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

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To Be Oneself

“Fully alive people are liberated by their self-acceptance to be authentic and real.”

– John Powell, S.J.


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

Part 2: To Be Oneself

Sometimes I think I matured in reverse. My memories of high school in particular are a series of Technicolor images of “being myself,” feeling fully human and fully alive. Not long after that time, my “self” slipped away and it took a long time to get it back.

In high school I remember feeling completely comfortable expressing myself in the assorted ways it made sense for me to do so. I sang in choir, performed in musical theater, participated in student government, in talent shows, pep rallies, air bands, skits…anything and everything that gave me a chance to employ my extraversion, my energy and my joy for performance. I wanted to create, to connect, to engage. I instinctively wanted to use my energy to energize others.

Once in a while, I hit the books. And I did well enough. But the classroom was not my personal proving ground. My greatest learning, and my most positive memories of that time, came from getting up in front of people. It was what I knew how to do and I had a wide-open runway on which to do it.

College wasn’t remarkably different from high school in this regard and I found some similar ways to tap into that bottomless reservoir of performance energy.  This gradually became muted by more rigorous academic demands and the fact that I was swimming in a much bigger pond. The fact that it never dawned on me to get involved in theater at the college level is a decent indicator that I was already working hard to protect myself from not getting picked.

Since the approval of others came so easily in my teenage pursuits I was ignorant about how much I needed it. As that veil was lifted, as my need was exposed, I began to shrink away from some of the risks that would have come easily before.

As comfortable as I was in “presentation mode” in my earlier years, I found myself anxious and afraid as my young career provided opportunities to be out in front. I got myself convinced that those innocent exploits were an anomaly, not really me, and what chance did I really have to repeat an anomaly!

Finally, at 37 years old, an age that seems obscenely old relative to how intensely my unmet internal desires were burning, my friend Molly Davis paved the way for me to make my first professional presentation at a conference. It was the first time I stood up and said, “this is the work I do, what my team and my company have accomplished, and I am very happy to share it with you.”

I had some skin in the game and because of that I was very, very nervous. And it went great. And there was no looking back.

Twenty years after experiencing the joyful and easy expressions of my youth, I had discovered it again, this time with the maturity of my professional experience to back it up. It was quite a moment to be reconnected to myself after all of those years.

Today, I am a soloist at church and I give lots of talks and trainings. I freely share stories about my experiences, striving always to represent myself authentically and without a varnish that begs for approval. And I still get nervous. But that nervous energy is no longer rooted in the fear of not being good enough but rather in my desire to do good work. I care about what I do and I want that to come across loud and clear.

I once heard it said that if the path ahead of you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s path. And tempting though it may be to stay on that safer road, to get to oneself requires the harder work of a boulder-strewn, uphill climb.

No one else can walk it for you. And the view from the top is breathtaking.


Tomorrow: Part 3, To forget oneself in loving

January-12

Fully Alive

In Fully Human Fully Alive, John Powell writes:

“…fully alive people are those who are using all of their human faculties, powers, and talents. These individuals are fully functioning, in their external and internal senses. They are comfortable with, and open to, the full experience and expression of all human emotions. Such people are vibrantly alive, in mind, heart, and will. There is an instinctive fear in most of us, … and we prefer, for the sake of safety, to take life in small dainty doses. But, the fully alive person travels with the confidence that, if one is alive and fully functioning, in all parts and powers, the result will be harmony, not chaos” [p.19:3-p. 20:1].

According to Powell, “the 5 essential steps into the fullness of life include:

1. to accept oneself
2. to be oneself
3. to forget oneself in loving
4. to believe
5. to belong”   [p.23:1].

Unless you prefer “to take life in small dainty doses,” these are not only worth aspiring to but they are calling us to meet them with heart-filled resolve. Next week, some thoughts and reflections on each one. Please join me.


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