“What you are will show, ultimately. Start now, every day, becoming, in your actions, your regular actions, what you would like to become in the bigger scheme of things.”
— Anna Deavere Smith
As I was listening to the latest podcast with Jules Pieri, I was impressed by the way she embodied the values of her organization. Her leadership ethos reminded me of a company in Boulder I’ve admired for years. When I heard her reflecting on the specific practices she established within her organization that keep people connected to each other in ways that matter, I was also reminded of times I’ve seen similar practices fall short at other organizations. What really hit home was this: it’s not what you do but who you are that makes you a great leader.
The art of leading well isn’t learned from a playbook or gleaned from a checklist of things to do. Having a keg in the office, or “casual Friday,” does not make a great culture. Yes, there are things a leader needs to do. But if you’re not embodying the values behind the task, you’ll miss the point. Leadership is a process of becoming, and as such, good leadership demands plenty of room for reflection.
Leadership happens when you step fully into yourself, claim who you are and take your seat in your company (no matter what your role) and your life. As Jerry once wrote, what burns true in the heart of leadership is a steady, consistent wisdom: the wisdom of knowing yourself and your own beliefs as well as living them.
I’m reminded of this fragment of Rilke’s, which pairs so well with entrepreneurs working to make a difference, to change the world in their own way, with and within their organizations:
“Again and again some people in the crowd wake up./They have no ground in the crowd and they emerge according to broader laws./They carry strange customs with them, and demand room for bold gestures./The future speaks ruthlessly through them.”
Naturally, leadership looks different for everyone. To “take your seat” is to drop into the truth of who you are and take a fresh look at what’s in front of you from a vantage point free of your usual fears and clouding judgements. It’s taking hold of your birthright, your inherent wholeness. It’s being fierce, wise, compassionate, honest with yourself and acting with integrity.
I witness leaders take their seat when they speak about what they want from a place connected to who they are, in which they trust what they know inside themselves. That happens in moments when someone shifts from asking questions cloaked in an externalized and coolly composed generalization (which sounds like “But what do you do when [insert predicament here]?”) to asking the question of themselves in the first person (“What do I do in this situation?” which naturally moves to “Who do I want to be in this situation?”). What comes is an answer from within–an answer no one else could have given them.
Lao Tzu wrote these lines, which speak to this so perfectly:
“Always we hope someone else has the answer, some other place will be better, some other time it will all turn out./ This is it; no one else has the answer, no other place will be better, and it has already turned out./ At the center of your being, you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want. /There is no need to run outside for better seeing./ Nor to peer from a window. /Rather abide at the center of your being; for the more you leave it, the less you learn./ Search your heart and see/ the way to do is to be.”
Knowing yourself enough to arrive at, return to and resource yourself from the center of your being is at the heart of leading from love. “Most people think of love as a feeling,” says David Richo, “but love is not so much a feeling as a way of being present.” That way of being present allows love to be an embodied value that can weave itself throughout an organization in ways that matter. As John O’Donohue writes, “If you do the work you do from a loving heart, you will always make something beautiful.”
Taking your seat roots you into the process of becoming. This process is a loop of being and doing and reflection on what’s working, what’s not, what do you want and who do you need to be to create that. New ways of being will lead to new doings.
Ask yourself: What kind of company do you want to work for? What kind of company would you like your kids to work for? What do you value? More importantly, what are your values in action? How will you know when you are fully embodying your values? Who are you as that leader: what are you thinking, being, and doing? Who are you in the process of becoming?