I stood on the balcony, looking out at a clearing in the woods, and followed the instructions of the shaggy-haired teacher exhorting me to scream at the top of my lungs: “I am a constructive force in group meetings!” Everyone stared. Someone snickered.
It was a moment of absurdity, no doubt. It was also vaguely embarrassing: I was shouting over the heads of 55 accomplished change makers, all paired off in quiet conversations with one another. Many of them jumped when I startled them with my baritone holler. Most of them were laughing with me by the time I’d yelled it five times!
This was during the Art of Leadership, a truly transformative leadership training, lead each year by the inimitable Robert Gass. Moments before, Robert had told me, “That’s the single most important thing you’ll learn this week.” His assertion had my heart beating in my throat.
We had all been debriefing the 360º feedback surveys our peers had completed in the weeks leading up to the retreat. On six of fifteen criteria, I had ranked myself lower than my peers had done. Significantly lower. My assessment of my skills, my performance, even my own capacity was utterly unrealistic—if my peers were to be believed. And of course, they were. I had invited some of the people I most respect in the world to share their opinions of me.
“I think I’m just humble,” I explained to Robert.
“No, this isn’t humility.” Robert was quick and a little sharp. He was determined to make his point. “You’re wrong.”
Do you see yourself as you truly are?
As the week went on, I learned a great deal about myself, and why I underestimate my capacity. (Note the present tense. I’ve still not resolved this misaligned self-assessment!) Part of the answer emerged as we focused in on the values we most appreciate.
For me, the highest value is generosity. I mean this not in the everyday sense of charitability or philanthropy, though I do value those things. I mean it as generosity of spirit—the capacity to show up in conversations and in groups in a way that appreciates the gifts, skills, and lived experiences of others. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that I’m not more generous to myself?!
A few weeks ago, during another workshop, a poem came to me….
I’m unceasingly amazed
that I can taste the universe
when I kiss my daughter’s elbow.
What is our obligation, if the universe is in each of us?
Surely it is not to second-guess our peers! Surely it is not to shy away from our own talents? Surely it isn’t to hide our own magnificence?
Is it easier for you to ignore such fancies? To listen instead to the nagging voice in your head, with its old, familiar saw: Maybe you don’t belong here? Maybe this isn’t the space you’re supposed to occupy? Maybe you’re an imposter?
Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
— Howard Thurman
I’ve learned not to pay that voice so much heed. It’s still there. I just try not to let it drive my perspective. Instead, I try to stay present with the task at hand, no matter how mundane it might be. To stay focused on the conversation I’m having. To be a little more generous to myself.
Turns out, I am “a constructive force in group meetings.” I am also “persuasive and effective at communicating and forwarding the mission of my organization and my clients’ organizations.” I do “treat others with respect,” and “listen well and deeply to them.” These were all factors on which I’d given myself poor scores. (Thanks, Robert. You were right. I’m great at these things.)
If the universe is in you, what’s your obligation? What is your magnificence? Do you see it in yourself? Will you give yourself the space to shine?
Mike Rowlands is President & CEO at Junxion. He has been described as a “peace warrior” and thought leader on issues of social importance. This is one of a series of letters he’s writing as he seeks to embrace transparency, step in to courageous conversations, and be in service to a new era.