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“If you ask me what I came to do in this world ... I am here to live out loud.”
- Emile Zola

At a party honoring my friend Aliyah’s* university tenure, her husband spoke effusively about how bright Aliyah shines -- in her research, in her teaching, in her publications and as a mother. But, he predicted, the best was yet to come -- as the security of tenure enables Aliyah to step more fully into the light of who she is.

We are all in a lifelong journey to integrate our inner and outer selves - to unfurl who we are as human beings, and to create an existence that allows us to live more fully as our whole selves. As leaders, this work of understanding and living more fully into ourselves is even more pressing. Our showing up authentically - with both our strengths and our vulnerability - creates space where others can do the same.

Stepping Into the Light of Your Leadership

Leading Elephants sat recently with a leadership team, debriefing organizational culture interviews. One of the striking, and kind of surprising, findings was that staff simply wanted to hear more from the Executive Director Carla*.

Carla was well-liked by her team. Humility and hard work were important values to her, and she lifted up and valued her staff. When she said to her leadership team “I’m not sure I really understand. Why do people want to hear more from me?”, the quick, almost instinctive response was “They want to be in your light.”

For each of us, how do we both find our light … and allow it to shine?

  • Identify Ways You Are Playing Small - Each of us has places in our work or life where we feel contracted, or stuck. It might be that speaking in front of your team that makes your heart race. Or your conversations with a particular team member that leave you feeling icky. Perhaps it’s a project that you keep avoiding. There is “juice” underneath each of these stuck places - something that can be released so the world can experience a more powerful, liberated version of you.

  • Examine Your Inner Narratives - What is the narrative you tell yourself about that person, project or circumstance that gets you stuck? Your inner voice might say “If I try to speak in front of my team I won’t be interesting and they will feel like it’s a waste of their time.” Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey, authors of Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, teach us then to hunt for the assumption underneath that belief. When operationalizing that idea, it can help to overdramatize the assumption a bit (“If I flub my speech .. no one in the organization will ever respect me again”), then keep asking “So what would be so bad about that?”

  • Apply Caring - After asking yourself “what would be so bad about that” a few times, you might hit paydirt. “If I am not respected by my staff, leadership will question if I am right for my role, and I will be a failure, which means …….. my father was right about me.” Oof - that one felt a little tender. Pause and allow yourself to feel that emotion. I get it that the link from “I mess up in front of my staff so my father was right that I will always be a failure” may sound like a stretch. But if a small part of you is operating from that place of fear of proving your father right, that’s the part driving when you play small. Give that part a little space and love.

  • Take Experiments in Shining - We can see now the assumption we identified might have a little bit of credence to it (ie. if you never said a word to your team that could be seen as a performance issue), but not nearly as much as our unconscious mind gave it. The final step in breaking free of those patterns is to practice small experiments in living more radiantly. For Carla, she shared from the heart with the whole organization how some trauma around the way she came into the role caused her to play small and not step fully into her leadership. Looking back, she could see that hiding behind the curtains - instead of stepping onto the stage with its spotlight - left people uncertain about organizational direction and without a cohesive organizational culture.

With each experiment, we grow in our ability to stand in our brightness. We retrain our brain’s neural pathways to see that what previously felt impossible suddenly has a little more room for freedom! For Carla, after she shared, one team member closed with a thank you. “In past organizations,” she said, “culture felt like a barge that was impossible to move. Today, I see it is a sailboat that can be turned in an instant. I leave deeply inspired and filled with belief.”

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? … Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. … as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

- Marianne Williamson

Psychologist and mindfulness teacher Tara Brach talks about recent scientific research on turning “states” (a momentary experience and feeling) into “traits” (or longer term ways of being). By investing in reflective time, to consider how the small daring experiment worked (“barge turned”) and how it felt (“hopeful”), Carla can begin to turn standing in her light into a habit for life.

Where will you shine your light today?

*Names and identifying details of real life anecdotes have been changed to protect confidentiality.

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