Reflections on Work, Aliveness, Choices, Power and Leadership
I was talking to a friend the other day and the conversation turned to difficulties her husband is facing at work. Newly promoted to lead a team, he is struggling with a collection of individuals who show up for work and then sleepwalk through the day, without the energy or aspiration to do much of anything. He himself doesn’t have much motivation either: he doesn’t like the job and doesn’t want to be there, but he feels he has no choice but to press on until his circumstances somehow change.
We explored this phenomenon further. If only people could be motivated to reignite by a spark of inspiration from the outside! Sometimes leaders make attempts to “wake up” the team — but the team may actually prefer to be sleepwalking. Then it becomes easy to simply take on the role of victim, hiding behind the belief that you have no choice — nothing can be done — you are defeated before you ever got started. Yet how valid is this belief? I can attest to the fact that it certainly feels real. I’ve been there myself, and often revisit that place. Yet there is always a #choice.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
I love this quote. It is written by a man who lived through the horror of a Nazi concentration camp, never knowing if he would survive till the next day, with death an ever-present companion. It reminds me that the strength we all have access to — no matter what our circumstances — is the choice of our inner disposition and the way we choose to see the world around us.
Both the conversation with my friend and the quote by Viktor Frankl made me think about the following topics:
The prevalence of #disengagement at work
The refusal to come #alive
The #choice to accept our circumstances and numb ourselves
The belief that there is no choice
Our perceived #powerlessness
The role of a #leader faced with this pattern of thinking
Our role in taking #responsibility for our choices
What follows is an exploration, my personal reflection and considerations based on my experience, subject to my own beliefs and assumptions, and certainly not the Universal Truth. I hope, however, that my musing will inspire your thinking and help you get into a habit of examining your own #beliefs and #assumptions.
In my own professional career, disengagement was all too prevalent, both in my personal attitude and in those of my teams and colleagues.
When I joined an organisation, the initial excitement of learning engaged me, and the feeling of contributing to a bigger “something” motivated me to expand my focus and look beyond the discomfort caused by my incompetence. The prospect of career growth, in which the next level would challenge me further by broadening my sphere of influence and enlarging my ability to contribute kept me aspiring for more, and motivated me to do my best.
Soon enough new became old, however; the next step up the career ladder turned out to look a lot like the one before it, and somehow my ability to contribute seemed to have shrunk rather than grown. All the while my expectations remained externally focussed — I thought that it would take a new role to make a difference, or it would take “them” to shape up, or I needed to be given more power — and on and on.
The thought that I might need to do anything to contribute to the golden age I desired, that I might have to do the changing, seldom occurred to me. I remember always thinking that the next international move (I’ve had a few in my life) would provide the answer — it would, after all, be a different country, a different culture. I would be sure to have a different experience. Imagine my surprise at discovering that not only my physical possessions came with me to a new destination, but also my internal state of being. My internal luggage travelled with me no matter where I went. The more my reality fell short of my expectations, the more I became disengaged from the organisation I worked for and the work I did — as well as from the life I lived. It all came down to my conviction that “they” would never change. I never had any sense that I had anything to do with it.
I became a zombie. I numbed myself; I barely felt alive; I did what was expected of me without questioning. Showing up to work and when away counting the hours before it would be time to go back, avoiding or actively disengaging from any process of change, hiding behind the supposed wisdom of “here we go again”, the attitude of “wait and it will all come full circle” — that was me. Any attempt by others to wake me up only made me feel disillusioned at the hypocrisy all around me.
You may wonder why I didn’t want to leave, if it was all so dreadful and out of my control—and this thought did emerge in me, but it took many years before I acted on it. What got in the way was fear, which presented itself to me as the “I have no choice” point of view. I told myself I had to earn my living, I had responsibilities to others, I would never find another job (that paid as much as this one), I had my standards (and they weren’t exactly cheap), and so on and so forth.
A lot of this is true: we live in a material world that imposes certain constraints on us. So, it took me a long time to realise that I actually made a choice to allow these fears — justified or not — to constitute my reality, rather than something else.
What I could have done was to change my attitude to the circumstances I found myself in. I could have taken my creative #power back, assumed #responsibility for myself and how I showed up and #engaged; I could have crafted a space of #aliveness no matter where I was. This might have involved something as simple as viewing a conversation with a team member or a co-worker as inspirational, as a possibility to learn, teach, connect, get curious and engage — the possibilities were endless. It might have involved something as large and frightening as speaking my mind to those in power in an attempt to actually change the way things were. What I am saying here is, I believe that we have the #power to change the way we see any given situation, even without the situation itself objectively changing. We have the power to engage with our situations from many different vantage points, no matter what the situation “is”.
You may wonder whether I managed to do it myself. I didn’t. I decided to leave the company eventually, feeling rather empty and defeated inside. I had not been able to change my vantage point and I could not lead my teams from the space I had settled in. Leading at all became extremely difficult when I had lost all belief in the message the organisation was lined up behind. My experience became that of lost authenticity, of misalignment between my internal state and the external “reality” I faced.
It took me a long time to start seeing that it is not external circumstances that have #power over our experience, but rather our internal #beliefs and #assumptions. What was even more surprising was discovering that the power lies within us to see our beliefs and assumptions for what they are, to examine them, engage with them and shake free of them. It is that simple — yet it is anything but easy.
The book Street Smart Awareness and Inquiry-in-Action written by my friends at Amara is an invitation to step into and claim your #power, to take #responsibility for the #choices you make as you #engage with others and in the organisations, communities and the world you live and operate in. The #practices collected here and the #wisdom generously shared by the authors are offered to you, yet only you can take them and make them your own. You are invited to take #responsibility for your personal #growth and make a #choice to not only be the best you can be, but also to do all you can to get there.
The practices in this book offer support for embarking on this path. Only you, however, can walk it. The trip is worth making.
First published on 9th of January 2018 as foreword to Street Smart Awareness and Inquiry-in-Action