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.
“Circumstances do not determine a person; they reveal a person”
Reality has always been filled with uncertainty, but I’ve never had more uncertainty in my life than now. Here are just a few of the questions that have been on my mind recently:
• Will we ever get back to relating comfortably with each other again?
• Will my daughter be able to come home for Christmas? When will I see my grandkids (who live in the US) again?
• What if I unknowingly pass Covid on to someone else? If I contract Covid, what impact will it have on me? How about on my family?
• What will the impact of zoom meetings and remote working conditions have on my business long term?
• Will this pandemic ever actually be “over?” And what will the new reality look like? And how will we even know it is “over?”
With my sensitive nervous system and propensity toward worry, I struggle to find strength and peace of mind. Here are seven ways I have found security and inner well-being in the midst of the uncertainty:
1. Separate Security From Safety. Safety is a condition of being protected from harm in order to achieve an acceptable standard of risk. Safety comes from your environment. In its simplest terms, your workplace or relationship is either physically safe or it is physically unsafe. Psychologically, it is either safe for interpersonal risk-taking or it isn’t safe. Security, on the other hand, is a state of confidence that arises from one’s capacity to face the demands of reality. Security comes from within. “Security,” Helen Keller said once, “is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” It is the organization’s responsibility to ensure a safe work environment, but it is an employee’s job to be secure within that environment. The best companies create loyalty through great leadership and culture, not through the illusion of job security. Job security comes from one’s employability, one’s capacity to be employed. Like an employer, it is the responsibility of our public health system to create a safe society. However, the path of security, in the world of a pandemic, is to take responsibility for our own health and well-being – so we’ll have the strongest immune system possible. No one else is going to do that for us.
2. Become Stronger. My father used to say to me, “Don’t pray for life to get easier. Pray, instead, for you to get stronger.” To quote American author, Van Jones, “I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym.” I find it strengthening to regularly workout on the weights and hit the bag. While sustaining and growing physical strength is helpful, what it does to strengthen my mind is even better. You get stronger by doing something difficult. What are you doing every day that’s hard, but you do it anyway? We’ve all heard that self-care is important. But self-care usually isn’t comfortable or easy or painless. Self-care is what you don’t want to do but you know you need to do because of how you feel after you do it. Becoming stronger can be as simple as making your bed every morning. Strength is not about velocity; it’s about direction. What direction are you headed?
3. Build Community. Through this pandemic, I’ve never felt more isolated, and I’ve never felt more connected. We are all in this together. No one is unscathed from the impact of COVID-19. Every day I reach out and deepen my relationship with my community – my handful of trusted confidants. Not only am I using this time to get stronger physically and mentally, I’m using this time to strengthen my relationships with the important people in my life. Every day I share something with someone about my fears, my doubts, my insecurities, and my dreams. I talk about my losses and my grief, my anxiety and my worry, my vision and my intentions. It doesn’t need to go on Facebook, but it does need to be shared with the people who matter most. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
4. Replace Optimism With A Firm Resolve. Admiral Jim Stockdale, who Jim Collins referred to in his classic book, Good To Great, was held captive in a prison camp in Vietnam for seven years. When asked how he did not allow his oppressive circumstances to beat him down, he talked about facing the honest truth of one’s situation. “You have to understand, it was never depressing. Because despite all those circumstances, I never ever wavered in my absolute faith that not only would I prevail – get out of this – but I would also prevail by turning it into the defining event of my life that would make me a stronger and better person…” He also commented on who didn’t make it out of those circumstances: “It was the optimists. They were the ones who always said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ Christmas would come and it would go. And there would be another Christmas. And they died of a broken heart…. You must never, ever, ever confuse the need for absolute, unwavering faith that you can prevail despite those constraints, with the need for the discipline to begin by confronting the brutal facts, whatever they are. We’re not getting out of here by Christmas.” There’s no end in sight to the pandemic and we don’t even know what the end will look like. What we do know is that strength lies in staying present in the present moment and power comes from a firm resolve we will get through this and will be better for it. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so to all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
5. Choose Service over Self-Interest. In my book, Caring Is Everything: Getting To The Heart of Humanity, Leadership, and Life, I discuss the value of expressing our innate generosity as an antidote to most of what ails us. At times, caring happens as a reflex. It isn’t something we think about or “try” to do. It’s the instinctive response of an open heart. Someone slips, our arm goes out. The car in front of us is in an accident and we stop to help. A colleague feels down, and we buy them a cup of coffee. It all seems natural and appropriate. Through caring naturally for one another, we can glimpse an essential quality of our being. We may be sitting alone, lost in self-pity, feeling sorry for ourselves, when the phone rings with a call from a friend who is really depressed. Instinctively, we come out of ourselves and are there for another. It doesn’t matter what is said, but when a little comfort is shared, we hang up and feel a little more content with ourselves. We’re reminded of who we really are and what we can offer one another.
6. Practice Gratitude. In The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom tells of her involvement in the Dutch resistance during World War II, and how she managed to survive Hitler’s concentration camps and afterward travel the world as a public speaker. “Every experience God gives us, every person He puts in our lives, is the perfect preparation for the future only He can see.” The practice of gratitude carried her through the years of torture and the death of her family members. At one point, she even practiced gratitude for the fleas, for they were a part of “all circumstances.” She was a courageous woman who brought to life the precious perspective of seeking the gift in everything. I’ve learned to always make your gratitude bigger than your circumstances. Here’s a quick exercise to try that proves that gratitude can change your outlook. Pick any person you know and ask yourself, what do I appreciate about this person? Try to write down at least ten things. Now observe how your attitude toward that person has shifted. You can even take it a step further and let the person know what’s on your list. Gratitude changes everything. What you appreciate appreciates. Gratitude is like a muscle. Just as it is strengthening, so it has to also be strengthened. It has to be practiced.
7. Find Strength From Within. Whether you call it faith or inner well-being, security ultimately must come from within. I’ve learned this in my work with addictions for the past two decades. To get well, drug addicts and alcoholics have to find some kind of strength beyond their own capacity. They have to come to grips with the brutal facts that there is no security outside of themselves. Alcohol won’t do it. Drugs won’t do it. Food won’t do it. Order and control won’t do it. Fame and money and notoriety won’t do it. Security is an inside job. There is simply not enough stuff in the world to fill the emptiness inside of us. It’s an inside job. William Stafford’s journey with words began most mornings before sunrise. This simple poem, “The Way It Is,” written 26 days before he passed, expresses brilliantly what it means to find an inner place of calm and steadiness in the midst of the vicissitudes of life.
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
Uncertainty is integral to life. Without uncertainty there would be no room for new possibility. In our willingness to accept uncertainty, solutions will spontaneously emerge out of the problem, out of the confusion, disorder, and chaos. The more uncertain things seem to be, the more secure you can feel, because accepting uncertainty is the path to freedom. In the wisdom of uncertainty lies the freedom from our past, from knowing, from the prison of past conditioning. Through the willingness to step wholeheartedly and fully into the unknown, we step into the field of possibility. When we discover both inner well-being and wisdom amid the uncertainty, we find security.
As a parent, I have learned that children are great imitators. The key is to give them something great to imitate. Michelle Skene, principal of The Ridge at Kanata Montessori School, where my daughter teaches, sent an inspiring note to parents as they prepare to send their children back to school this week. Her message reminded me of what it takes to be an authentic leader right now. Not just in the home and in the school, but also in the workplace.
“During challenging times,” wrote Michelle, “children of all ages look to their parents and adults for guidance. They observe carefully how we act and take their lead from us. They learn from what we do far more than from what we say. If we are patient and positive, they will be patient and positive.” If we are critical and negative, they will adopt the same approach. If we are fearful and hesitant, they will be fearful and hesitant. If we are courageous and decisive, they will follow suit.
Michelle then challenged her students’ parents to begin the new year with a renewed commitment to serve our children by role modeling the people we want them to become. “Your children and our students need us more than ever to be at our best and we will not disappoint them.”
This is the work of an authentic leader. You can inspire the people around you by being the change you want to see in others.
While our public health leaders are asking us to do what’s best for society by following public health protocols, no one is asking us to be afraid. Of course, it is natural to be fearful in new and unfamiliar territory. But we can decide to be courageous even in the midst of anxiety and uncertainty. We aren’t born courageous; courage is an inner muscle we strengthen by learning to deal with difficult situations. Growth lives outside the comfort zone.
This is a time when we are being sorely tested. And courage can be displayed in ways large and small every day. Courage is not the absence of fear. It’s learning to overcome it. Courage is also about accepting that we can’t always get everything we want and have things the way we want them to be. Nothing is ideal for anyone these days. Hardships are a part of life. Coming to grips with all this will be good for us – now and in the long run.
What we are dealing with today, at least in this country, is mostly about inconvenience and annoyances more than anything else. Sure, there will be severe economic and mental health challenges in the days ahead, but with our courage and compassion we will get through this in our own imperfect way.
Authentic leadership is about modeling the way. Let’s choose courage. Let’s lean into what we are afraid of. Let’s show ourselves and those around us that we can do this – and do it together
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.