It is easy to talk about leadership success, leadership effectiveness, leadership performance, and leadership achievement. These are the conversations that flow naturally around the conference conversations, to the coffee chat, from the leadership books to the leadership blogs.
What is less comfortable to talk about are the leadership deserts. The barren places, the dry, desert places, of our leadership experience. The fear is that these conversations will make me look weak. Who wants a barren, dry, desert leader at the helm? People will think I’m not up to the job.
When I first went into the Sahara Desert, I loved it! It was a relief to be picked up by a large Landcruiser from the noise and bustle of Marrakesh and driven over the Atlas Mountains, scene of that powerful movie Babel, and drop down into the film-set world of the outer Sahara. Driving along roads that on one side were lush plantations and the other side barren wasteland, left me wondering how climate decides that this road is the dividing line between flourishing and nothing. Or maybe it’s just a simple explanation of irrigation!
Arriving on the edge of the desert, we swapped our car for camels and began the trek into the unending empty-land. Yet it wasn’t empty. It was full of untold beauty that got inside of me and remains to this day. There was perfect silence, like I’d never experienced before. And stillness. The silence and stillness awakened me, sharpened my senses. It was enlightening, therapeutic and cleansing.
In the early dawn I sat and watched the emptiness of the horizon for hours, to see how the ‘nothing’ would evolve. A speck would suddenly appear miles away and slowly enlarge over the next hour, until it passed nearby as a lone shepherd with his flock of twenty goats. My eyes followed them into the opposite horizon until they were no more. It was a meditation on simplicity and contentment. Where had they come from? Where were they going? What did the goats eat, when at best there seemed only dead twigs scattered around?
The desert slowed me down. Right down. The desert opened my ears and eyes. The desert soothed, in its own simple, honest way.
The mystics called the desert a ‘liminal space’. A space that lies between what is familiar and what is not familiar. Given that leaders are called to continue to be pioneers of life’s frontiers, it makes sense that they will frequently face this liminal space, this desert, in their pursuit of the future. Leadership deserts should be up and central in our conversations, but they rarely are.
What does the desert look like for a leader? Giving out and not getting anything back. Generating, but not being regenerated by others. Working hard to break new ground, but despite endless hard work, finding that you aren’t breaking gravity-pull. Feeling stale. Losing your joy. Transitions and crossing over into the unknowns of your work terrain. Burnout. Running drying. Sensing that you’ve lost connection with the mission, vision, purpose and passion, that had anchored you so well in the past. Irritability and a body that is beginning to shout back at you.
Why are deserts so much an important part of the leadership landscape? Could it be that the desert has something priceless to offer the leader?
The desert strips you back to your essence. Over the years we accumulate so many distractions, unhelpful beliefs and ineffective practices. What was it that we were about when we set out on our leadership journey? How far have we strayed from the core of who we are as a person, or did we ever really know what that was anyway? The desert helps us to see what we’ve lost sight of. It reveals to us who we are, or where we have lost connection with ourselves.
The desert purifies. What is important? What are my real motives? By silencing the noise and clutter in our heads and in our behaviours, we can refine how we prioritise our days and our hours.
The desert allows us to listen to what we had been too busy to hear. The full-on demands of leading something can make us deaf to ourselves, to others and to any of the quiet, but vital voices, that we don’t normally listen to. The desert heightens our senses to everything within and without.
The desert makes us hungry and thirsty again. Someone once said that if we’ve lost our joy then we’ve lost our way. One of the symptoms of a loss of joy is a loss of appetite for the heart of what motivated us to get on to the leadership pitch in the first place. The ‘fasting’ of the desert can remind us of what we used to hunger for and rekindle our motivations.
The desert is how you are prepared for the next important chapter. The new chapter may be a renewing of the old one, (an experience described by Scott Harrison, founder and CEO of Charity Water), or it may be a new direction (as Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS shoes describes in his story). Whether it’s new, or renewed perspectives on old geographies, or new territory altogether, the desert is where we go deeper into ourselves to develop greater ‘muscle’ for what lies ahead. The deep inner work provides the strength and courage for what comes next.
So, let’s not just talk about leadership impact, let’s talk about the deserts, if we want a truly holistic view of leadership.
©Trevor Waldock 2020
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