Last Friday, the results of my PET scan revealed that the three metastases in my lungs and the one in my liver are gone. Gone! Nivolumab administered intravenously every two weeks seems to be working.
My loved ones are breathing a sigh of relief. But it’s funny that my feeling isn’t, “Oh, good. I’m not going to die,” (After all, I am going to die, right?) I’m just feeling alive. My motivation to get back to leading a life has returned, and it’s all about creating great moments with other people.
Leading a life. Leadership, hmmm. That word is heard in so many different ways, that we have lost what it is really all about. “What is great leadership, anyway?”
A few years ago, when I was asked this question at a conference, a 15-month-old popped to mind, and I found myself telling a story about a moment when my wife Victoria and I were waiting in Los Angeles Airport for a flight to San Francisco.
We had just been told that our flight would be delayed. As we grumped into our seats that looked across the concourse at gate 70A to wait, a family of four caught our attention on the other side of the concourse. A woman with a 15-month-old on her hip stood calmly with her husband while their toddler son attacked his stroller in a rage.
We watched this painful scene in empathic agony for a while. Then Victoria said, “Look! A couple of your clients.”
I smiled at her joke, but as I kept watching this family in pain, my face changed. I got an inkling. “Hmmm. A couple of my clients,” I said to myself. I watched a little longer, and then, taking a small risk, I got off my seat, walked across the concourse and went up to them with no idea of what I would say. As I got within smiling distance, I smiled. When I was in speaking distance these words popped out of my mouth: “I just want you to know how impressed I am with how well you are handling this difficult situation.”
The parents smiled, relaxed, and we started talking about kids as the two-year-old continued to rage on. While we talked, the mother put her daughter onto the terrazzo floor of the concourse. Barely able to walk, this little sister walked over to her big, raging brother and gave him a hug. He hugged her back, stopped raging and peace reigned again at gate 70A in LAX.
As I told the story, I realized it was a story about a great moment, not a great person. Victoria had exercised leadership by saying: “Look a couple of your clients.” I took leadership by deciding to do something—I didn’t know what. The mother exercised leadership by releasing her daughter, who showed up as the hero of the scene. It’s as if that 15-month-old had been sitting on her mother’s hip saying, “Put me in, coach. I know how to handle this situation.” Her actions changed the emotions of her big brother making him relax, harmonize with the community, bring peace back to gate 70A. And we shouldn’t ignore the father. He exercised leadership by standing calmly, doing nothing, just being there. Sometimes, the best leadership is bearing witness to leadership in others. Each of us defined ourselves to the situation in our own way and our leadership created the conditions for bringing out the leadership in each other. Yes, Carl Jung, there is a cosmic unconscious.
Herd animals that we are, humans have a propensity to look for alpha individuals as exemplars of leadership, people who can be counted on to keep us safe and victorious. But looking for leaders to emulate is a distraction from the real work of life.
Leadership is not limited to a few special people, or a certain kind of person, or the position a person holds in an organization. Leadership doesn’t have to be a big deal. The last thing leadership is, is an ego trip. If leaders are “lonely at the top,” they are not doing it right. Leadership is available to each of us at every moment of our lives. Leadership is defining yourself to the situation.
Leadership is a matter of (1) getting together with others, (2) thinking creatively, and (3) creating something new that is beautiful, truthful and graceful. We miss our leadership opportunities, when we get seduced by feeling lonely, bored and useless. We have a natural obsession with Self, but the solitary self is a fiction we fabricate. I, actually, am my relationships. Secondly, our brains, a composite of past experiences, forget that we are also blessed with imagination. Finally, we are prone to allow ourselves to be defined by our social context, the culture of our group.
DEFINING YOURSELF to the SITUATION IS a MATTER of ACCESSING YOUR GENIUS
Leadership is practicing the disciplines of liberating our brains from these natural tendencies, bringing our whole selves to the table, and creating something new. Defining ourselves to the situation is a matter of accessing our genius, our muse, the voice of our character, the origin of our integrity. Following it where it leads can sometimes feel a little scary, but have faith; it works. Others are looking for opportunities to create moments of beauty, too.
My wife the playwrite-actress has taught me that every moment of our lives is an opportunity for us to work on our lines. It’s a great focus for the continuing project of defining ourselves to situations in creative ways that bring out the leadership in others.
In the last few months as I was taking a drug that would help my T-cells get rid of the melanoma cells that were compromising my integrity, it became more obvious to me than ever that there are only three serious diseases: loneliness, boredom and uselessness, and that the cure for them is the triple threat: collaboration, creation and contribution.