A Hassidic story tells of a rabbi Zusha who summons his students on his deathbed and tells them that when he gets to the other side, he won’t be judged for not being a good Moses; he will only be judged for not being a good Zusha.
This story captures, for me, one of the most challenging tasks of supporting people in stepping into and developing their leadership. Time and time again, I have found people comparing themselves to me, or to some other admired leader, and giving up on themselves and the path because they don’t “measure up.” Each time, I come back to the basic truth that the only leader any of us can be is based on who we each are. As we step into leadership, we are called to lead with our strengths and compensate for our weaknesses.
This truth, for me, has been both a relief and an exacting discipline. It requires a profound shift in our relationship with ourselves: from judging to observing ourselves, from minimizing to celebrating our strengths, from criticizing to tenderly accepting our limitations, from motivating ourselves with “shoulds” to connecting with purpose and choice about creating change within ourselves, and from hiding to asking for support regarding our challenges.
Each of these shifts challenges the patriarchal legacy and upbringing that almost all of us have grown up with, transcending shame, fear, and the perpetual doubt that we matter. This approach asserts, boldly and loudly, that we do matter, whoever we are.
Engaging in Self-Observation
Many years ago, at a reception, I reached for a second cookie. Quite immediately, a self-judgment emerged. It didn’t interfere one bit with eating the next cookie, or the next one. I became fascinated by the experience, because I realized, viscerally, that the judgment was actually a distraction. It prevented me from truly observing myself and taking in my choice to reach for the cookie despite my general commitment not to eat cookies.
The idea that self-judgment is a distraction from self-observation took root, and new doors began opening. I recognized the love and honesty that self-observation rests on, and the freedom it creates. Instead of evaluating each thing I discover as good or bad – the legacy of patriarchal training – I simply note, feel, and then reach for choice about what I want to do; aiming for no attachment, no arrogance, no criticism, and when they do show up, aiming to fold them into the process. What I find inside simply is. And it’s totally part of me, who I am, how I show up, what I have absorbed and internalized through my living in the world.
This capacity is the foundation of being able to gently assess ourselves and make choices about our leadership. It allows us to look more clearly at where we can begin to act, and what to do with the rest.
Seeing the Beauty of Who We Are
Also of critical importance in stepping more fully into leadership is accurately naming all our strengths: the qualities, gifts, privileges, connections, or skills we have. I learned a tremendous amount about this from my sister Arnina. Recently, in an email to a group we are both part of, she wrote the following after expressing enjoyment in the beauty of an accomplishment of hers:
Please be with me in what might seem arrogant, but is actually humble… a few years ago I realized that I can enjoy myself or things that are “me” or “mine” with the same pleasure that I would if it were other people. And the simple reason for that is that I did not create me nor these aspects of this “me”. So I can enjoy them with the same joy or awe which I would feel if it were not “me”, and even be profoundly grateful for the fact that I happen to have been given them as gifts.
Developing this particular version of humility, the true dis-identification with our strengths and, from that, the ability to enjoy them, can then become fuel for our leadership as well as clarity about what to call on when we embrace leadership, when we plan our actions, when we choose how to respond in a moment of challenge. These are the baseline qualities that we will lean into and build our leadership around.
I learned about this also in the early 90s, when I was, for a short time, exposed to an esoteric form of Jewish meditation in which, at one point, the focus is on noticing that we are a “divine luminary.” The teacher of that meditation made it abundantly clear that, for the most part, we cannot focus in this way without getting instantly lost in the pleasure of it, in the attachment to being that way, and thus disappearing from consciousness and choice. In that version of the practice, the instruction is then to go back to the step zero of the meditation, which is about focusing on the purpose of the meditation: to align ourselves with bringing good to the world, what that system refers to as “God’s will.” Although for me, a non-theist, this term itself is quite meaningless, I completely recognize within it the same quality that Arnina brought to it: the quality, the pleasure in the quality, is in the service to life, not for private consumption. The more we dedicate our strengths to serving life, the more pleasure we can enjoy without getting lost.
One last thing before shifting focus to engaging with our limitations. As one participant in a class reminded me recently, not all of our gifts are fully embraced by the dominant culture. For example, as a woman, in most cultures, certain aspects of my strength, my directness, my willingness to speak my truth and ask for what I want, are decidedly not welcome. To even see them as gifts takes work. As that participant said, sometimes we need to mourn the cultural challenges before we can fully relish who we are.
Accepting Our Limitations with Tenderness
Mourning is also the quality I most want to be able to bring towards my own limitations. I personally grew up with an unending barrage of criticism about almost everything about me except my intelligence. The primary agent of this criticism was my father, and it never ended there. Until I was 23, I don’t recall a single person who ever gave me the basic message that it was simply OK to be who I was.This set me on a course that meant being in constant struggle with myself and the world. Even after decades of significant work that has landed me in a place of grace and full self-acceptance, I still often brace myself when anyone wants to give me feedback, before I know what they are about to say, and before I can breathe fully and remember the fullness and the glory of just being alive, human, willing, open, in choice, receptive, in collaboration with all of life from exactly where I am.
Freedom, the kind of freedom that I most long for all of us to have, emerges from radical self-acceptance, from tenderness for the reality that, through being born who I am, and through so many life circumstances, I am never going to act 100% in line with who I wish to be. It’s freedom from the incessant inner chatter that is the internalization of patriarchal training: the endless message that there is something wrong with us, that we need to constantly be editing ourselves and working hard to be someone else.
Self-acceptance is letting go of the perpetual drive to work on ourselves and resting in who we are, exactly there. Then we can more fully and kindly apply the tools of discernment that come with self-observation to see: what is just there, unchangeable? What are aspects of myself I truly want to engage in transforming? What is simply beyond what I can or want to take on in this lifetime, or at least for a while?
Whether through physiology or because of cumulative experience, some things simply won’t change. For example, I won’t have a better memory than I do, not at 62 with an early menopause at 41 due to chemotherapy. It just won’t happen. I can mourn it, especially the way that it affects other people sometimes, and, even more painfully, the way that people still sometimes take it personally when I forget something of theirs. Mourning our limitations releases any guilt or shame we might have about them, and brings us closer to full acceptance.
This acceptance is even harder when the limitation in question can be changed, at least in principle. It took me many years to reach that kind of acceptance in principle, and I still need to remind myself each time freshly of this choice. And, within our current cultural climate, naming and asserting the choice to let go of “working on myself,” despite ongoing challenges with some people, has not been only positive. It takes courage to accept, in addition to my limitations, also the way that others will perceive and respond to me. I lost one more friendship in the last year, fueled, in part by such an assertion which I made publicly in a piece called Staying Open to Life Despite Losses. Nothing simple about being ourselves without hiding truth.
Creating Clear and Doable Goals for Ourselves
Whether or not we ever decide to end what I have called the “self-improvement project,” interdependence fundamentally means, among other things, that we continue to bump into people and life and receive explicit and implicit feedback from our surroundings. As far as I can tell, if we listen carefully to the feedback, it’s likely to always be more than we can fully and self-caringly integrate. There will always be choice to make about what we prioritize working on, and what we let go of aiming to change and add to the pile of those things we mourn and accept.
How, then, do we choose?
If the ground of the choice is my capacity to lead, to take responsibility for the whole, to live nonviolently, to engage interdependently with life, to serve – which are all highly overlapping categories for me – then this commitment can serve to build the criteria I use for the choice.
I personally choose based on purpose and based on values. When I receive feedback, I check with myself to see whether taking on the discipline of creating practices for self-transformation based on the feedback would contribute to my purpose (in life or in a specific context), and whether or not it would increase my capacity to live in line with my values.
I cannot and don’t even have the aspiration to become perfect. I want to be fully free from the constant stress of “working on myself.” And I want to develop a self-loving discipline to work on whatever I do choose to work on rather than the harsh motivation that comes from should, fear, shame, desire for reward, or even habits of attachment to perfection.
That discipline includes both mourning the effects of my current actions and compassion for the choices I am making, and only then aiming to find new ways of acting that attend both to the needs that my current actions meet and to those that my current actions don’t meet. A tall order, no doubt. The post I wrote a few years ago about intention and effect might provide some tips for this work, and the section on practices in my book Spinning Threads of Radical Aliveness might offer inspiration for how you can integrate new behaviors into your daily living.
Asking for Support to Lead Effectively
In the end, whether we work on changing things or not, we are always going to be a mix of strengths and challenges. So many of us make the mistake of waiting for perfection before embarking on any act of leadership. If ever there was the luxury of that waiting, in our current climate, in both senses of the word, I passionately call on all of us to change that habit and to step into an active engagement with life around us, beyond just ourselves and our loved ones. We are all needed for the immense task of reversing the unconscious march towards extinction we’ve been on since the dawn of patriarchy and which has been accelerating in the last decades.
How, then, can we step into leadership when we are still, all of us, so far from whatever perfect ideal of leadership we might have?
I return to the simple frame I started with: lead with our strengths and compensate for our challenges. Compensating for our challenges is something we can only do by going against the ethos of self-sufficiency that is keeping us so isolated from each other and is, itself, part of the modern version of the patriarchal legacy, affecting both men and women, even if differently.
Compensating means setting up support structures. Some of them look like systems that we can access ourselves. For me, with my memory problems, it means setting up systems with reminders, for example. Most of the compensation, though, I believe requires the support of living human beings, not technology. For me, this means asking others for support in remembering to do things.
It also means having active, ongoing support of other humans who can sustain us when we crumble or collapse, offer empathy, coaching, advice, and material aid, and be reminders of our intrinsic human worth when we doubt it. I have written about the support structure that I have, boldly seeking to disclose just how difficult it is to lead against the grain, and how much support is vitally necessary when the entire dominant culture is set up in a different way from the simple path of caring for needs.
It’s time to recognize, more seriously, how much aversion to life, and therefore to needs, exists in the culture at large. I recently received this quote from Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s book that is a core part of the libertarian right-wing ethos that is ruling the US, and threatening the rest of our world. I share it here so we know what we are facing:
A morality that holds need as a claim, holds emptiness – non-existence – as its standard of value; it rewards an absence, a defect: weakness, inability, incompetence, suffering, disease, disaster, the lack, the fault, the flaw – the zero. (from Part 3, Chapter 7, Page 1,032)
More than anything, then, leadership in our times means embracing the willingness to ask for what we need in order to serve as well as we know how. This is the strongest stand we can take against the fundamental move that was the establishment of patriarchy: a rejection of the irreducible vulnerability and dependence that is the source of the aversion to needs, to life, to nature. This is, precisely, why the path of embracing vulnerability and humility is so central to melting away the attachment to control with love.
Image Credits:allCC by 2.0. Top: Photo by John Hain, Pixabay. Second: unknown author, pxhere.com. Third: Self Reflection by Alisha Vollkommery, Pixabay. Bottom:Moving a Big Rock by Parvati River, Flickr.