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Being Brave

“Only to the degree that we’ve gotten to know our personal pain, only to the degree that we’ve related with pain at all, will we be fearless enough, brave enough, and enough of a warrior to be willing to feel the pain of others. To that degree we will be able to take on the pain of others because we will have discovered that their pain and our own pain are no different.”–Pema Chodron, Start Where You Are.

What does it mean to be brave?

And, perhaps even more relevant, what does it mean to lead bravely?

In one sense, of course, it means facing your fears, whether of failure of the enterprise or of your own efforts to create love, safety, and belonging within your life and your organization. And, of course, it also means feeling such fears, and as has been said so often, doing “it” anyway. The literature on leadership abounds with exhortations to be brave.

But in a time when so much of the world is rife with suffering, when the center seems far from holding, being brave–or more explicitly, leading bravely–also means standing up for what’s right, even if it puts the enterprise or your own safety in jeopardy. In times such as these, when everything might seem to be falling apart, being brave means being the center upon which things can hold; hold, and stand.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold…
…The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

–William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming

Brave leadership, then, means holding to the center of your convictions and stepping mindfully around outrage and the passionate intensity that often passes for discussion or analysis. Being brave means being convicted in one’s passionate embrace of ethics and morality.

Leading in this way, says my friend and fellow coach, David McQueen in his new book, The Brave Leader, provides “the grounding for the kinds of sense-making, decision-making, strategic thinking and actions that drive inclusive leadership.” Meaning that is made in this tells those whom we are privileged to lead, “This is who we are. This is what we believe in,” and further, “This behavior–whether in the world or amongst our community–is unacceptable.”

The sense- and meaning-making that follows such conviction, he says, is built upon the five pillars that transforms the word brave from adjective into action; action and acronym: Bold, Resilient, Agile, Visionary, and Ethical. This model is not a linear five-part thing that should tick off a list, but a set of prompts to focus the mind, remember what matters, and find a center that will hold.

“It involves,” he writes further “making sense of the world around you, making decisions, providing direction, and motivating individuals or teams to work together toward a shared vision.”

In this week’s episode of our podcast, David imagines a leader, a reader, saying, “I may not have all the answers right now, but how do I make sense of the world around me?”

Once a leader starts making sense of the world around them, saying things such as, “Here’s my reason why. This is why we’re going down this route. This is why we’re doing this, for good or for bad, the one who holds power then creates the ground for an inclusive leadership that invites all to be brave.  And that sense-making piece is critical and I talk about it later in the book, as to how we make decisions. We don’t understand it and if we can’t make sense of it, how can we make decisions that we can really stand by? And that was the essence behind it.

What does it mean for you to be brave? What do you have to face, either within yourself or in the environment in which you live and lead, in order to be brave? Do ethics and inclusivity fit your definition of bravery? And, in a broadened twist on the classic Reboot question, how might it benefit you to resist being brave?

David’s notion of brave leadership, and its focus on meaning-making and ethics, reminds me of the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön and her advice on understanding bravery. “Only to the degree that we’ve gotten to know our personal pain,” she wrote, “only to the degree that we’ve related with pain at all, will we be fearless enough, brave enough, and enough of a warrior to be willing to feel the pain of others.” 

Part of the ethics of brave and inclusive leadership, then, is the ability to be willing to feel the pain of others.

I know you struggle each day…whether it’s to keep your company alive or to be the leader and adult you’d like to be, you were born to be. And I know that when the world feels like an overwhelming dumpster fire, with outrages to the left as well as to the right, with what can feel like either fiscal oblivion or existential annihilation or both, it can seem too much also be called to be brave, in just the way David calls us each to be.

I know because I feel it as well; my experience mirrors yours. “Your story,” as I like to say, “is my story.”

One evening, at one of our twice-monthly dharma talks/video call meditation sessions, I shared with my teacher Sharon Salzberg how I was feeling about being out in the world, talking about the pain of divisiveness and dehumanization. Speaking of what it feels like to be sparking deep conversations on the nature of inclusivity and belonging in a world wrecked by dehumanizing hate and war, I shared the pain of trying to hold to the Buddhist notion of bodhichitta–open, awakened heart. This despite war, deprivation, and the constancy of dehumanization.

“Bodhichitta hurts so much, Sharon,” I said to my teacher of nearly 20 years. Opening oneself to the demands of brave leadership hurts. In that move, in that notion of leadership that expands beyond a focus on outcome or output and into the larger dialogue of what ails the world, we place ourselves in a center that is held together by the mirroring experiences of each others’ suffering. We ward off the fear, we become brave, by seeing ourselves in each others’ stories.

Despite the pain, I wouldn’t want it any other way for this type of bravery is soul-affirming. Soul affirmation showing up in further proof of my humanity. I hurt precisely because I am human. Ethics, empathy, and courage provide far more return on investment than one can possibly imagine.

Being brave, especially in these times, not only creates a center that can hold, that will hold, but can affirm our role in the greater community–the community that extends the meat sack of us and out into the larger world.


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