Inner Fabric of Leadership

thoughtful female student with...
thoughtful female student with...

Leadership is directional - leaders lead somewhere! And to lead somewhere, you need to be going somewhere. Put simply, to lead anyone anywhere we must first know where we're going, and why we're going there.

While stopping for lunch in the charming Tuscan city of Lucca, I happened to strike up a conversation with my waiter. In the course of our conversation I mentioned that my wife and I lived in New York City. At the mention of New York, he became wistful - and he began to tell me his story. At one time, he told me, he had a dream of moving to New York - he even had a position ready for him working in one of the city's restaurants. It was his "big chance," but he was unsure. Was it the right move for him? What about his family in Italy, and all his friends. The time didn't seem right to him, so he hesitated, and he let the moment of opportunity pass. That was many years ago, and he still wondered what might have been if he only had the courage to follow his dream, and to seize the opportunity when it came knocking.

Of course he could still follow that dream if he wanted to - New York was still there, and the hospitality industry there was still vibrant and full of opportunities for talented and hard working newcomers. So I asked him: "Why don't you try to live that dream now - why not look for other ways to do what you always wanted to do?" I knew that he would always wonder about what might have been unless he at least gave it a try? He pointed to his gray hair - "I'm too old now. I have too many roots here, a wife, a family." In his mind, the time of opportunity had passed - he would follow his path in Italy, and always wonder what life would have been like for him if he had the courage to follow a long ago dream. Knowing the opportune time, the time when our lives cross the path of destiny, is one of the great skills of leaders.

The ancient Greeks had two words for time. The first, "chronos," refers to calendar time, from it we get the words chronograph or chronology. Chronos is the time told by clocks and calendars: it is the stream of time in which our lives appear and disappear. It is the time that "waits for no man," or woman! The second is "kairos" - it is the dimension of time that touches eternity - it is time that holds out opportunity for growth, transformation. In kairos time, we are able to "seize the moment," and to take advantage of changing circumstances and act with good judgment and wisdom. Kairos is the time in which we meet the world "which is making us, and which we are making!" By pointing to his gray hair, my waiter friend was telling me that too much chronological time had passed - he was too old to do something new. He was too old for radical change - even is another part of his soul longed for that change. But what about Kairos time? In Kairos time you're not too old or too young, you are, and it's never too late to seize make changes and to alter the direction of your life. In Kairos time, all things are possible for those willing to take the risks necessary to do something new.

I told my friend "it's never too late to get on the train, but you have to know you want to go where it's going." You are never too old for the right opportunity - as long as you're running to something (acting affirmatively to pursue some good), and not away from something (fleeing an unsatisfactory present for an unknown, and not necessarily better, future). When we are running away from something we can act in haste or without proper deliberation. That's a sure fire way to make mistakes. When we move toward something, on the other hand, we are more likely to use our considered judgment as we take steps to live our dream. Being in Kairos time requires that, at the very least, we have a sense of direction. We may not know exactly where the journey ends (in fact we never do), but we should at least know the general direction we're traveling in, and want to go there. We're not just leaving the old, we're moving toward the new - with enthusiasm and hope. But how do we know the direction we want to, and should, travel? How do we discern the opportunities that we should seize upon? How could our waiter have found more peace of mind about his life and the twists and turns it had taken?

The same ancient Greeks who distinguished two aspects of time, inscribed over the doorway to the temple of Apollo the injunction "know thyself." Good advice then, and now. To know ourselves, we have to take the time to get acquainted with who we are from the inside out. Introspection doesn't come easy in a society that, immersed in chronological time, values action over reflection. Without reflection, however, action becomes frenzied swirl of directionless activity, often with purpose to it other than to merely keep occupied.

Successful people, and good leaders, take the time every day to reflect on their lives - the challenges, the opportunities, the givens, the obstacles. Honesty in our reflective moments is absolutely important - a part of our daily reflection must involve a fearless self assessment of ourselves: what have we done well, what have we done poorly, what are our weaknesses that we can work on, what are our limitations that we need to work around. In these moments of reflection we can much more easily begin to answer the ultimate question of life: where should I be going, and how should I get there. Implicit here is both a sense of life mission (who am I and what do I hope to achieve, what's my life plan?), and an incipient strategy (what do I do next to move in the direction in which my mission calls me?). We are really asking ourselves, "how does this new day and how do these choices that I will make today fit into my plan for my life?" Of course, reflection without action is no more productive than action without reflection.

Once we begin to form a tentative sense of direction we must also begin to take action. It's not enough to know the right train - the one going where you want to go. You have to get on it! And this means taking risks. It would be a risk for my waiter friend in Lucca to uproot his life to work in New York. Without risk, though, there can be no growth; and it's equally risky to do nothing (that is the risk of stagnation and human atrophy). Actions are rarely dramatic and life altering taken one by one, though. The movement in our lives is most often incremental. There will be big leaps, of course, but they are always preceded by small steps in the direction of change. To begin anew in the United States, my friend would have to make inquiries about jobs or employment opportunities in New York; he'd have to acquire any skills he'd need to make the move successful, he'd have to take some necessary legal steps to ready himself and his family for the transition. And all along the way he would have to be assessing and reassessing the viability and wisdom of his plan.

There's a simple rhythm to all this: first think - all action starts with thought, reflective, careful, sustained though, thinking means knowing the train route we want to travel on. Then plan- planning is really an extension of thought, plans are the thoughts that we have about the necessary steps we must take to get from where we are to where we're going. Planning means getting the train schedule, knowing when to leave for the station, and packing what will be needed on the trip. Then act - do it! Nothing is ever really accomplished without action. It means getting on the train and taking the trip. Finally reflect! How is the trip going, are we headed to the right destination, do we need to change trains, or routes? And, of course, sometimes there will be a well traveled route and a regular train to hop aboard. And sometimes there won't be a train route to where we're going and we'll have to build one, or get where we're going by some other means. Some goals, in other words, are easier to attain than others. But when our inner voice - our inner light - calls us off the beaten path, we must summon up the courage to forge our own trail through what may seem to be an uncharted territory. We cannot hope to lead others anywhere unless we know where we're going ourselves.

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