So much of what we do as leaders and coaches begins with our relationship with self. We cannot invite others to travel where we ourselves fear to go.
It is a dance with the shadow and light at our core, as we work past our own defences and begin to understand and accept all of the voices that occupy our internal system. This may be the most vulnerable yet rewarding task we will ever undertake.
Conscious and authentic leadership requires us to forever continue unfolding what lies within.
Looking back, what moments stand out in my own journey toward authenticity?
On the dance floor of a club in Tanga, the soukous music of the Congo reaches a crescendo and I let it shake me. The cheap sound system is jacked up so high as to intentionally distort the sound, creating an acute tension something between ecstasy and pain. As the music fades away, we three dancers stand smiling, our faces raised up to the ceiling fans to get some relief.
In the lull before the next song, I’m taken by surprise. The new guy in town stands before me, takes my face in his hand, looks straight into my eyes and says, “You’re the only real person here!”
He brushes my frown away with his thumb, turns on his heel and bounds down the concrete stairs. We hear his motorbike engine roar into life in the stairwell.
This dramatic exit from the newest, coolest kid on the block causes the entire bar to race to the balcony to peer through the bars and watch as he wheelies off into the night.
I’m left puzzled. Everyone wants to know what he said to me, but I’m lost trying to interpret his meaning. These words from the guy with swagger to the girl with none. Is he being ironic? Has he found me out? That I’m not ‘real’ at all! I feel bare, vulnerable, yet strangely thrilled. Real – what is it? How can I or others be anything but real?
Close to 20 years later, I’m being debriefed on my Leadership Circle 360 Profile. ‘Debriefed’ is an apt expression, as being willing to allow yourself to be revealed to yourself is a courageous act in itself. In this instance, I’m being observed by fellow certification participants and feel safe in the caring and masterful hands of Shahmeen Sadiq.
Yet I’m shaken by the words that bubble up and out of me. I hear my voice thick with emotion, saying, “I’ll show you who I am, and you will love me!”
This is a powerful moment for me, as I realize that this is a huge part of who I am. It’s as if a force that I cannot hold down rises up from within as I dare people not to like me. Time and again when I hear others judge and marginalize an aspect of another, I catch myself identifying with the aspect of me – however small – that is the part they want to push away.
How real am I being when I choose to reveal all aspects of myself, even the unpopular ones? It’s become a habit, and through my Leadership Circle Profile, I’ve come to realize I’m not fully comfortable with it. It does serve me well the majority of the time. I feel free to be authentically me – no holds barred – and most people find my courageous vulnerability refreshing. However, there are times when the part of me that I reveal triggers others. I feel angry, misunderstood and hurt that they can’t be with that part of me.
Dancing with the dark
What it uncovers is my own inability to fully be with the whole of me: light and shadow, beauty and beast, warts and all. Where I need to grow as a leader is in showing myself who I am, and daring to love myself regardless. Until I can fully be with being unloveable I will fail to live up to being truly real.
A huge part of my life’s work is being an amplifier for marginalized voices. I realize that I am frequently the different one arriving into a place where I have the privilege of being liked regardless of what I stand for.
Despite colonialism, in Tanzania people generally like the British and the mzungu foreigner. In Canada, my British accent is respected. I like the privilege that allows me to be loved too much to be fully courageously real.
“Without black, no colour has any depth. But if you mix black with everything, suddenly there’s shadow – no, not just shadow, but fullness. You’ve got to be willing to mix black into your palette if you want to create something that’s real.”
• Amy Grant
What came of that encounter in a Tanzanian club? Eventually, I married my motorcycle man and I see him in all his realness. I love my friends and family, often more for their shadow than their light. I am engaged with my loveable and unloveable sides.
According to Greek mythology, humans were originally created with four arms, four legs, and a head with two faces. Fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives longing for their other halves.
As with all relationships I realize that it will be my life’s journey to bring deep democracy to the whole of me and marry my shadow and my light.
If I want to lead change in the world, I must dare to lead change in myself. No longer longing for the parts of me that may be unaccepted to be loved, and instead giving myself permission to bring all of me out to dance.
I dare myself and I dare you.
As director of Novalda,Kerry Woodcockdevelops core, collective and change leadership capacity in leaders, teams and organizations, coaching pioneers and influencers to amplify the power of relationship and lead over the edge of change.