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Courage, Authenticity and Leadership

Expressing your authentic self, in any or more aptly, in every situation, takes courage, vulnerability and self-compassion. In his book of essays, Consolations, The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning, David Whyte writes about courage - “To be courageous is to stay close to the way we are made.” In other words, letting their true self shine through is perhaps the most courageous and generous offer a leader can make to an organization and certainly the most important gift they can give to themselves. What Dr. Brene’ Brown calls leading and living wholeheartedly.

While this sounds great, how do we truly connect to this inner strength – courage - and turn it into action? Being courageous is truly terrifying! Getting closer to our authentic selves and creating space for that expression is an act of integrating our values and purpose with our work. It also puts us in a vulnerable, exposed place.

Many organizations fail to honor or practice the values of vulnerability and wholeheartedness, despite the latest research which shows that building a psychologically safe culture opens up opportunities for risk-taking and can lead to increased innovation and higher revenues. Studies also show that organizations that embrace their employees’ unique gifts, talents, and experiences have demonstrably greater engagement and talent retention rates. Cultures where employee engagement is not a priority can be difficult for leaders who are on the path toward values integration. While more and more organizations are adopting inclusive practices, other cultures can be entrenched and less movable. Even courageous leaders struggle with expressing their authentic selves in these environments. As greater awareness about the true nature of who we are and what we find most important in our lives emerges, existential questions can often follow, along with the imperative to make personal and professional changes. Values misalignment or dissonance can often result in leadership burnout and exhaustion and leaders may choose to take their talents elsewhere.

As David Whyte writes in his timeless book, Crossing the Unknown Sea, Work as a Pilgrimage of Identify,

“Finding work to which we can dedicate ourselves always calls for some kind of courage, some form of heartfelt participation. It needs courage because the intrinsic worth of work lies in the fact that it connects us to larger, fiercer worlds…”

He is describing spirituality or working for something greater than ourselves, like fighting hunger, providing water and medicine to victims of natural disasters. Literally and figuratively working at the “cliff’s edge – a frontier where passion, belonging, and need call for our presence, our powers, and our absolute commitment.” Of course, it is not possible or practical for every leader to become a relief worker, Peace Corps volunteer or nonprofit advocate, but having a meaningful relationship with work and a greater purpose certainly is.

My courageous path or “cliff’s edge” was to become a leadership coach. I experience great joy in helping my clients (and myself) access the courage to connect more deeply, discover the answers within, and ultimately lead happier more peaceful lives. Also, I do this work because it feeds something deep inside of me and helps me “stay close to the way [I] am made.”

Why is this courageous? Growing up in a lower middle-class family, where job security and the possibility of unemployment were a constant drumbeat, the safety of a monthly paycheck and a firm stake in the middle class helped me sleep at night. After working within organizations for over three decades, going it alone felt traumatic and almost reckless. Whyte states, “making our own path takes us off the path, in directions which seem profoundly unsafe.”

Over several months, and with the help of a leadership coach, my new awareness and clarity provoked a major career change. My decision to “fly without a net” has dramatically redefined my lifelong concept of work and what it can truly be. Staying focused on my purpose provides the stability and courage to stay on the “cliff’s edge” and not go over it.

Some questions to ponder:

What path are you on?

What about it feeds your spirit and sense of purpose?

What’s missing?

What courageous action are you willing to take to deepen your experience?

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