“…and the truth shall set you free.” John 8:32
Earlier this year a friend asked me why I write so intimately about entrepreneurship–often about embarrassing personal things.
Well…I do it because my prime incentive for 20 years of entrepreneurship is to create my own community where I am happy, useful, and whole. Sure, I want to make money. You have to make money to be viable. But mostly I want to be whole. And entrepreneurship can sure be a cracker jack vehicle for finding peace, freedom, and human clarity. For me, the entrepreneurial experiment is a cathedral for becoming whole. That’s why I am passionate about it.
I believe, however, human wholeness only comes out of a fully acknowledged brokenness. And we are all broken, both as leaders and as learners.
My particular brokenness came out of multiple failures early in life–professional failures, but, more importantly, formative failures of self-absorption, addiction, cowardice, fear of feeling, and fear of being truly known. (“Addiction and the Entrepreneur”) It took me many years to begin to emerge as a true self. Writing this essay is part of that process. As Alcoholics Anonymous famously says, “We are as sick as our secrets.” Or, as Brene Brown puts it, “Numb the dark and you numb the light.”
To this point, I recently came across a lovely TED Talk from 2012 given by San Francisco yoga teacher Stephanie Snyder. She says the following: “What we hide from the world owns us. It owns our decisions, it owns our relationships, it owns our creativity. What we hide from the world binds us in shackles of shame. What we hide from ourselves holds us hostage and holds our potential hostage too.”
We used to clean and confess ourselves societally through shared rituals and religion. But religion in the U.S. no longer has that cleansing power. We now have to do it alone.
I was reminded of this when I was binge watching the fifth season of Game of Thrones last week. The final episode of this very enjoyable medieval fantasy concludes with a stunning scene which is termed The Walk of Shame. In it the evil Queen Mother Cersei is forced to admit her crimes and perversions and walk naked through the streets–through a gauntlet of abuse, rotten tomatoes, and shouted public contumely—to atone for her many public and private sins against her people. As the high priest (called The High Sparrow) puts it, “She comes before you with a solemn heart, shorn of secrets, naked before the eyes of God and men to make her walk of atonement.”
I feel quite sure Queen Cersei will be back to her evil ways in the sixth season. (I will binge watch that too when it comes out.) Yet, for a moment, I was able to feel sympathy for this terrible woman as she publicly abased herself in all her ignominy and brokenness. I suddenly felt open to her. I felt compassion. I felt one with her.
Though I would not recommend a naked Walk of Shame for the entrepreneurial CEO, I do believe in empathetic leadership–a leadership that leads with frankness, even sometimes shining light in dark places. The aloof command-and-control management style of traditional American business leadership is a Dead Man Walking. It just doesn’t know it’s dead yet. Certainly the rising millennial generation knows it. What will replace command-and-control I do not know. I suspect it will be some evolved synthesis of conscious capitalism, open-book management, holocracy, flow philosophy, or something none of us have heard of yet. But something else.
In an increasingly chaotic, anomic world, however, the longing for meaning is everywhere, from militant Islam to yoga to ecological environmentalism. As William James so pithily put it: “Religion is the attempt to be in harmony with the unseen order of things.” Religion is ideally another word for truth and I believe the world increasingly wants it from quotidian business process, as well as formal spirituality.
One way to harness this longing creatively is to approach corporate leadership with the power of brokenness–a brokenness that enables a collegial culture of shared compassion, openness and possibility.
As Stephanie Snyder notes above, what we hide from the world owns everything we do. We, as leaders, can inspire and allow the new in our companies by cleaning our own Augean Stables of emotional detritus and by openly embracing our uncertainty and emotional frailty. That is not weakness. It is centered courage.
Muslim mystic Jalal Rumi says the following:
“This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Back in 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy In America, “We succeed in enterprises which demand the positive qualities we possess, but we excel in those which can also make use of our defeats.” Thank you, Alexis.