To Belong

“A community is a union of persons…who share in mutuality their most precious possessions – themselves.”

– John Powell, S.J.


Today, I conclude my exploration of John Powell’s “five essential steps into the fullness of life.”

Part 5: To Belong

Where do you call ‘home’?

What and whom do you belong to that you consider your community?

Is it your family and your private home? Is it your professional colleagues and your workplace? Is it your fellow parishioners and your house of worship? Is it your fellow volunteers and your community organization?

Perhaps it’s a combination of all of these.

My earliest feeling of community, of belonging, came through being part of my church youth group. I was in middle school and we had the chance to spend a lot of time together doing fun activities, singing, eating and being kids who shared the common cause of our faith.

I was on a few sports teams before and during high school but none of them created the kind of belonging I felt as part of my high school choir. The common cause of music, the mixture of all ages and other elements of diversity, a caring and demanding director, and the fact that we sounded great (at least I remember it that way!) made for a very special home away from home.

When I learned that I had been accepted into my college’s choral music program I highly anticipated the continuation of this feeling of community but even more intensely given the increased freedom and adventure I assumed college would offer. To my astonishment it completely exceeded my expectations, beyond any other group experience I had as an undergraduate. I know that we were good, outstanding even, and something about being called, encouraged and cajoled to that mountaintop by both our director and our shared standard of performance, helped us to a level of esprit de corps I have not experienced since.

I am so grateful for these early experiences of community because they helped me create a standard of expectation that has remained a consistent part of my life. In the 27 years since college I have been fortunate to find a version of it in a few work scenarios, in a church music group and, most especially in my own family.

What I have learned from each of these is that there is no possibility of personal aliveness without the support of an enduring community. There is a reciprocal relationship that exists in community in which the community fuels my aliveness and my aliveness – each person’s individual aliveness – in turn fuels the community.

It is the very nature of this reciprocity that begs the question of each of us who is committed to being fully human and fully alive: are we prepared to do the real work of accepting ourselves, being ourselves, forgetting ourselves into loving, and believing in something larger than ourselves so that we can enjoy the fruits of our labors, the chance to revel in the gift of belonging?

There was a time when I would have answered from a purely cognitive place: “Of course! Who wouldn’t want that?”

But to answer from the heart – informed by the careful curiosity of the mind – is a much riskier enterprise. It is one that promises to lay us low, as we learn to let die the smaller version of our self who so vigorously attempts to convince us that he or she is the real thing!

The smaller self, the less than fully human/fully alive self, is merely a container, intended to house us for only a brief time, one whose diminished size tempts us into seeing just a fraction of our potential for living into a much larger and extraordinary life of freedom.


I sincerely hope that this week of reflections on John Powell’s illuminating work serves as a source of insight into your own experience of aliveness. As we become more alive, more human, to ourselves we cannot help but do so for those with whom we are privileged to share our lives. This alone makes it an endeavor worth our sincere and faithful attention.

If you are interested in revisiting any of the previous posts, you can find them below.

Monday: To Accept Oneself
Tuesday: To Be Oneself
Wednesday: To Forget Oneself in Loving
Thursday: To Believe


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To Believe

“Fully alive people discover meaning in their lives.”

– John Powell, S.J.


Today, I continue to explore John Powell’s “five essential steps into the fullness of life.”

Part 4: To Believe

If you’ve ever worked for a leader who exuded authentic belief in a cause, you were likely swept up in that belief as well. And in being swept up in that belief you likely felt, as I have felt, an energy, a sense of possibility, a dedication to positivity that carried your efforts forward even through the most difficult passages of the work.

You might describe yourself, feeling this way, as being fully alive.

Human beings long to be associated with causes larger than ourselves. We don’t always achieve this longing, however, because to be that fully dedicated to something comes with a long list of inherent risks. That doesn’t negate the desire, however, and if we’re lucky enough to find that kind of meaning, and associate with others who do as well, it can give our lives a definition and dimensionality that can otherwise not be found.

Growing up in the 1980s and having a latent passion for inspiring and energizing others, I was drawn to the dynamism and charisma of Ronald Reagan. I wasn’t mature enough in my thinking to understand him as a policy maker so my admiration was for the impact of his presence. What I observed in Reagan was somebody who was able to use the weight of his experience and training as an actor and pitchman to extraordinary effect. He made me feel a profound sense of possibility for our nation – the “shining city on a hill” – through the way he shaped his language.

As I began to see in myself an aptitude for performance, on stage and in student activities, I realized that I was inspired by Reagan as a model and encouraged to keep thinking about how to expand the quality of what I had to offer. I had come across my first inkling of meaning, what I would later attach to as the belief system that would drive my adult life: how leaders show up, literally what they say and how they say it, can absolutely change lives.

This realization caught fire in my imagination but only for a short time as it dawned on me that I had no idea how it could serve as the fertile soil of my future endeavors. I grew detached from it over time until I was challenged to confront my perfectionism in the form of some early career speaking opportunities. I see today that part of my discomfort with unlocking my natural, best self, came from believing that I could never match the “Reagan standard” and if not, why bother?

When my career twists and turns eventually led me to an employee and leadership training company – no accident, of course – I had more and more chances to articulate my passion for powerful leadership and the kinds of organizations it could create, the kind of energetic impact it could unlock. Teaching and training for that company, I rediscovered myself as an effective “performer,” that is someone who is able to command a room with both integrity and intention.

This unfolding built both my confidence and my point of view. It led to deeper and stronger feelings about the role and nature of leadership, as well as a deeper and stronger desire to impact those who choose to lead. As my clarity evolved, so did my energy. And as my energy evolved, so did my sense of possibility and these attributes – just like the leader I described at the beginning of this piece – became attractive to others. This attractiveness led to a new job that was a huge stretch for me, the experience of which set the table for me to eventually start my own firm.

The lessons learned in that endeavor, make it possible for me to now be in a position to help start another venture, all in line with my belief in cultivating the kind of leadership that makes our workplaces more fully human.

This is what I believe in and this is what I am here to do.


Tomorrow: Part 5, To belong

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To Forget Oneself in Loving

“Fully alive people learn to go out of themselves in genuine caring and concern for others.”

– John Powell, S.J.


Today, I continue to explore John Powell’s “five essential steps into the fullness of life.”

Part 3: To Forget Oneself in Loving

You can’t love somebody wholeheartedly if you don’t love yourself.

I did not know what I was getting into when I got married at 25 years old. I knew that I loved Theresa and that she loved me but I had no idea what that meant or what that required. It was a hunch, we were blessed with the wisdom to make a lifelong commitment and we continue to do the work to live into the wide-eyed sense of possibility we held over 24 years ago.

There’s a part of me that considers it a miracle that we’ve made it this far. Not because of any explicit trauma or challenge that occurred. Not because of the wedge three children can drive between a husband and wife. And not because the daily grind of life can steamroll even the most ideal of married couples.

The reason I sometimes consider it a miracle is because it took me a very long time to forget myself in loving my wifeIf you read my posts on Monday and Tuesday you have some insight into why this was true. In short, until I learned to accept myself and to be myself it was impossible to forget myself. In not forgetting myself, I could not “remember” her as an independent person whose individuality could become larger by our relationship instead of as a dependent person who would be subject first to meeting my needs.

In other words, until I learned to forget myself it was far too easy, too convenient, to treat her (and others) as a supporting actor in the movie called “My Life” instead of as someone worthy of a feature film all her own.

So, if the path to forgetting oneself in a way that leads to true empathy and full regard for another comes through accepting oneself and being oneself, how do you get there?

Partly, it’s through maturity. Sometimes you have to learn how to live a life by living it and, if you’re surrounded by enough good people they provide the checks and balances that help you grow. That’s a more passive approach but for some people, if those checks and balances come early and often enough, it can be enough.

In my case, the facade of competence I had developed in order to mask my insecurity was so well built that I required professional help. Not through my own courageous decision-making but on the indirect recommendation and encouragement of a mentor, I visited a therapist for the first time at 35 years of age. I went back once a week for 6 more years, long enough to finally know myself well enough to learn how to forget myself.

I know that that decision made the current quality of my marriage possible. By deconstructing myself I was able to see how what I had constructed was a barrier to authentic connection. The rebuilding experience was hard but not so hard that a loving and loyal partner would choose anything other than to be an integral part of the process.

Aliveness is a dynamic state of being, a continuous flow of energetic insight, evaluation, connection and compassionate correction. It starts within, of course, but has to include others, significant others especially. The gift of aliveness is in recognizing that this work to accept myself and to be myself is why I am ultimately able to forget myself in the embrace of another. There is no separation, only a sprawling network of connecting tissue that stretches out from the first decision to just be.

I know that this is getting long and I also know that some readers may rightly ask what any of this has to do with organizational life. I did, after all, commit on Monday to offering these reflections in that context and so far have spent the lion’s share of my time on high school achievements, college and early career insecurity and the triumph of my marriage over my selfishness.

The glib answer is that this has everything to do with organizations and the leaders who lead them! The math is pretty simple. If it’s tough in an interpersonal relationship to relate to someone who doesn’t accept himself, who is uncomfortable being himself and who, as a result, cannot forget himself in favor of a true commitment to the welfare of others, how tough is it on the employees who have to work for him?

Business is a human enterprise first and foremost. And each and every one of those humans who have chosen to lead must claw and scratch their way to aliveness if they are ever to become the leaders we deserve.


Tomorrow: Part 4, To believe

man in black long sleeved shirt and woman in black dress

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To Accept Oneself

“Fully alive people accept and love themselves as they are.”

– John Powell, S.J.


This week I am going to explore each of the five elements of John Powell’s “essential steps into the fullness of life.” These steps, as described in his book, Fully Human Fully Alive are:

1. to accept oneself
2. to be oneself
3. to forget oneself in loving
4. to believe
5. to belong.

It is not my intention to restate Powell’s teaching on these elements but to share a personal reflection on how I have experienced each of them, especially in the context of my experiences in organizational life. The lenses I bring to this expression are that of employee, teammate, leader, consultant and coach. It is through these lenses that I intend to articulate how aliveness, a term I first heard in an organizational context, is central to vibrant and productive organizational life.

Fully alive leaders are, in not only my opinion but in my experience, those who have the most chance of leading real and lasting change, the leadership of change being the fundamental task of leadership especially in the context of our current national and global realities.

Leadership is, of course, most directly experienced at the local level. As a faithful subscriber to this localized perspective, that “the universal is in the particular,” it is more relevant – and interesting – to me to share my personal experiences than to conduct some cold case-study analysis of a leader in the abstract.

“To accept oneself” is both the root and the anchor of the entire construct. Aliveness is not possible without it. We can never comfortably be ourselves, give ourselves to another, commit to belief or truly belong until we are at home in ourselves. It is why, in my particular case, once I began to crack the code of self-acceptance it wasn’t long for the other elements to click into place. I am not suggesting that I have achieved aliveness in this sense, but that I spend much more time there now than I ever used to due to the fact that I learned, finally, how to accept myself.

The biggest hurdle to that acceptance was – and sometimes still is – the toxicity of perfectionism. As for so many others, I allowed unmet childhood needs to become the unhealthy adaptations of my adult life. By holding unrealistic standards for my work, for example, I was simply protecting against the fear of loss. Before you could tell me my work was lousy, and probably never want to have anything to do with me again as a result, my inner critic would prevent any external representation of my internal world.

The very reason I began writing this blog, back in 2007, was to prove to myself that I wouldn’t melt like the Wicked Witch at the first criticism I received about my perspectives on leadership and culture. The fantasy I was living had me convinced that there was a stadium of people just waiting to pounce on my ideas when, of course, the stadium was just row after row of empty seats. My job as a writer was to fill those seats, not by perfecting my work but by finding my voice. This had never occurred to me before.

Twelve years later, I haven’t filled that stadium but I have learned, over the course of one book and 832 posts, that the stadium never existed. It was merely a clever construct of my unaccepted self. Today, I write daily to discover what I’m thinking, to maintain a discipline, to share and continue to find my voice.

My commitment to written expression is one of the few essential pathways I have walked directly into a new and trustworthy pattern of self-acceptance.

To be fully alive means to accept and love yourself, just as you are.


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What’s your story?

Today I asked my students to think of a recent experience when they were fully engaged, be it at work, in school or with some other endeavor.

I asked them to think of an instance when time slowed down, they were hyper-focused, and they were both cognitively and emotionally dedicated to the work at hand.

Then I asked them to find a partner and share their stories.

The room erupted with the kind of energy and enthusiasm that can only be associated with people who are reminding one another what it feels like to be fully alive.

So I ask you, when did you last feel that way? What kind of recent, dedicated work has made you feel fully alive?

For me, it was the one hour and fifty minutes I spent with my students today. Time slowed down, I was hyper focused and I was both cognitively and emotionally dedicated to the work at hand.

Fully engaged equals fully alive.


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The Language of Aliveness

Are you living and leading with as much aliveness as possible? You might consider noticing your language to find out. Your instinctive verbal responses to challenging, complex or even novel circumstances say a lot about how alive and intentional you feel as opposed to how flat and stuck you feel.

This is the difference between holding a thoughtfully investigative, open stance versus one that is dualistic, critical and defensive.

The language of aliveness includes words, questions and phrases like:

Yes.
Let’s go.
I’m curious.
It’s possible.
Wow, look at that!
Let’s find out.
What about this?
Tell me more.
I’m not sure.
I don’t know.
How fascinating!
Let’s understand this better.
How can I help?

This kind of language, however you express it, signals to those around you an eagerness and readiness for learning. Used with careful intention it can be a contagious if fragile bulwark against its easy and defensive opposite.


 

Move toward aliveness

“…anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.”

– from “Sweet Darkness” by David Whyte


Move toward aliveness, in all ways and at all times. It’s the only way to stay present, to stay vital, to stay engaged, to stay young…in mind, heart and body.

We are pulled, pulled, pulled to the middle…miles from the edge of our experience. The edge of our experience is where aliveness lives.

It waits for us like a loyal dog, wagging with exuberance when we come into view, jumping into our laps with only possibility on its mind. It begs us to step out, once again, into the field of play.

When we decline, it curls into a ball at our feet, resigned to our disinterest, ready for another try tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow.

Move toward aliveness, in all ways and at all times.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.