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A More Natural Way

Favorite books

The Courage to Create. Rollo May (W.W. Norton & Co., 1975. Updated 1994.)

Let Your Life Speak. Parker Palmer (Jossey-Bass, 1999)

Freedom and Destiny. Rollo May (W.W. Norton & Co., 1981. Updated 1999.)

Ishmael. by Daniel Quinn (Bantam Books, 1995)

At 4:00 a.m. I walked through the dark, cold, and lonely maze of more than 100 apartment buildings. I would go in the front door, throw a couple of newspapers in front of apartment doors, and go out the back door. It was 1974, I was 29 years old, and I delivered newspapers seven mornings a week. A year out of treatment for alcoholism, I found life difficult as I sought to pursue a new path.

I attended AA meetings and a weekly growth group at St. Mary’s hospital in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Many people there shared well-intended advice with me but I was confused and befuddled as I tried to sort out the conflicting voices. The more I listened to others, the worse things became. I worked hard on my sobriety, but the rest of my life fell apart. My marriage was strained, jobs scarce, bills stacked up, and this honorable work was difficult and paid little. I felt discouraged and scared about where my life was going. Sobriety was not what this former special agent in the United States Secret Service expected it to be.

I did not trust my own perceptions of life after experiencing the denial and blaming of alcoholism. My confidence in myself was shaken. I felt reluctant to break away from the advice of those sober longer than I. But I had to do something. On that dreary winter morning I decided that I would make my own choices in life from that moment forward. I had little to lose. If I failed at life, the failure would be mine alone.

From that day forward, I focused and went through my fear and made my own choices for my life instead of doing what others or society expected of me. I quit the growth group and switched to a different—non AA—12-Step group. Those I walked away from predicted my return to alcohol in short order. I have now been sober for 27 years (knock on wood). Twenty years later, near the top of the company I delivered newspapers for and more successful than the organization could handle, I walked away from the corporate world rather than conform to pressures to be less than my best. Eight years later, I continue to make choices that go against expectations. Fear is a frequent companion but so are my resolve and passion to live an authentic life. I didn’t invent these ideas. Aristotle believed that courage is the first of the human virtues, because courage makes the other virtues possible. Philosopher and author Peter Koestenbaum said courage begins with the decision to face the ultimate truth about existence: we are free to define ourselves at every moment. We are what we choose to be from the depth of our being.

Rollo May differed from Aristotle and wrote that freedom, not courage, is the mother of all values. All other values are dependent on freedom. Freedom is possibility. Freedom engages our destiny in our day-to-day choices. Freedom is essential to human dignity. Freedom is authenticity. Inner personal freedom underlies our political freedom. When we give up our inner freedom, we lose our autonomy and self-direction—the qualities that distinguish us from robots and computers. If we give up our inner freedom, we ultimately give up our political freedom.

To be courageous and to exercise our freedom fully is difficult. None of us is authentic completely—we are imperfect and many pressures to conform confront us daily. Our defenses protect us from the anxiety that comes with freedom and authenticity. We often limit ourselves in order to control the anxiety we feel. In the process, we lower our visions and shut down our creativity. Many, like the robots and walking dead in organizations, live marginally. Many choose mediocrity in exchange for the illusion of security.

Freedom and courage have become important topics of conversation since the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. We see our freedoms threatened by terrorist attacks, intrusive security measures, and new laws to help law enforcement combat the terrorists (beware of those who would protect your freedom). The anxiety provokers—media, politicians, and armchair generals—increase our level of fear. Fear corrodes our freedom to be. Fear confuses our thoughts, clouds our decisions, and impedes normal life. Fear blocks hope. With all the outside threats, we—you and I—remain, as always, the greatest threat to our own freedom. Now is the time to rediscover what freedom means for each of us.

Parker Palmer wrote that people who find the courage to stop living divided lives do so when they come to understand that no terror or punishment anyone might inflict on them could possibly be worse than the punishment they inflict on themselves by conspiring in their own diminishment. Anxiety and freedom go together. One is not present without the other. Anxiety accompanies the move into possibility. We have to accept fear and go through it.

Our organizations and institutions are not bastions of freedom. We lived in a fear-based society long before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. What lies beneath our conformity in organizations, our compliance with injustice, and our failure to bear witness for others in our organizations, if not fear? What determines our choices to stay in bad relationships, to pursue material things mindlessly, and to be unable to make important decisions, if not fear? Why do we settle for mediocrity, if not for fear? Why do we not hold people accountable, if not for fear? Why do we not use new knowledge in our leadership, if not for fear? Why are we inauthentic and only a fraction of what we might be, if not for fear? The terrorist attacks simply gave us another opportunity to be victims, another chance to claim powerlessness, and another excuse to participate in our own diminishment. They also gave us the choice to say “NO MORE.”

We, as people and as leaders, are free when we make our own authentic choices (including our mistakes) in life and move toward our inherent potential. We can, if we want to, choose to live courage-based lives in all we do just as we can choose to be victims, helpless, and powerless. We can choose to lead as we move into chaos, or we can choose to cling fearfully to what worked in the past. We can choose to be alive, and we can choose to be soul dead. Each of us is responsible to choose for ourselves. The same is true for our organizations and our institutions.

We can use the powerful blow of terrorism to jolt us from the mediocrity so common in many organizations and institutions. We can turn the misfortune of tragedy and economic decline into new resolve and new learning and development for each of us. We can look this tragedy in the eye and use the loss to move us to our proudest efforts, our most profound sensitivity, and our brightest creative vision.

We can focus our fear, take action to go through it, and become better in the process. We can choose to respond to recession and create courage-based organizations that embrace change, honor diversity, and value responsibility and accountability in pursuit of a sustainable future. We can also choose to live in fear, remain mediocre, withdraw defensively, demand conformity, and reward irresponsibility as we accept the inevitable demise of the enterprise. Each organization is responsible to make this choice for itself.

When we claim our freedom, we commit to live our purpose in life—as people and as organizations. We can think of 9/11 as a call for self-examination, for each of us as well as for our organizations and our society, to find and renew our sense of purpose (why we are here). As we purge from our souls the potential for evil in our lives, we begin to see anxiety-creating situations as opportunities to develop our souls, spirits, and selves. We engage, confront, cooperate with, and challenge our highest potential. We become Abraham Maslow’s good person: aware, responsible, and self-evolving.

The times in which we live—chaotic, creative, uncertain, dangerous—call for leaders who hold themselves consistently to a higher standard of values, thought, and behavior than ever before. Why would I follow a person not worthy of trust and confidence into the unknown? Character is the externalization of all that we are within—our intellectual and moral texture. Character is the constant in the midst of uncertainty—interwoven in all that we do. Mindful people trust, believe, and follow people of character.

The call is for courageous and authentic leaders who put the well-being of all, including future generations, ahead of self-interest, who can set a sustainable direction, who live their values, who can handle a feeling as well as a thought, who hold others accountable, who can guide people through change, who can teach, and who can create meaning.

Only leaders who have a solid inner identity of vision, values, and purpose with integrity interwoven consistently throughout are qualified to lead in today’s world. These people can embrace anxiety and go forward despite fear. Less substantial leaders will falter and collapse under the pressures of constant change, faint courage, and an inner structure of weak convictions. The call is for us to be greater than was required in earlier times of our development.

Little in our culture encourages or supports the character development needed in perilous times. To bring forth a higher level of character in ourselves is not easy—it requires self-sacrifice and few will sacrifice. Such growth requires a conscious and committed choice—an authentic and courageous life—over conformity and a false sense of security. Those of us who realize that character is part of our essence will develop our character because we want to be all that we can be. We want to fulfill our potential and contribute to a great cause. No other motivation for change is necessary (although there are many). We will ask constantly: what is important to my character?

People of character also need a new worldview and new skills to be leaders today. New leaders embody talents and skills that are to be aspired to—not belittled as “touchy-feely.” New leaders grow to a deeper and broader awareness. They have finely honed intrapersonal and interpersonal skills, a greater maturity, and judgment tempered and developed through a lifetime of learning and experience, and an ecological view of the world that sees the interconnectedness of all life. New leaders model these qualities for all—leaders and followers—to emulate, and such leaders achieve fantastic results. This work, a lifetime endeavor, develops us as whole people and prepares us to lead sustainable organizations.

The world is in the midst of a massive transformation. The outcome is unknown and will be decided each moment by the choices of all. The choice of courage and freedom is a great virtue. Through our struggle, the tired, lonely, and discouraged will reach through the darkness and will change the world with faith that every life lived authentically contributes to the health of the whole.

No important change, personal or organizational, has ever been made without an existential crisis, without a willingness to wade through guilt, anxiety, and uncertainty. We ignore our dread of ostracism, and we risk loss. We have the power to act and with that power goes the responsibility to act. We put aside our fear, anxiety, and insecurity. Nothing guarantees the outcome when we choose freedom and authenticity. Often there is a price to pay and obstacles to overcome. Our choices for courage and authenticity are often made from the dark, cold, and lonely places of our souls where our greatest creativity always emerges.

A few years ago I read about George Fox who founded the Religious Society of Friends in England in the seventeenth century. Early in his ministry, Fox had an insight that led to his decision to depend almost wholly on his own reading of scripture and what God revealed to him directly rather than on the views of contemporary authorities: civil, military, scholarly, or ecclesiastical. Knowledge gained through his own experience and efforts guided Fox for the next forty years. Fox’s extraordinary leadership was credited to the gift of knowing experimentally. This ability in Fox allowed new meaning and a superior wisdom to emerge.

We need to coach and nurture this capability of knowing experimentally in today’s leaders. What is needed today is not more technical knowledge but strong, ethical, and courageous leaders who will raise moral standards in a time when much of leadership is corrupt and incompetent. These leaders will “know experimentally” what is right and will have the courage to follow that course through the chaos of the age. They will learn and adapt as they go forward. In my own small way I made that decision on that cold winter morning in 1974 when I choose to chart my own course in life. After that, future leadership decisions were simple. Each of us can make that same choice in our lives and in our leadership.

Mike O’Donnell of Ouray, Colorado guided blind Eric Weihenmayer to the top of Mount Everest last spring. At 27,000 feet Michael had to make a tough decision: should he stay behind to help the team’s photographer repair broken equipment and perhaps lose his chance to reach the summit or continue on with Weihenmayer, who Michael had been training with for a year? Michael does not leave others behind. He chose to help his teammate.

They fixed the equipment and continued on toward the summit. At 28,000 feet Michael ran out of oxygen. He had to choose between going down the mountain or continuing to the 29,000-foot summit, knowing that few who ran out of oxygen above 25,000 feet survived “the death zone.” Michael, drawing on his knowledge of himself and a lifetime’s experience as a climber, decided to continue to the summit. Each laborious step, without oxygen, was a journey in itself. Michael O’Donnell went through the wall and made it to the summit of Mount Everest on May 25, 2001.

In Latin the word mediocre means “halfway up the mountain.” Many of us and many organizations have settled for the illusion of safety and security halfway up our personal and organizational mountains. Often the last steps to the top of the mountains are the most difficult. When taken with courage and commitment they often lead to the greatest realization of our potential. Michael O’Donnell would tell you and me that if he can climb his mountain, you and I can climb ours.

Tom Heuerman is a writer, life coach, and organizational consultant who lives in the San Juan Mountains near Ridgway, Colorado. His essays on life, change, and leadership are available at www.amorenaturalway.com. He can be reached at tom@amorenaturalway.com.

 

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