I looked down among the leaves and twigs of the forest floor searching for some ineffable truth that would rid me of the anxiety that washed through me. As I often do when I’m nervous, I escape to the woods. It was a Friday afternoon in October, just an hour before I was to lead 50 men on a ‘Wild at Heart’ retreat. I knew I had to give my all this weekend. Talking with men about being men cannot be faked. I had awoken that morning feeling confident and optimistic, but as the day wore on, feelings of doubt grew in my heart. “Who am I to lead a group of men like this? Who do I think I am? What if I make a fool of myself?” These fears grew in me as the retreat approached.
I was prepared. I had done this before, but my sense of unease would not leave me. I stood up, said a quick prayer, and walked across a field to the kitchen door the retreat centre. I could hear men talking in the next room. There, preparing a pot of coffee was Brian, a man who knew me well. His presence calmed me and I walked up to him and said, “I need your help. I’m so nervous.” He smiled, put a hand on my shoulder, and said, “Pat, I know you can do this – and you know you can do this. These men need your passion, your enthusiasm, and your love. You’ll be great.”
My greatest lesson of leadership is one of overcoming my own reluctance to be a leader. For me, being a leader is about being my authentic self. It is about stepping out of my comfort zone and into my greatest gifts. It is certainly about risking failure, yet ironically, it is also about risking being great. I don’t know why I fear being more than I allow myself to be, but I certainly don’t think I’m alone with it. Perhaps, it is an ego defense; I want to keep things as they are. It could be some primal fear of change – of death maybe. Its origin is not really important, but it is important to know it’s there.
Searching for the courage to lead is an act of stepping out of my smallness and into the realm of my greater self. I know too well those voices of doubt and fear. They have held me back for years. I also know that I am called to be more than I allow myself to be. I don’t write this boastfully, for I am daunted by the challenge of overcoming my own mediocrity. The feelings of doubt impel my heart to run from challenge of great leadership.
The question, then, is how do I – how do we – find the courage to step into our greatness as leaders? I believe first and foremost, that leadership must be an act of love. It is in giving ourselves away to others, in love, that we become our most authentic selves and our best selves as leaders. Miraculously, in giving ourselves away, we give permission to others to be themselves, also. This is the greatest gift of leadership, for our world needs desperately for everyone to be great, gifted, and talented.
Leadership, then, must come from humility. A leader who has not honed his or her expertise and given birth to it through the blood, sweat, and tears of discouragement and failure, has not truly been prepared for the weight of leadership. A leader understands the faults and the vulnerabilities of others, yet calls out others to their own greatness.
When it was time for the retreat to begin, I took a deep breath, looked into the eyes of the men before me, smiled. Within minutes, the anxiety that had plagued me dissolved, the words flowed from my mouth, and a spirit of communion filled the room. I could see in their eyes and on their faces that they were receiving the encouragement I so desired to give them. And in giving to the men the love they needed, I received from them the very same thing.