry. Circumstance, perspective and values contribute to the feelings you experience. They are your feelings. No one else made you feel them. Something happened. You interpreted the situation. A signal was generated from your brain and a feeling experienced. By owning your feelings you have a choice of changing them and of harnessing them to enhance your personal power.

Assign your own importance to feedback received. Most of us want others to be happy with us. We learn from the moment we are born that if we please others we are more likely to get what we want, or at least have a better experience of life. When we learn that someone is displeased with us the reaction can be pronounced as we struggle with our apparent failing. From this perspective we place a high value on negative feedback, and often overlook and quickly dismiss the positive.

An important phase of personal growth is when we shift our measures of success as a person internally and base it on our intentions, our motivations, the values we hold and outcomes we sought, and less on what others say to and about us, negative or positive. With a solid internal touchstone, we can receive external assessments of who we are, how we are viewed and judged, and compare them against our own assessment. Consider there may be truth in anything we receive, but not necessarily, and do not accept negative (or even positive) feedback simply because it has been given.

Feedback can be provided for a variety of reasons. For example:

  • to offer constructive critique
  • to create motivation to change
  • to unsettle and create opportunity for a victory
  • to be spiteful and deliberately hurtful.

Just because feedback has been given by someone does not mean you have to receive it. Positive feedback from someone greasing your palms because they want something is of less value than honest negative feedback from any source. When we are still caught in the need for external approval we like to be surrounded by those who shower us with adoration and struggle when negative comments are made. We may feel devastated when false accusations or assaults on our character are made. As we internalise the touchstone for personal assessment, and we base approval on our values etc, feedback from others becomes information to receive, consider, discard or keep and use as appropriate. I have learned that my integrity does not always need defending. I used to vociferously defend any accusation made against me, felt terrible that someone could consider I was “bad”, and then one day an acquaintance said, “Why do you need to defend your integrity?” Wow! That took me back. I realised that I did out of a feeling of inadequacy and lack of self-esteem. Sometimes integrity does need defending. That is what positive use of anger is all about, but sometimes it is enough to know I am integral and in knowing that the other person has no power over me in that instance.

Next time you receive a message, verbal, written or TXTed that inflames you:

  • Consider what result you want from your response
  • Neutralise your emotion in forming and sending the response
  • Consciously determine the merits and significance of any personal feedback received. Keep the worthwhile and discard the dross.

In all circumstances, consider meeting face-to-face or at least picking up a phone rather than relying only on such ineffective communications media as email or TXTing.

May all your communications be fog free! These are some ways of creating and maintaining clarity in communications with the people you interact with.

Do The Impossible

While sitting in a project kick-off meeting I listened to a senior manager introduce a new project. He set the scene by telling us that we had 10 weeks to accomplish the project, that he wanted a premium result, and that any deviation from the perfect solution must be detailed in papers that explained the reasons for failure to deliver the outstanding result. It was the integration of a supplier’s system with their own. This had only just been completed with another supplier who had a more advanced environment, and it had taken 18 months. The team were clear that what was being asked was not possible. The manager was clearly ignorant of how the system and business operated, and arrogant enough to believe that saying it must be so was sufficient. It was an unhealthy way to commence a project. The team did achieve significant outcomes because of lessons learned from the previous experience, but by no means the ‘perfect solution’, and these were driven by the team’s own interest in realising the best result possible, and not this manager’s erroneous pep-talk.

While the above story is based on a particular event, it is not unique. All too often project teams are placed in situations where they swallow the bitter pill of stressful time-frames, unrealistic expectations, and unnecessary pressure. They judge their management as out of touch with the reality of their organisation and as having failed to take early action in what was an obvious, prudent and timely fashion, and who then speak platitudes in an attempt to solve their own ineptitude. From the outset of such projects there is already an environment of distrust, conflict and blame which undermines the natural desire and motivation of people to perform their work in a satisfactory and fulfilling manner. Compare this “normal but unsatisfactory” environment with the following experience.

2007 ‘The Archetypes’ Oxfam Trailwalker team successfully finished

In March 2007 I did the impossible, or so I had been told by a number of people who knew me, successfully walking 100km (62 miles) in 25 hours 4 minutes as part of the Oxfam Trailwalker Challenge. For years (at least 20 years) I was a desk potato. I sat behind my desk, worked on my computer, and “prided” myself in having a body that mostly did what I needed without any maintenance. Over time its capacity diminished due to my lack of fitness apparent through tiredness, shortness of breath, and unresponsive, easily injured muscles.

Six months earlier I first heard of the Challenge. Within 60 seconds I had volunteered myself on to the four person team. I was more than surprised at my decision. Something unfamiliar within me took over. Time for a change.

I was part of an endeavour with others relying on me. Though a team event it was not a relay. We all had to complete the entire distance together, and I was the weakest link. My team mates included a marathon runner, an actively competing cyclist, and a mountaineer. On electing to participate one of them made the comment: “You know your own body.” Never a falser word spoken. I had no clue about my body, but something had called me and I felt compelled to answer.

My busy schedule, always too full previously for exercise, suddenly changed. Training was undertaken. I struggled with 3–5 kilometre walks, pulling muscles on a regular basis. Anger and frustration were common feelings. My body did not perform as I demanded. It rebelled. Then I started to listen to it, dialogue opened up, and I sought outside advice. New shoes were tried. I defined regular training routes, distance goals, and I partnered with my body so we better supported each other. After a month I walked over 10km and I felt totally wiped out by the effort.

At just under three months, the week of Christmas, I achieved a goal of exceeding 70 km within one week, including a 20km walk. A month later I walked a marathon. Serious pronation required specialist shoes. Blisters halfway through a 40km walk took 4 weeks to heal – wrong specialist shoes. My knees gave out under the strain of carrying me the distances being asked. However, I got to the event with the issues resolved and in the best shape I had been in since I was a teenager. As a team we ran over the finish line together. I felt a wonderful sense of accomplishment.

What got me through? Irrational belief in myself, determination and commitment, and an incredibly supportive team. I am sure there were times when they felt major concern about the overall success of the team because everything that could go wrong for me with my body seemed to. My result would impact them, yet they persisted, worked with me, encouraged me, and at the end of the event we did cross the line together.

It was a potent experience. I did achieve what health professionals and others had said I could not do in the time I had available. The event was not easy. It did pose its challenges, but I always knew I would succeed, and fortunately did not have to deal with lessons associated with failure.

The contrast between the unfortunately common project environment and my experience in the 100km walk is quite stark from which I draw the following. The “impossible” can be achieved when you foster within yourself and your team:

  • Unreasonable belief in your capacity to succeed
  • Desire and intention focused on the outcome
  • Commitment, dedication and the intelligent application of hard work
  • A great support network
  • Ownership and responsibility individually for actions and collectively for results
  • A genuine possibility that success is possible even if it does require extraordinary effort
  • Resilience to setbacks; they become failure when we succumb
  • Inspiration and motivation based on genuine desires, interests and beliefs shared by participants

So what seemingly impossible endeavour or insurmountable problem are you engaged in or going to be?

  • What resources can you draw upon (people, knowledge, techniques, tools) that can make a positive difference?
  • What negative elements can you offload so they do not hold you back?
  • How can you communicate objectives, seek commitment and garner support that builds on and extends a shared concept of success, value and possibility across the stakeholders?

Success comes from knowing what you want, committing to it, and always getting back up. Getting back up is motivated by finding reason to. A leader builds ownership of the reason among their team and stakeholders. Together the impossible may become possible. Personally and with your team, make a commitment, honour the commitment, and DO IT. Do something impossible.

Am I Ready for Coaching?

Coaching session
Am I ready for coaching?

The greater your responsibility, the greater the pressure on you to focus on and address external matters. You focus on meeting work and family obligations and duties, attempt to satisfy and maintain the demands of many relationships, and then you address what matters to you with whatever time remains. Do you wish you had time and space to delve into what really matters to you? Do you have facets of your business and personal life and performance that would benefit from genuine attention? Could you benefit from a safe, confidential space with a trusted confidant? If you answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you can definitely benefit from coaching.

Coaching is a fabulous way to take charge of your life, improve personal performance, own a new work role, strengthen relationships, deal with conflicts, manage a transition, develop personal capabilities, pursue stretch goals, and manifest dreams.

Getting the most out of coaching requires preparation. Having the right mindset and approach enables you to gain the most from coaching. You are READY or best prepared for coaching IF you are willing to:

  • take real action to create your own results;
  • eradicate old, redundant and limiting habits, thought patterns and beliefs;
  • be challenged in thought, feeling and behaviour;
  • take responsibility for your own results;
  • drop excuses for poor performance;
  • be open to self-directed learning of new skills and ideas.

OR

  • at least wish to occupy this growth space and develop these capabilities.

As your coach, I create a confidential space within which you experience unrestricted self-governance. You set the agenda. You work on what matters to you. It may be quite an unfamiliar experience to be in an environment where you focus solely on what matters to you without anyone else taking any degree of responsibility for what you do or create for yourself.

Coaching will enable you to enter new, previously unexplored, territory. I support and enable you by walking alongside you as your guide. I use questions to assist your exploration, expand your thinking, and confront new possibilities. I provide space for you to consider and reflect, generate insights, and develop approaches and ideas that work for you. Being with “not knowing” is integral to the coaching process. It precedes insight, the generation of one’s own solution that meets your unique approach and learning style, and which you own because they are your own ‘Eureka’ moments. A major outcome of coaching is your strengthened self-awareness and your capacity to intervene on yourself when you recognise you are undermining your own performance. Coaching is offered to support you generate ideas and pursue solutions. Are you ready for the benefits that coaching can offer you?

Being “ready for coaching” also considers how to prepare for a session, the first in particular. One of the tools that can assist you be ready for coaching is the Pre-Coaching Questionnaire. It is a simple process to assist you clarify and focus on what matters to you. While it provides me, your coach, with useful information, it is primarily offered to support your preparation for coaching. You benefit from completing it more than I do.

Coaching may be used to establish and pursue goals over an engagement (an agreed series of coaching sessions) or to address burning issues a session at a time. It can also be a combination of these and other possibilities. When you turn up for a coaching session, it is great if you already know what you want to work on, and are prepared to work. If you are not clear on what to work on, at least be prepared to work, to think, to be challenged, so that I may assist you gain the clarity that is eluding you. We will partner together in creating the purpose of the session, and ensuring you walk away satisfied with the time we spend together.

If coaching is right for you, or you wish to explore how it may help you, fill in the Pre-Coaching Questionnaire (click here for the questionnaire), and book a free initial coaching session with me, Stephen (click here to book a coaching session).

In summary, you are ready for coaching when you:

  1. recognise that you will benefit, get real value, from coaching;
  2. have the mindset and attitudes, or the desire to have such, that would make coaching work for you; and
  3. are prepared to get as much from a session as you can, knowing what you wish to work on, or at least being prepared to work with your coach to develop that clarity.

Offer: Free Coaching Session With Stephen

If you have never had a coaching session with me, you are invited to experience a free coaching session. To take up this offer, complete and submit the Pre-Coaching Questionnaire (click here for the questionnaire) and then book the free (up to 90 minutes) session (click here to book the session).

Responding to Change

“I have to find safety. My home is disappearing!”
“I have to find safety. My home is disappearing!”

The Western world is in an uproar over the predicted-by-some, yet surprising-to-most, election win by Donald Trump. For me, the event and its aftermath is a fantastic example of what many experience as “unwanted change”, and the behaviours that manifest at such times. This is a fantastic public theatre of what occurs on a smaller, often ignored, scale within organisations undergoing change, planned or unplanned, welcomed by or imposed on the employees. This article highlights some of the more obvious behaviours being exhibited and highlights some considerations that may create a more positive outcome at an individual level.

We have seen significant grass-roots responses to unrecognised needs by those in power in the form of Brexit. Now a surprise (to some) Trump victory. As life giving as change can be, it is not always positive. Enough wars show change can be damaging. Fear is palpable now. For many groups, if Trump seeks to fulfil his intent stated in his campaign speeches, there are real threats to loss of rights and liberty. Some of his early choices suggest he intends honouring, as far as possible, what he promised during his campaign.

Based on some of the more obvious behaviours being demonstrated since the Trump election win, here are some ways people react to change:

  • Polarisation and strengthening of positions: Ardent fighters for and against a change strengthen their positions and fight it out. The fight may be peaceful, or might descend as low as individual human morality allows. There will be a mixture of those aggressively assailing others with a different point of view, whether physically, emotionally or through power over. Others will assert themselves, clearly identifying who they are and what they stand for, without imposing on others. Mahatma Gandhi and his followers’ non-violent protests of British rule is a good example of the latter.
  • Run away and hide: This may be observed as people and groups getting busy with something else, a way of distancing from the pain of loss and occupying themselves with something they have control over. It may be literally exiting the scene, leaving the country, becoming a hermit, or otherwise divorcing self from the challenge of being or staying engaged.
  • Filter reality: Notice how many proponents of each side argue, using only the information (often opinions of others rather than real facts) that supports their view, and ignore anything counter to their position. This also shows when others are accused of falsehood when citing something that is counter to the position held. The media are getting a lot of flak for beating up situations if they merely mention something that doesn’t support promoted views.
  • Normalisation: “Give him a chance”, “Wait and see” and in a practical sense, sitting on one’s hands. Then, almost as in a frozen state of numbness nothing is said or done as ongoing change initiatives bring into reality the worst nightmares of those who voiced fear of the worst. For example,
    • Steve Bannon, former head of alt-right nationalists’ recommended media source, Breitbart News, appointed as Chief Strategist
    • Myron Ebell, a global warming denier, as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency
    • Trump’s own children being put forward for cabinet and advisory roles, and simultaneously running his and their own businesses, with a simple, “You can trust us.” Very basic ethical principles are trampled underfoot, and seems to be widely accepted as okay. Not if anyone else tried it!
  • Disavow any responsibility: “I don’t know”, “I didn’t realise this would happen?”, “How could I know?” Or as in Seth Meyer’s case, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, when challenged on calling Bannon ‘controversial’, he was unwilling to give an opinion because he had not met the fellow conservative. Seth Meyers, of the Closer Look program, called Meyers on this side-step well when he said, “I’ve never met John Wilkes Booth, but I let his past work inform my opinion of him.” It is as though many are running for cover and refusing to say anything that may impact their future position with the one in charge. They could do with taking Lucy Gennaro McClane’s advice to Matt Farrell in Live Free or Die Hard (aka Die Hard 4.0), “You need to grow a bigger set of balls!”

When facing change, we each have choice. We can allow fear to overcome us and react to what is happening from that place. We rely on the fear-based survival reactions fight, flight, freeze and fabricate. Alternatively, we can function from our personal power, and manifest the power-based thrive responses assert, attend, act and authenticate. The former requires little consciousness from us, with our amygdala (or reptilian brain) reacting to threat. The latter requires conscious choice and self-intervention to assure we behave in a manner that is of our choosing. The thrive responses also require that we are clear about and are congruent with our values, not relinquishing them when the going gets a little tougher.

What I experienced as warm, heart-felt and assertive was the plea and invitation offered to Vice President-Elect Mike Pence by the cast of Hamilton at the end of their show. The play was themed around freedom,  the constitution and diversity. After the final curtain call, Brandon Victor Dixon addressed Mr Pence, inviting him to listen, and said:

“We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us — our planet, our children, our parents — or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.”

New York Times, 19 Nov. 2016 (link)

Debate is as polarised around whether this was appropriate as it is on many other issues related to the election and subsequent events. One of the bigger questions is how to voice disagreement in an environment that seems hostile to any opinion counter to the future Commander-In-Chief.

While I have used very public examples from the follow-on of the Trump election, these behaviours often occur in change situations. The choices you make in response determine your contribution to the outcome. When confronted with change, particularly change you do not welcome, what do you choose to do? Do you voice concerns you hold? Do you assert what matters to you? Do you shrink away and leave it to others to work through? Do you get overwhelmed and find it all too much, unable to find anything you can constructively do? Do you look for what you can do, stay engaged and take some action? Do you blame others for what has happened? Do you act from a place of personal responsibility and ownership and attempt to help shape next steps?

Reclaiming Self, Again

Dark, dreary and forlorn
When all seems dark and dreary… how do I find and reclaim myself?

The world seems dark, closing in around me. My vision has dimmed. My inner emotional and mental turmoil grows. Dense, dark clouds of desperation choke me. I feel like I am losing myself, my grip on reality, and wonder how or why I should carry on. And only moments ago I felt okay. What changed? Why am I pitching and tossing as though I am in a tiny boat on a raging ocean storm? Where is my virtue? Why has my positive sense of self vanished? Why do I feel abandoned and alone? Is there a way out of this seemingly impenetrable darkness? Why can’t light flood in as easily as the darkness? What am I to do?

Ever known moments or periods like that? I have. It can seem like goodness has evaporated and darkness is all that is available. What causes such experiences? How can such moments/periods be overcome? Answering questions such as these was part of the motivation behind my book, Appreciate the fog: embrace change with power and purpose. I continue to experience and learn.

Many things can create the loss of light, disconnection from what feels positive and good, and plunge us into chaos, confusion, and uncertainty. Trauma certainly can. New trauma messes with our sense of safety and trust. Events may remind us of past trauma and return us emotionally and mentally to old states. Loss, and the accompanying grief, is another trigger. Losing someone through death, capability through illness or accident, a job through retrenchment, or any number of other sources, can cause us to question life, purpose, and our place in the scheme of things. Shame can trigger the downward spiral or dramatic plunge, as the case may be. It could be through returning to an old habit, one we thought we had beaten, or being reminded of something we have done that we regret. Shame can also accentuate the downward process initiated by other causes. This one has a fabulous ally in the descent into darkness, our inner critic, who, through shame, has received a package of evidence of our uselessness as an individual. We may have a massive job disentangling ourselves from our critic’s habitual negative messages before we can even consider climbing out of the pit. The critic is such a potent voice, and if we attack the critic for being critical, it only serves to strengthen the critic and deepen the hole we are in. There are many other triggers that can take us down.

With the brain surgery I had several years ago came a raft of such roller-coaster experiences. It was traumatic in the extreme, far more so than it actually seemed to be. One moment I was fine. The next I learned I had a life threatening tumour, and had life-saving and life-changing surgery with loss of physical function and capability. It is all invisible disability, but I know it is there. So does my critic. Every now and then I find myself back in the negative soup, needing to yet again extricate myself. In response to the trauma, I found myself plunged back into unproductive patterns I hadn’t seen since I was a teenager where I had little trust that I would be okay. For all the miraculous outcome of the surgical intervention, a brain tumour does highlight safety concerns, and I found myself working with very old patterns and attitudes: isolation, distrust of others and life in general, and a generally bleak mental outlook. “There goes 30+ years of personal work down the toilet” was one of my evaluative internal comments. “Hey, I have written a book about this stuff. How could I get caught in this trap?” Pretty easily actually. The brain never drops old wiring. We may manage to create new pathways and implement new habits, including mental and emotional responses, that are useful and forward moving. In some ways trauma can unearth disused paths and bring them back into use. The difference this time however is that I have worked my way through and out before.  I am armed with that knowledge and capacity. This whole process became another chance to bed down the restorative processes, and heal past old hurts at a deeper level.

So, how can we reclaim ourselves at such times? This is the equivalent of redeeming ourselves from hell, the turmoil created within one’s psyche by mental and emotional processes gone awry. Some examples of methods for reclaiming self include:

Implement new positive routines. These have the effect of reminding ourselves we matter and provide positive feedback and self-care. For me, something as simple as stopping each hour to do a few stretches that break up my day of sitting and working on the computer makes a massive difference to my sense of self and my outlook.

Inventory the qualities and virtues you seem to have lost, and reclaim them. When I hit these sorts of dark places I tend to lose playfulness, trust, hope, delight, innocence, many other child-like qualities. The world seems to be too big, bad and unsafe, so they get stowed for a brighter day. Without them the brighter day doesn’t actually happen. Check in on what you don’t seem to have access to, because you have hidden them away, and reclaim them. Bring them back into active use. For me I metaphorically throw my items into a sack I carry on my back. To reclaim them I go through a process of recognising that has happened, and mentally opening and exploring my sack to find the qualities I want back. Sometimes I use a physical bag full of items and enact the process to strengthen my mental and emotional connection to reclaiming myself. That has a great effect in opening my awareness, establishing the importance of the qualities I am reclaiming, and reasserting them as valuable and available in my life. The world gets brighter in that moment.

Practice loving and accepting yourself. A simple way of doing this is to say: “I love myself and I accept myself, even though I don’t understand myself… and I forgive myself.” You could even list the things you find difficult to understand about yourself. This phrase asserts love and acceptance without judging yourself as good or bad . You can up the experience by standing at a mirror, taking up your own gaze, and then saying it. Do this multiple times and notice your inner response to yourself saying such a simple statement. I find this is an invaluable feedback mechanism. Any difficulty I have when holding my own gaze and saying this statement quickly informs me how strongly judgemental and unaccepting I am of myself in that moment. Staying with myself, when it is difficult, and finding a way back to loving and accepting myself, is a powerful, valuable, and often challenging, investment in self.

Phone a friend. Reaching out can be an incredibly difficult action when surrounded by your judgement of how pathetic you are. A real friend loves and accepts you even when you don’t know how to. It is a great lifeline to have and call on when the moment requires it. If you don’t have a friend available in the moment of crisis, call a helpline or see a counsellor. All these options are positive steps that say “I want and deserve better for myself.”

Gratitude. Find and name a few things for which you are truly grateful. If you can’t find anything, ask yourself what you could be grateful for, and then be grateful for that, and for asking the question. If you have done any of the previous actions, or anything else that works for you, express gratitude to yourself for doing them, for investing in yourself. Work with whatever small sliver you can find, and build on it.

Practice while the going is good. Build up your capacity to reclaim yourself when you don’t need to. It is easier to hit those negative experiences if you are already resourced. As challenging as my process of working through my surgery and aftermath has been, it has been much easier for having already established mechanisms for reclaiming myself. There have been times when, regardless of all I know, I wondered what the point was, but underneath I have known there is a point, and I that I could find my way back.

These are by no means all you can do. What are ways that work when you need to reclaim yourself?

Refer to “Reclaiming Self” for an earlier article on the same subject.

Embrace Change with Power and Purpose

Changing your mental context
Changes, a new mind-set required

According to James Baldwin, the American novelist, “Most of us are about as eager to be changed as we were to be born, and go through our changes in a similar state of shock.”

Regardless of its nature, we need to embrace change with power and purpose. While there may be some change we do want, I also refer to those changes we do not want or seek. It is the challenge found in the unwanted and significant changes that truly tests our character.

Resilience, fear, and letting go are three factors we need to address when responding to change.

As humans, we have physical, emotional, mental and spiritual bodies. Our emotional and mental bodies are similar to our physical in that without exercise and challenge they become flabby and lose tone. Our spiritual body does not so much get flabby. Rather we disconnect from it and lose sight of the being we are, or become aware we never have truly known who we are. It is our relationship with who we are that gets flabby. Change is the catalyst for encouraging and requiring “whole-of-being fitness”. How cleanly and powerfully are you able to respond to change? Does change throw you into a stressful place? Can you ride the wave of change and maintain your composure? The fitness of our whole being forms the basis of our resilience. Physical health, emotional intelligence, mental acuity and a powerful sense of who we are amidst change ensures we are internally resourced.

Fear is a natural reaction to change, even when we want the change. We fear losing the status quo, our current state. There is comfort in the familiar. We don’t KNOW what the end state will be like, even if the grass seems greener. There is the motivating force that pushes for change, and our reactive fear that retards our fluidity. If the reactive fear is greater than the motivational force, we are stuck.

When faced with fear we tend to be reactive and the four F’s come into play: FIGHT, FLIGHT, FREEZE and FABRICATE. The first two are instinctual, reactions driven by the reptilian brain, the amygdala. Freeze is related to higher brain function becoming overwhelmed with information and decisions, and shutting down. We become stuck. Fabricate relates to creating or projecting a mask, a false image, like a chameleon changing colours, so we don’t have to fully face what we fear. It is a learned behaviour, often from our childhood, used to cover our fears. Whether belligerence, shyness, a whimpering “poor me”, these devices seek to control the actions of others in relation to us. We often use fabricate so fluently, these manufactured behaviours become confused with our personality, embedded patterns.

When I received the surprising news that I had a six cm benign tumour in my brain I left the specialists office and told my wife, Juanita, very matter-of-factly that I had a life threatening condition that needed urgent surgery. An observer could have misjudged me as being remarkably calm. I certainly portrayed calm. I was in fact overwhelmed, emotionally closed down. I coped by distancing myself from my emotional world. I was fabricating calmness. All natural, understandable, and in fact necessary. Time and space was needed for me to internally process and get my ducks in a row. However, I had to move past this initial reaction and connect with what was really going on for me to powerfully and purposefully work with the change.

To move forward powerfully, we need to bring the fullness of our being forward. We need to change our F’s to A’s. Fight, flight, freeze and fabricate need to transform to ASSERT, ATTEND, ACT and AUTHENTICATE. Assert who we are and what we need. Stay present. Take action. Be real and call on others to be as well, in themselves and in relationship with you. Then we are responding to change rather than reacting.

For the first few days I maintained my calm demeanour. There was also some overwhelm, self-pity and helplessness. I couldn’t be bothered looking for ways to be powerful or purposeful. Knowing the specialist was referring me to a surgeon, I was prepared to let the hospital process take its own natural course. My wife proactively followed up on it and found it was stuck in the system and would have never got to the surgeon without intervention. I would be dead without her efforts.

My overwhelm shifted. I took ownership of the process. I researched the tumour, and thoroughly understood its impacts and what the surgeon could do, and what the implications would be. By the time I saw the surgeon he was telling me what I already knew, apart from the date for surgery. A friend was a grief counsellor. In speaking with her, she suggested I actively enlist the support of friends as that would make the process easier for me and Juanita. I informed friends in various networks I was part of about my situation. I had been a facilitator of programmes for men for a number of years. I attended a meeting of men and shared my news, my terror and my uncertainty. I experienced a wonderful outpouring of love and support. That grew when the network of several thousand men were informed. We had friends from all around the world in a vigil while I was under anaesthetic, praying or otherwise actively sending positive energy in my direction. Over 120 people were on the update list who chose to be kept informed of my progress for the first few months. Many of those who were local visited me as I had strength to receive them. As shocking and frightening as the news was for me that I had a tumour, I never would have learned the power and support available in such time without it. It really was quite humbling. There was more good will available than I had the capacity to receive.

However, the surgery was only part of the journey. I found that as the post-surgical reality set in, I had enormous grief related to loss of function – primarily hearing, balance, and emotional composure. From time to time, uncontrollable grief welled up, and I would burst into tears for no apparent reason. I would have fits of rage, something entirely alien to me before surgery. These, among others, told me I was not functioning correctly, that I was broken. That is where the third major factor came into play. I had to let go of being who I had been and learn to accept my new self. Over time many of the extremes have disappeared, but my emotional world is much more volatile than it used to be, and some of the qualities I really liked about myself prior to surgery have been lost. Part of the process of letting go has been to reframe my new reality into something meaningful and workable for me. Reframing provides the brain with rationale for why the new situation is okay, positive, good. Once the brain becomes can then settle and find new and productive ways of working within the new context.

This experience has been a series of challenges for me. I have not always managed to embrace the change with power and purpose. In fact, sometimes I have struggled against my new reality, a thoroughly futile thing to do. However, I have never lost sight of the fact it is up to me, no one else, to create the life I want moving forward. While potently and patiently supported by my wife, who has been my rock, it has still been up to me to positively move forward, to assert myself, stay present, take action and be real.

What challenges are you currently facing? How could you strengthen your response to the changes so you claim and maintain your purpose and power? Whatever it is you face, I wish you potency and strength to face up to the challenges. May you find your resilience, your way to overcome your fears, and a means for letting go of what is no longer available in ways that work for you.