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Taking the Leadership Road Less Travelled

Lori West 12 Sep 2017
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

These are the closing lines of Robert Frost’s famous poem, The Road Not Taken, first published in 1920. This and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote, “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist,” spoke to me deeply as a teenager. I could descend into a maudlin state of woe about how awful my teenage years were, about how alienated and different I felt, but the truth is I’d be lying.

As a teenager, I was popular. I led lots of clubs, I edited the yearbook, I had a wide circle of friends, and I refused to align myself with a particular group of people. I made time for everyone, not just the cheerleaders and the jocks. As a result, I was liked by a lot of people.

I grew up in a small town in Tennessee as the daughter of a British-born Irish Catholic mother who spent her formative years in Chicago and a father of mixed British, Irish and Native American origin who openly enjoyed Motown music in the era of Civil Rights marches, lynchings and executions of leaders like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and the Kennedy brothers. If ever there was a recipe for developing an inclusive mindset, my childhood was it.

I could have easily rejected it all, but my mother strongly influenced the way I approached other people. She encouraged me to forge my own path and to do it with respect and kindness. She helped me see beyond the surface of someone’s presentation, to look past the obvious differences — gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, physical attributes, health, social status — and seek out the essence of each human being. Being not just a devout Catholic but a devout follower of the example set by Jesus Christ, her guidance gave me a taste of true Christ consciousness.

It was quite a shock to discover that fellow “Christians” behaved in distinctly un-Christian ways. On my first day of school, I came home crying because another child told me that I was going to hell for worshipping Mary. I soon discovered that Christianity is a game of smoke and mirrors. People attend church three times a week while sleeping with a neighbour, discriminating against people for being “different,” and forcing men, women and children to play narrowly-defined roles.

Apparently Christians were following Jesus according to Scripture. Really? I think they and I must have read a different book!

Why do I bring this up? Well, I see too much making wrong of the “other” for their beliefs and customs and not enough turning the finger back the other way to take responsibility for one’s own hypocrisy. Whether it’s the women’s movement in business leadership, or Black Lives Matter, Liberalism, Conservatism or the wide variety of faiths, it’s all religion when a view is deemed “right” and those who disagree are “wrong.”

Recently I heard about Stefan Molyneux, a Canadian podcaster and cult leader who encourages young people to deFOO, his acronym for rejecting one’s family of origin. There are times when parents get it really wrong, and it may be appropriate to distance oneself for awhile to let wounds heal. Having conducted my own research, though, Molyneux advocates vitriol, blame and retribution as his method of healing. It’s clear he hasn’t healed anything.

What’s even more worrying is that this is not unusual. This is THE source of the troubles we face as human beings. In trying to improve your life by blaming groups of people for your troubles, you perpetuate the very problem you’re trying to solve. In rigidly aligning your world view with a particular “group” or “leader,” you are sacrificing the very thing that makes you human — your vast creative potential to solve challenges YOUR way.

Yes, it feels safe to be told what to do. Yes, it creates feelings of security to have guidance to follow. Yes, it’s easy to follow someone blindly. Yes, it saves time and effort to swallow without chewing the fat first. Yes, it seems obvious to point the finger away from you. The question is — at what cost to you?

What has this got to do with leadership? Everything!

True leaders are masters of their own mind. Inclusive leaders create space for even the most outrageous beliefs. It doesn’t mean that you have to agree with everything, especially things that are factually inaccurate, one-sided or hurtful. It does help to penetrate the veil to touch the source of a belief itself. Curiosity cultivates connection and compassion, qualities that truly heal.

These days, I’m not religious. As an intrepid explorer, I have tasted the fruits of lots of faiths and philosophies, and while they taste, smell, feel, sound and look different, their core goal is essentially the same — to help followers connect with the aspect of humanness unbridled by three dimensions. As a result, I have found, in my own diverse and inclusive manner, that all spiritual and philosophical paths are valuable in some way, even the fundamentalist ones.

Being a non-conformist at heart, I choose every day to forge my own path rather than follow the lead of someone else. I admire what others do, but I’ve long since lost the need to “find my tribe.” Why should I limit myself to one small group of people? There’s too much to learn. The whole human race is my tribe!

As a leadership coach, I encourage you to do the same. Take everything I say with a pinch of salt, and ruminate over it. Chew the cud, digest what’s useful, spit out what isn’t, share your perspective and use the experience to create a view that is uniquely and inspiringly yours.

This is what brilliant leadership development looks like to me. What do you think?

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