Lessons in Leadership

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.

Categories Blog Post | Tags: , , , , | Posted on April 16, 2011

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  1. by Marg

    On April 16, 2011

    One has to overcome ones fears to become great but sometimes one does not become great.
    It is in the trying that counts.
    Humility is necessary.

  2. by Patrick O'Connor

    On April 16, 2011

    When I use the word ‘great’ I do not mean great as the world defines it. There are many acts of greatness, done by great people, that are never seen by others.

  3. by Tim

    On April 17, 2011

    Great blog Pat. To live large, I have to overcome my natural inclination to be small. Like most things, once I break through my fear, it feels damn good.

  4. by Yvonne

    On April 18, 2011

    Thank you for sharing your authentic self with others. You are blessed with the gift God has given you to share with others. I’m sure many have benefited from your sharing and caring.
    I believe we all face fears that appear real….but if thought about rationally…are just the fears of the unknown.

  5. by Louise

    On April 20, 2011

    Awesome . You are truly gifted to be able to share in such an authentic way. I can relate so much to what you have felt. The words of Pope John Paul ring true for me.”Just believe.”Believe in God and the gifts he has given us and love will surround us.

  6. by Wendy

    On April 20, 2011

    Thank you for having the courage to share your inner subtext. I think many of us have similar thoughts and feelings but may not have the courage to admit them to ourselves or others. I believe this is unfortunate as this type of sharing makes one feel less alone…’there are others like me’ one might hear one say out in the crowd.
    I also agree with your thoughts on leadership. A wisdom-lead leader is merely a servant to those he/she leads. Your nurturing manner will encourage others to not only follow your lead but also reflect upon their ‘self’ and perhaps lead others in the future.
    Well done!

  7. by Patrick O'Connor

    On April 20, 2011

    Thank you to each of you for your comments. It is very easy to sit back and blend in with the crowd, but it is exhilarating to step out and experience the sense of being more than we might otherwise allow ourselves to be, in relationships, at work, and especially in our own interior lives. I believe that is what growth is, whether it’s the courage to learn how to ride a bike, when we’re children, or confront a daunting relationship issue. We attempt things, we fail, we try again, we adjust, and eventually we master it. Think of children on a slide: they just want to do it over and over again. There is joy in stepping out and joy in growth.

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