The Messiness of Life and Leadership

leadership and messinessAvoiding life’s essentially chaotic and messy nature seems to be a preoccupation of many leaders. The question is - why? Underneath it all the truth about this is something that none of us really wants to face or admit. The reality is if you are willing to be present to the messiness and take appropriate action based on the conditions in which you actually find yourself, you will be uncomfortable quite often and also probably experience feeling vulnerable. I was recently reminded of this subject while watching a TED video by Glennon Doyle Melton entitled “Lessons from the Mental Hospital.” She shares powerful personal life experiences and insights gained into vulnerability and avoidance and talks about the ways we try to avoid these experiences. She calls them “superhuman capes” which she defines as anything that protects your vulnerability. What sinks that challenge in even deeper is her declaration that your superhuman cape(s) define your addiction(s). (I blogged about this previously here.)

For her addictions were alcohol, drugs and bulimia. Perhaps you share one of those or you are a workaholic, higher education degree junkie, command and control freak, or…?? If you are really honest with yourself, what are your capes? (In the movie “What The Bleep Do We Know…” addiction is defined as anything we say we can’t change. I’ll bet you have at least one or two of those statements in your repertoire.)

Along this line I have heard other folks address Glennon’s insight. Renn Zaphiropoulos, a pioneer in the fields of engineering and physics, used to say “life is curly, don’t try to straighten it out.” One of my Vistage members declared during a discussion “Guys, stop it! Life is messy. Birth is messy. Death is messy. Stop trying to sanitize it!” Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability and shame looks at many dimensions of vulnerability and how we attempt to avoid it. David Whyte defines courage as “developing a friendship with the unknown” - a practice that will bring you face-to-face with vulnerability on a regular basis.

So what is the remedy? Take a scan of your life and see where you are comfortable being with the conditions, conversations, and behaviors that are going on right in front of your face and where you are not. Include those that are in front of you “virtually,” whether electronically or in your thoughts.  Next look at those instances where you run away, mentally or physically.  Notice where do you throw on your superhuman cape? Notice your avoidance conversations and behaviors. Do you change the subject? Do fight, flight, freeze or appease?

Practice being present, meaning staying with, your thoughts and behaviors.  Practice staying present even when it’s uncomfortable. Practice letting go of the meaning you are putting on the moment and just be there.

As Garth Brooks sings “I could have missed the pain but I would have missed the dance.”