A research project from the 1980s, documented in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that male heart attack survivors who were socially isolated had more than four times the risk of death than men with strong social connections. And a study of more than four thousand men of Japanese ancestry living in Hawaii found that social networks guarded against coronary artery disease (independent of known health hazards such as high blood pressure and cigarette smoking).
Over the past four decades, there has been a sizable body of evidence documenting that being socially isolated significantly increases a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk equal to that of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
Simply put, people are nourished by other people. Research suggests that belonging to a tightly knit community is a significant predictor of health and mental well-being. Living beings yearn for the proximity of other living beings. Humans are happiest and healthiest when around other people, working together and helping each other. For much of history, humans have banded together as a matter of survival.
Even with pandemic fatigue, where we are weary of social distancing and isolating for the sake of our community’s health, our need for community has not changed – we desire to be heard, to be connected, to belong. Social distancing is not the same as social disconnecting. Isolating is not the same as detaching. Working together for the good of the whole is not the same as living in fear and withdrawing from each other. In our current conditions, we are called to develop a renewed connection to ourselves, to learn to enjoy solitude, to appreciate smaller spaces, and to be creative and intentional about sustaining our relationships with each other – thus finding innovative ways of sustaining community.
Living with a propensity for depression and having walked through some very dark periods in the course of my lifetime, I can suggest five strategies for fostering community during this pandemic that have worked for me:
1) Develop self-awareness. When a Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council was asked to recommend the most important capability for leaders to develop, their answer was almost unanimous: self-awareness. But how do you develop self-awareness? Self-awareness starts with checking in on yourself in the present moment. Are you afraid? Stressed? Inspired? Exhausted? Angry? Renewed? All of the above? Self-awareness comes from introspection and feedback from others. It takes time and intention but is a journey worth taking. You can only connect with others to the degree you connect with yourself.
2) Find a confidant. A confidant is a person with whom you can be real and honest. Confidants provide a space for those who are busy holding a space for everybody else. At this point in the pandemic, as fatigue is settling in for so many of us, we all need at least one confidant who can put us back together at the end of the day. Confidants are friends, spouses, coaches, lovers, or trusted colleagues that provide support, perspective, and accountability in the midst of our frustrations and challenges.
3) Practice kindness wherever you go. We are all doing the best we can to get through these challenging times. Let’s make it a point to grant each other a little grace. Even while wearing a mask we can smile with our eyes, offer encouragement with a hand gesture, and practice patience with our tone of voice. We’ve never been more alone, but we have also never been more together, sharing this experience with eight billion people on this planet. Community is developed one kind act at a time.
4) Find a reason to get out of bed in the morning. In a world preoccupied with problems, community is about discovering our gifts and finding ways to bring them into focus. Community is ultimately about being needed, belonging to something beyond yourself, being inspired with a reason to face the day. It is the task of leaders, indeed the task of every citizen, to shine a light on the gifts of those in the periphery and bring them into the centre. Especially in the midst of a pandemic, we need to find a reason to put our feet on the floor each morning.
5) Get comfortable being alone. Loneliness and being alone are distinct. A desire for solitude is a defining characteristic of an authentic person. A quest for community can be one more form of manic activity if it is not rooted in a continual practice of silence and time for reflection. If you work on creating a balance between reaching out to others and enjoying what the Finns call hiljaisuus, or solitude in one’s being, you’ll strengthen your sense of self-worth and find more meaning in your life.
Our intention, in our upcoming Authentic Leadership Masterclass is to do our part to help build communities with like-minded authentic difference makers. While we show how authentic leadership presence can be applied to the leadership practices of fostering trust, building accountability, navigating change, and engaging talent, a major part of the program is to connect leaders with each other to sustain their growth, connections, and sense of community. We work with accountability partners between sessions to support each other’s growth, help each other stay on track, and sustain the insights you glean from the class experience.
We still have a few seats available for our January and February programs for those of you committed to renewed leadership development this year in a community of incredible like-minded difference makers. I hope you will join us.
To mark the passage into the promise and hope for a safe and prosperous new year, I want to borrow from history and visualize an ancient and meaningful ritual. For 2,500 years, the Japanese have been making and drinking sake, a type of rice wine brewed from fermented rice. Throughout all that time, sake has been used to mark special occasions with the people that matter most. In most celebrations involving sake, a glass is placed inside a masu cup and the host pours sake until it overflows like a waterfall. The overflowing is an act of kindness and generosity to show appreciation for the people around them. It also works as a little act of celebration, to lift the spirits and to enjoy the present state of life. Watching the sake overflow and not knowing whether it will tip over presents a beautiful moment of suspense, when time seems to slow down. By introducing a moment of suspense, the ceremony keeps your mind in the present moment, focused only on the beautiful waterfall of sake.
As a message of appreciation to all my readers over the years, I’m taking the liberty to borrow from this little Japanese ritual and overflow some sake with you. My hope is that the image of this overflow will remind us all to bring presence and generosity into this new year. May we all experience the overflow of kindness through our actions as we build community together and navigate into 2021.
- Care enough to stop blaming and criticizing. Life is more than simply growing old. It means growing up. Growing old, any animal is capable of. Growing up is the prerogative of human beings. Once you decide that all criticism and blame are a waste of time your life will change forever. It’s far easier to be a critic than to be a player. That’s why there’s always more critics than players. In an NHL game, for example, you’ll find eighteen people on the ice at any one time if you include the referees and the linesmen. What do you have in the audience? Eighteen thousand critics. 1000:1. That’s about the proportion of critics to players in our society.
- Take ownership. One thing I’ve learned is that no one will ever think less of you for raising your hand and saying, “I’m responsible for that.” Explaining his error in judgement over a photo taken eighteen years ago, our prime-minister initially blamed his privileged upbringing for blinding him to the offensive reality of such images and how they are viewed as racist. My response is, “What’s wrong with simply fessing up to a mistake and misjudgment?” Take ownership. A leader’s responsibility is to model maturity and display what ownership looks like. And as citizens, it is our responsibility to take ownership by expecting from ourselves what we expect from our elected officials. It’s a whole lot easier to see the shortcomings in others – particularly if they are as visible as politicians – than it is to see our own blind spots and deficiencies.
- Don’t wait for your leaders. Another way of expressing ownership is to give what you expect from others. Waiting, as most of us know, is not a good strategy if you are after results. Indeed, we often wait for, or expect, our elected officials to legislate policies and practices that suit our own interests and in the process abdicate personal responsibility. What we expect from others, especially those placed in a position of leadership – contains a seed of opportunity to bring that to the world. If you want a visionary, benevolent leader with strong character, start by developing these qualities within yourself. If you want politicians to have more integrity, bring greater integrity to the world. Wanting your political leaders to be accountable starts with you being accountable.
Labor Day, Wikipedia tells us, “is a public holiday celebrated on the first Monday in September… It honors the American labor movement; the contributions that workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of the country… In Canada, Canadian trade unions are proud that this holiday was inspired by their efforts to improve workers’ rights.”
This Labor Day, I have put some reflection into the meaning of work in one’s life and how important work is to the soul. As Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century theologian, wrote, “To live well is to work well…”
There is a difference between a “job” and “work.” We may be forced to take a minimum wage job to pay the bills, but work is something else. Work comes from inside and is an expression of our soul. Work is what puts us in touch with others. Work is about contributing, being of service to the community. Work is creative. Work is about making the world a better place by the expression of our unique talents.
“Work,” writes Matthew Fox in The Reinvention of Work, “touches life itself. Good living and good working go together. Life and livelihood ought not to be separated but to flow from the same source, for both life and livelihood are about Spirit. Spirit means life, and both life and livelihood are about living in depth, living with meaning, purpose, joy, and a sense of contribution to the greater community… bringing life and livelihood back together.”
A stay-at-home mother with six children told me the other day that with her children returning to school, she felt a sense of emptiness, like her role as a mother didn’t have much value. I explained to her that the value in her work is not expressed in monetary terms. Indeed, much work in our culture is not paid at all. Perhaps even the most important work in our society is the work we don’t get paid for. For example, raising children, cooking meals, organizing youth activities, singing in a choir, cleaning up one’s neighborhood, tending a garden, planting a tree, volunteering in a community, mentoring a university student. Matthew Fox asks the question: How might these examples of good work be rewarded so that they are counted in our understanding of the gross national product (GNP)? For indeed, this kind of work – the kind we often don’t get paid for – is where true value lies.
I once heard an unemployed man say, “I’m only unemployed between 9-5.” Our lives are bigger than our jobs we get paid for. On this Labor Day weekend, I hope you will take a little time to reflect on some important questions:
- What is your real work?
- Where do you find meaning and significance and purpose in your contribution to the community and world around you?
- Can you bring more of your “real work” to your “paid work” – your job?
- For those of you who have employees, can you help them to find more of their real work in their jobs? You won’t have to motivate anyone once you find their real work.
Do you care enough to find out about the real work of the people around you? There’s nothing wrong with not getting paid to do your real work. At minimum we can be grateful for a job that enables us to do our real work at home.
We may not have a job. We may be retired. We may be unemployed. We may have a job that we don’t like. Or we may have a job where we get paid to do our real work. But we all have to work. Finding our real work is what makes life worth living.
Over the winter, my wife, Val and I took time to transplant trees and repot houseplants. It’s been good for me to slow down and spend some time working with soil, getting my hands dirty and connecting to the land, reminding me of the value farmers bring to our culture. I’ve been learning from Val, our resident plant expert, that a healthy root system is necessary to ensure a robust plant. Through their natural intelligence, plants know this and develop extensive roots before their energy is transferred into growing foliage. You’ll see this in a houseplant that will get root bound in a pot before they flourish above the ground. The root system is first developed in the dirt, thus enabling the plant to support its growth above the surface.
Leadership is like that. The source of what is manifested in the world is not seen by the world. Like a plant, whose strength and energy come from its roots, the strength and energy of a leader comes from within. A good life – through a person’s roots – precedes good leadership. Below is a short list of what a good life means to me, and the roots that will sustain and support you to do the work that you are called to do.
- Clarity. Clarity is about living your life by design rather than by default. Living without clarity is like embarking on a wilderness journey without a compass. Any way will get you there if you don’t know where you are going. Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare and precious achievement. You’ll be told in a hundred ways what is expected of you and what is needed of you to be a success. The real discipline in life comes in saying no to the wrong opportunities.
- Courage. If you have ever walked through something that frightens you, and you grew through to the other side, you know that courage is inspiring. It inspires you and it inspires those around you. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is facing fear and walking through it. There have always been courageous men and women who have been prepared to die for what they believe in. What do you care enough about to give your life for?
- Character. If you want to attract others, you must be attractive. Strong character demands that you shift from being the best in the world to being the best for the world, to strive not for what you can get, but what you can give, to endeavor not for what you can have, but for who you can be. A job title, the letters behind your name, the size of your office, or your income are not measures of human worth. No success by the world’s standards will ever be enough to compensate for a lack of strong character.
- Calling. Calling is a devotion to a cause beyond you. It is inspiring to be around people who have a dedication to a cause they care about. When you feel an internal calling, a deep sense of pursuing what you are meant to be pursuing, you take a step toward completeness in your life. “A musician must make music,” wrote Abraham Maslow, the famed American psychologist, “an artist must paint, a poet must write, if they are to be ultimately at peace with themselves.” Whether you are paid or not to express your calling, a good life requires you listen and respond.
- Contribution. When we come to the end of our days on this earth, we take no material thing with us. It’s not what we have gained for ourselves but the contribution we have made to others that makes life meaningful. It’s not what we get from life that has the greatest most lasting reward. It’s what we give. A good life requires a generous spirit and a giving heart. A life of contribution is a good life.
- Connection. After three decades of observing and learning from thousands of leaders in hundreds of organizations and in every walk of life, I finally understand what my parents tried to teach me more than forty years ago. In an interdependent world, everything is about relationships. It’s not all about models or strategies or programs or the latest technology. Whether you are a CEO building a company, a middle manager leading a division, a supervisor ensuring results on your team, a front-line sales person, a customer-service representative, or a parent attempting to develop capable young people, leadership is all about making contact and building connections. And caring is at the root.
- Centering. “Dwell as near as possible to the channel in which your life flows,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. For me, a good life is built around a spiritual center that I constantly seek and return to. From this foundation I find security amidst uncertainty, serenity in the middle of success and failure, stability among the fleeting emotions of happiness and sadness. It is this center that sustains me and provides connection in loss, humility in achievement, perspective in chaos, strength in weakness, and wholeness in fragmentation.
It’s an exciting time to be living in this wondrous world. What concerns me is the possibility that our efforts to continuously improve and advance everything will create a society that is actually less satisfying to live in. Every day we have an opportunity to invent a new world through the choices we make. Not just in a narrow economic sense, but also in a broader human sense: for ourselves and for our children and for our children’s children.
What does a good life mean to you, and how does living in accord with what matters to you make you a better person and a better leader?