4:00 a.m. I walked through the dark, cold, and lonely maze of
more than 100 apartment buildings. I would go in the front door,
throw a couple of newspapers in front of apartment doors, and
go out the back door. It was 1974, I was 29 years old, and I delivered
newspapers seven mornings a week. A year out of treatment for
alcoholism, I found life difficult as I sought to pursue a new
attended AA meetings and a weekly growth group at St. Mary’s hospital
in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Many people there shared well-intended
advice with me but I was confused and befuddled as I tried to
sort out the conflicting voices. The more I listened to others,
the worse things became. I worked hard on my sobriety, but the
rest of my life fell apart. My marriage was strained, jobs scarce,
bills stacked up, and this honorable work was difficult and paid
little. I felt discouraged and scared about where my life was
going. Sobriety was not what this former special agent in the
United States Secret Service expected it to be.
did not trust my own perceptions of life after experiencing the
denial and blaming of alcoholism. My confidence in myself was
shaken. I felt reluctant to break away from the advice of those
sober longer than I. But I had to do something. On that dreary
winter morning I decided that I would make my own choices in life
from that moment forward. I had little to lose. If I failed at
life, the failure would be mine alone.
that day forward, I focused and went through my fear and made
my own choices for my life instead of doing what others or society
expected of me. I quit the growth group and switched to a different—non
AA—12-Step group. Those I walked away from predicted my return
to alcohol in short order. I have now been sober for 27 years
(knock on wood). Twenty years later, near the top of the company
I delivered newspapers for and more successful than the organization
could handle, I walked away from the corporate world rather than
conform to pressures to be less than my best. Eight years later,
I continue to make choices that go against expectations. Fear
is a frequent companion but so are my resolve and passion to live
an authentic life. I didn’t invent these ideas. Aristotle believed
that courage is the first of the human virtues, because courage
makes the other virtues possible. Philosopher and author Peter
Koestenbaum said courage begins with the decision to face the
ultimate truth about existence: we are free to define ourselves
at every moment. We are what we choose to be from the depth of
May differed from Aristotle and wrote that freedom, not courage,
is the mother of all values. All other values are dependent on
freedom. Freedom is possibility. Freedom engages our destiny in
our day-to-day choices. Freedom is essential to human dignity.
Freedom is authenticity. Inner personal freedom underlies our
political freedom. When we give up our inner freedom, we lose
our autonomy and self-direction—the qualities that distinguish
us from robots and computers. If we give up our inner freedom,
we ultimately give up our political freedom.
be courageous and to exercise our freedom fully is difficult.
None of us is authentic completely—we are imperfect and many pressures
to conform confront us daily. Our defenses protect us from the
anxiety that comes with freedom and authenticity. We often limit
ourselves in order to control the anxiety we feel. In the process,
we lower our visions and shut down our creativity. Many, like
the robots and walking dead in organizations, live marginally.
Many choose mediocrity in exchange for the illusion of security.
and courage have become important topics of conversation since
the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001.
We see our freedoms threatened by terrorist attacks, intrusive
security measures, and new laws to help law enforcement combat
the terrorists (beware of those who would protect your freedom).
The anxiety provokers—media, politicians, and armchair generals—increase
our level of fear. Fear corrodes our freedom to be. Fear confuses
our thoughts, clouds our decisions, and impedes normal life. Fear
blocks hope. With all the outside threats, we—you and I—remain,
as always, the greatest threat to our own freedom. Now is the
time to rediscover what freedom means for each of us.
Palmer wrote that people who find the courage to stop living divided
lives do so when they come to understand that no terror or punishment
anyone might inflict on them could possibly be worse than the
punishment they inflict on themselves by conspiring in their own
diminishment. Anxiety and freedom go together. One is not present
without the other. Anxiety accompanies the move into possibility.
We have to accept fear and go through it.
organizations and institutions are not bastions of freedom. We
lived in a fear-based society long before the terrorist attacks
of September 11, 2001. What lies beneath our conformity in organizations,
our compliance with injustice, and our failure to bear witness
for others in our organizations, if not fear? What determines
our choices to stay in bad relationships, to pursue material things
mindlessly, and to be unable to make important decisions, if not
fear? Why do we settle for mediocrity, if not for fear? Why do
we not hold people accountable, if not for fear? Why do we not
use new knowledge in our leadership, if not for fear? Why are
we inauthentic and only a fraction of what we might be, if not
for fear? The terrorist attacks simply gave us another opportunity
to be victims, another chance to claim powerlessness, and another
excuse to participate in our own diminishment. They also gave
us the choice to say “NO MORE.”
as people and as leaders, are free when we make our own authentic
choices (including our mistakes) in life and move toward our inherent
potential. We can, if we want to, choose to live courage-based
lives in all we do just as we can choose to be victims, helpless,
and powerless. We can choose to lead as we move into chaos, or
we can choose to cling fearfully to what worked in the past. We
can choose to be alive, and we can choose to be soul dead. Each
of us is responsible to choose for ourselves. The same is true
for our organizations and our institutions.
can use the powerful blow of terrorism to jolt us from the mediocrity
so common in many organizations and institutions. We can turn
the misfortune of tragedy and economic decline into new resolve
and new learning and development for each of us. We can look this
tragedy in the eye and use the loss to move us to our proudest
efforts, our most profound sensitivity, and our brightest creative
can focus our fear, take action to go through it, and become better
in the process. We can choose to respond to recession and create
courage-based organizations that embrace change, honor diversity,
and value responsibility and accountability in pursuit of a sustainable
future. We can also choose to live in fear, remain mediocre, withdraw
defensively, demand conformity, and reward irresponsibility as
we accept the inevitable demise of the enterprise. Each organization
is responsible to make this choice for itself.
we claim our freedom, we commit to live our purpose in life—as
people and as organizations. We can think of 9/11 as a call for
self-examination, for each of us as well as for our organizations
and our society, to find and renew our sense of purpose (why we
are here). As we purge from our souls the potential for evil in
our lives, we begin to see anxiety-creating situations as opportunities
to develop our souls, spirits, and selves. We engage, confront,
cooperate with, and challenge our highest potential. We become
Abraham Maslow’s good person: aware, responsible, and self-evolving.
times in which we live—chaotic, creative, uncertain, dangerous—call
for leaders who hold themselves consistently to a higher standard
of values, thought, and behavior than ever before. Why would I
follow a person not worthy of trust and confidence into the unknown?
Character is the externalization of all that we are within—our
intellectual and moral texture. Character is the constant in the
midst of uncertainty—interwoven in all that we do. Mindful people
trust, believe, and follow people of character.
call is for courageous and authentic leaders who put the well-being
of all, including future generations, ahead of self-interest,
who can set a sustainable direction, who live their values, who
can handle a feeling as well as a thought, who hold others accountable,
who can guide people through change, who can teach, and who can
leaders who have a solid inner identity of vision, values, and
purpose with integrity interwoven consistently throughout are
qualified to lead in today’s world. These people can embrace anxiety
and go forward despite fear. Less substantial leaders will falter
and collapse under the pressures of constant change, faint courage,
and an inner structure of weak convictions. The call is for us
to be greater than was required in earlier times of our development.
in our culture encourages or supports the character development
needed in perilous times. To bring forth a higher level of character
in ourselves is not easy—it requires self-sacrifice and few will
sacrifice. Such growth requires a conscious and committed choice—an
authentic and courageous life—over conformity and a false sense
of security. Those of us who realize that character is part of
our essence will develop our character because we want to be all
that we can be. We want to fulfill our potential and contribute
to a great cause. No other motivation for change is necessary
(although there are many). We will ask constantly: what is important
to my character?
of character also need a new worldview and new skills to be leaders
today. New leaders embody talents and skills that are to be aspired
to—not belittled as “touchy-feely.” New leaders grow to a deeper
and broader awareness. They have finely honed intrapersonal and
interpersonal skills, a greater maturity, and judgment tempered
and developed through a lifetime of learning and experience, and
an ecological view of the world that sees the interconnectedness
of all life. New leaders model these qualities for all—leaders
and followers—to emulate, and such leaders achieve fantastic results.
This work, a lifetime endeavor, develops us as whole people and
prepares us to lead sustainable organizations.
world is in the midst of a massive transformation. The outcome
is unknown and will be decided each moment by the choices of all.
The choice of courage and freedom is a great virtue. Through our
struggle, the tired, lonely, and discouraged will reach through
the darkness and will change the world with faith that every life
lived authentically contributes to the health of the whole.
important change, personal or organizational, has ever been made
without an existential crisis, without a willingness to wade through
guilt, anxiety, and uncertainty. We ignore our dread of ostracism,
and we risk loss. We have the power to act and with that power
goes the responsibility to act. We put aside our fear, anxiety,
and insecurity. Nothing guarantees the outcome when we choose
freedom and authenticity. Often there is a price to pay and obstacles
to overcome. Our choices for courage and authenticity are often
made from the dark, cold, and lonely places of our souls where
our greatest creativity always emerges.
few years ago I read about George Fox who founded the Religious
Society of Friends in England in the seventeenth century. Early
in his ministry, Fox had an insight that led to his decision to
depend almost wholly on his own reading of scripture and what
God revealed to him directly rather than on the views of contemporary
authorities: civil, military, scholarly, or ecclesiastical. Knowledge
gained through his own experience and efforts guided Fox for the
next forty years. Fox’s extraordinary leadership was credited
to the gift of knowing experimentally. This ability in
Fox allowed new meaning and a superior wisdom to emerge.
need to coach and nurture this capability of knowing experimentally
in today’s leaders. What is needed today is not more technical
knowledge but strong, ethical, and courageous leaders who will
raise moral standards in a time when much of leadership is corrupt
and incompetent. These leaders will “know experimentally” what
is right and will have the courage to follow that course through
the chaos of the age. They will learn and adapt as they go forward.
In my own small way I made that decision on that cold winter morning
in 1974 when I choose to chart my own course in life. After that,
future leadership decisions were simple. Each of us can make that
same choice in our lives and in our leadership.
O’Donnell of Ouray, Colorado guided blind Eric Weihenmayer to
the top of Mount Everest last spring. At 27,000 feet Michael had
to make a tough decision: should he stay behind to help the team’s
photographer repair broken equipment and perhaps lose his chance
to reach the summit or continue on with Weihenmayer, who Michael
had been training with for a year? Michael does not leave others
behind. He chose to help his teammate.
fixed the equipment and continued on toward the summit. At 28,000
feet Michael ran out of oxygen. He had to choose between going
down the mountain or continuing to the 29,000-foot summit, knowing
that few who ran out of oxygen above 25,000 feet survived “the
death zone.” Michael, drawing on his knowledge of himself and
a lifetime’s experience as a climber, decided to continue to the
summit. Each laborious step, without oxygen, was a journey in
itself. Michael O’Donnell went through the wall and made it to
the summit of Mount Everest on May 25, 2001.
Latin the word mediocre means “halfway up the mountain.” Many
of us and many organizations have settled for the illusion of
safety and security halfway up our personal and organizational
mountains. Often the last steps to the top of the mountains are
the most difficult. When taken with courage and commitment they
often lead to the greatest realization of our potential. Michael
O’Donnell would tell you and me that if he can climb his mountain,
you and I can climb ours.
Heuerman is a writer, life coach, and organizational consultant
who lives in the San Juan Mountains near Ridgway, Colorado. His
essays on life, change, and leadership are available at www.amorenaturalway.com.
He can be reached at email@example.com.
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