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.
I love this time of year. It’s my favorite season. I call it “late summer.” The crisp air in my morning walks, the dropping temperatures, and the leaves beginning to turn remind me of going back to school, my days of harvest on the farm, starting a new year of teaching, and beginning a new business cycle.
And even though there is a lot that seems different this year with the pandemic, I’m still embracing the emerging fall.
Here are four keys to protect your mental and physical health heading into colder months:
1) Get outside. I’ve learned in my life that the way to grow through discomfort is to move toward what ails you, not away from it. There’s no growth in the comfort zone, so if you are going to grow and flourish, move toward what ails you, not away from it. The weather is the same way. If it’s windy or cold or stormy, put on the clothes that match the weather, get out and enjoy whatever is there. Pushing yourself through a little discomfort is good for both the mind and the body.
2) Don’t purchase collective disease. I’m hearing a murmuring of voices these days that say, “we’ll get another wave of COVID when the days get colder and flu season hits,” but I’m not allowing it to frighten me. I am embracing life too much right now to let any cynic bring me down with more depressive thoughts. They don’t serve me well and I don’t think they serve the world.
3) Live with purpose. A purpose or vision is a powerful force in one’s life. My purpose of making a difference in people’s lives through teaching and writing was shaken last March when people immediately stopped hiring speakers. When the pandemic hit, I faced depressive thoughts, self-doubt, and fear. I temporarily lost my purpose, but after facing the dark night of my soul and considerable reflection, I began to realize that my purpose lay not in what I do but who I am. With a steadfast purpose to continue to teach and a vision to shift my work to an online format, we developed a three month virtual Authentic Leadership Development Masterclass: https://ally-stone-9892.mindmint.com/landing_page_8o9taxbvabex0il3g7b4
While self-doubt, fear, and depressive thoughts still surface at times, having a renewed sense of purpose dissolves the negativity and empowers me with regenerated energy.
4) Don’t be distracted by the detractors. It seems to be human nature to succumb to negativity, self-pity, and self-absorption by binge watching Netflix or endless internet surfing. Rising above what is easy and comfortable by responding to a vision of possibility is where self-respect is born. Envision yourself as healthy or create a business that will make the world better or learn a new skill that will challenge and inspire you. Then turn off the TV, set your devices down, unplug the news, and go get some exercise, sign up for an online class that inspires you, check out a recovery group, or pick up a book and start studying. Stop complaining about the world and start doing your part to make it better. Do this not because it will make you better than others but because of what it will do for you.
I have always loved the words of the great Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, when he said, at the age of ninety-three, “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”
I was lamenting with a colleague about how we all have areas in our lives and our leadership that drive other people crazy, cause damage to the world around us, and hurt the people we care about. And we are blind to them. That’s why we call them blind spots in our leadership development program. So much of what we bring to the world causes harm and requires intentional work to improve our leadership, and yet has become so habitual that we aren’t even aware of it. It all seems fine to us, but we are blind to how destructive it can be.
So it would appear that perhaps the eruption of anger toward inequality and discrimination in our society is a reckoning of our own blind spots around the issue of racism. Professional athletes this week have reminded us all that there is something more important at work here than winning games, making money, and the achievement of goals.
It seems to be human nature to avoid problems and dodge the truth. After all, who wants to look at the financial ledger of our businesses or our lives? It’s easier to procrastinate a visit to the doctor than face lab work results. It’s easier to avoid facing the difficulties in a marriage than confront what’s really going on. Who wants to admit they have an addiction and actually do something about it?
It’s easy to criticize leaders in an organization for not facing reality or confronting brutal facts and acting on the implications. But how many of us do this in our own lives? And it’s easy to judge the racism we see around us, but what about the unacknowledged prejudice within us?
I recently spoke to a high-ranking public service leader who publicly made a statement that there was systemic racism in the culture that she led, and she was taking action to rectify it. She opened herself to much criticism from her employees, but her courage to face reality demonstrated the strength of her character. It also deepened her credibility and the respect of her best employees.
We all have our prejudices. Only when we own up to them and face this reality will we begin to heal the world – and heal our lives. Helping people see their blind spots is a large part of the work we do in our retreats and online programs for developing authentic leaders (see www.irvinestone.com).
There are specific actions you can take to change the world by facing some of your own racism blind spots. Let’s do our part to heal the world by taking personal accountability:
- Speak to someone you know well who is different from you – in gender, race, ethnic background, or sexual orientation – and ask if they have experienced you being prejudiced, disrespectful, judgmental, or insensitive – and how. Say thank you and listen carefully to what they have to say. Be sincerely open to learn from them.
- If the level of honesty about these questions may be in doubt, invite the people you work with to provide the answers to these questions anonymously.
- If they honestly don’t perceive you as prejudiced, then still take time to listen to what they have to say. If something in you gets triggered, resist the human tendency to get defensive and instead use the trigger to open a new door to learn something. It’s important to begin the dialogue.
- Treat all diversity as an opportunity to learn and face the truth. It’s a life-long endeavor, and one worth pursuing – for the sake of a good life and for the sake of the survival of our species.
A leader can be defined simply as a person who has followers. Not followers in the conventional sense of being subservient, compliant, or submissive. And not necessarily social media followers. Leaders have followers in the truest sense: they follow not because they have to but because they want to. They follow by seeking your advice, looking up to you, respecting your opinions and perspective, and working with you to produce results. They follow by trusting. True followers are engaged and committed.
True leadership development, then, is about becoming a person that’s worth following. It’s about attraction rather than promotion. And if you don’t know how to attract people to follow you when you don’t have a title, don’t expect a title to make it happen for you. You can get promoted to being “boss,” but you have to earn the right to be called a leader.
So, titles don’t make you a leader. What they do make is your flaws and deficiencies immediately visible and transparent. You don’t have to be vulnerable to show others your imperfections. Those around you already know them. With the position of leadership comes the responsibility of letting your people know that you are aware of what they already know. “Here are my flaws. Here are your flaws. And here’s what we are going to do to cover each other off because we have each other’s back…” For example, if interpersonal relationships aren’t your strength, let others know that you know this. Then acknowledge the people on your team who are good with people and give them the space and support to express their abilities for the betterment of the team.
This level of self-awareness is a critically important ability for leaders to develop. Everyone already knows you have flaws. The question is, “Do you know it?” If you want to be a credible leader who is capable of influencing others and inspiring others to follow you, you must acknowledge and be open to looking at your weaknesses.
If you do it right, leadership is a voyage of self-discovery. Make sure you know this before you get promoted and make sure you tell people this when you promote them. Authenticity does not mean perfection. It means embracing the brokenness as an integral part of life. If you want to live an unexamined life and avoid having all your flaws on public display, don’t become a leader!
This is a huge failing of many organizations. Historically, we promote people based on their professional or technical competence and ability to be an individual contributor. In the midst of the tyranny of the urgent, not enough rigor is put into assessing potential leaders’ ability to inspire followers and then supporting them on their voyage of self-discovery. Some people should never be put in a position of leadership. Desiring a raise or a promotion are simply not strong enough criteria for the arduous work of leadership.
Here are four ways to earn credibility in the face of deficiencies:
1) Be committed to self-discovery and self-awareness. If you don’t want your flaws on public display and if you aren’t dedicated to working with your deficiencies and coming out the other side a better person, then accept, with all due self-respect, that leadership is not for you. There is plenty of important work in the world that doesn’t involve leading others.
2) Be open about your weaknesses to those impacted by them, what you plan to do about them, and how you need others to compensate for your flaws. This gets to the heart of authenticity. Your flaws are already known to people whether you acknowledge them or not. It’s about being open about it and willing to answer the question, “What are you going to do about it?”
3) Don’t avoid leadership because it’s tough. Just know what you are in for. Go through it, with all its pains. Leadership, like love, hurts. But if you are committed to making a difference and to making the world a better place through your influence, it doesn’t matter. All those hurts strengthen you.
4) When you see leadership ability in others, don’t hesitate to a) acknowledge it; and b) encourage it. Leadership doesn’t start with people who have a title. It starts with instinctively knowing how to inspire people around them. Leadership about presence, not position. Let’s do a better job of recognizing leadership in ourselves and others.
If you are committed to be a better leader through increased self-awareness and a stronger, clearer purpose and presence, and could benefit from a community of support with other authentic leaders, then I invite you to join me for a renewed perspective on leadership and a life-changing experience at our public workshops at the Banff Centre. Check out my website for information: www.irvinestone.com