Complexity, pressure and challenges abound. Many senior executives are working at full capacity to meet the needs of their staff, their customers, the Board and their stockholders or other stakeholders. With time frames tightening, nothing less than perfect is the new expectation.
The result of this work environment is that more and more leaders are running on empty. They are exhausted, emotionally and physically, from the pace. They are worn from the number of mixed signals and constant inputs, and they are all worried about the future. Suffering from burnout and a loss of passion, many of them are seeking new ways to rediscover hope, optimism and purpose within today’s complex and ever-challenging work environment.
As many of you know, it is rare for me when I am traveling to eat a meal alone. Given I was going to be in her area, she called me and lined up an early morning, breakfast meeting. Now it was not like the Oklahoma banking executive who many years ago invited me to have grits, gravy, coffee, and bacon with him at 5:30 am. He was a very nice man, but it was a hard to eat breakfast at such an early hour.
However, this day was different. She picked me up right on time and apologized for the condition of her car in the middle of winter. It was covered with slush, road salt and sand, but I felt right at home given I live in a rural part of the midwest.
“I’m taking you to a favorite place of mine,” she shared. “It is where all the locals go.”
We parked downtown and walked around the block to a small nondescript door, and stepped into complete darkness. Then she parted the black curtains on the inside and we walked into a very small restaurant with maybe 20 tables at most. After surveying the room, we found an open table and sat down. A young man came over and shortly we ordered off the menu.
First, the food was spectacular! It was some of the best and freshest food I had eaten on the road in quite some time. I had a great farm fresh 3 egg omelet with very good cheese, sauteed mushrooms, peppers and onions and home-made salsa plus a delicious blueberry pancake and a very fresh bowl of fruit.
The conversation was quite lively, too. We explored a couple of performance management issues related to her staff. It was clear that one person needed to be coached out. We also reviewed the status of her strategic goals. I encouraged her to more clearly define their metrics as the information she shared with me related to her goals and their progress was not accurately reflected in her metrics.
Then, she asked me an important question. “I’m overwhelmed most of the time. I have great dreams and visions for the future. But the work load is so time consuming. I can
barely keep my head above water. How do people manage to keep up with all of it?”
I paused and said: “Welcome to world of leadership. For some, it will be a maze and others a labyrinth.”
The word maze is often used as a synonym for labyrinth, but they are not the same. Mazes are multicursal in design; the user has to make choices at many points along the path. Mazes often have more than one entrance, and usually contain many wrong turns and dead ends.
A labyrinth is unicursal, which means that it has only one entrance and leads in only one direction. A labyrinth's walkway is arranged in such a way that the participant moves back and forth across the circular form through a series of curves, ending at the labyrinths's heart or center.
The unicursal designs associated with labyrinths are thought to predate constructed labyrinths. Pottery estimated to be 15,000 years old painted with labyrinthine patterns has been discovered in the Ukraine. The oldest known constructed labyrinths were built in ancient Egypt and Etruria (central Italy) around 4500 B.C., perhaps to prevent evil spirits from entering tombs.
The best-known labyrinths in the West, however, are those dating from the Middle Ages. They were built as substitutes for going on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, a journey that was physically or economically impossible for most Christians in Western Europe during this period. Cathedrals were designated as pilgrimage shrines, and labyrinths were embedded in the stone floors of the cathedrals as part of the shrine's design.
For example, the labyrinth on the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France was installed around A.D. 1200. Tracing the path through the labyrinth, often on the knees, was for many pilgrims the final act of devotion on the pilgrimage. The circuitous journey to the center of the labyrinth represented the many turnings in the journey of life, a journey that required the Church's guidance and support. Medieval labyrinths were circular in shape, the circle being a universal symbol of wholeness, completion, and unity.
On this particular morning we discussed the difference between stress management, i.e. the act(s) of managing physical, mental, or emotional factors that cause bodily or mental tension or even certain diseases, and renewal, i.e. the act(s) of restoring wholeness and unity to one’s life.
The labyrinth of renewal is a journey of transformation, namely the action of going beyond one’s current way of working and living. In this process of transformation, there are three stages. The first stage is separation. Here is where we experience loss, divorce or death because our world is disrupted and at times our ego is shattered by change. We are separated from all that was and can even feel deprived of familiar frameworks for thinking, working and living. In short, at separation we experience fear and chaos
At the second stage, we dwell at the threshold and surrender to the unknown. Victor Turner, the late anthropologist, who Identified these these three stages, calls the second stage as “the time between no longer and not yet.” Here we have died to who we were and are not yet reborn into who we might become. We are at the doorway, the threshold of new potential where we let go of old beliefs and old habits that limit us. It is the time of the great unknown.
In the third stage, we experience the return, a time of transformation and rebirth. For example, a caterpillar, having dwelled at the threshold during the chrysalis stage, now is reborn and transformed into the butterfly. The dying of the old self is reborn into a new level of truth. The strengths discovered in the second phase becomes utilized and shared during the third phase. One can explore these three stages in greater detail by reading the following book, Saying Yes to Change: Essential Wisdom for Your Journey by Joan Borysenko and Gordon Dveirin.
From my personal journey, I have learned the following four lessons about renewal.
Lesson #1: There will always be darkness before light.
As Joseph Campbell taught us, “One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.” The challenge is to patiently wait for the light. The challenge also is to embrace one’s challenges and feel the freedom that comes with that embrace.
Lesson #2: Birth and rebirth always begins with the transformation of the self to the service of another.
Letting go of being self-centered and committing instead to being dedicated to another is difficult for many people. But the real challenge of moving from vision to action is to give of yourself to something larger than yourself. This transformation begins with clarity of purpose and service.
Lesson #3: At the end of the journey inward, you will discover that you are not alone, but are in reality surrounded by a community of faithful people, seeking greater meaning, courage and hope.
Again, as Joseph Campbell pointed out, “Furthermore, we have not to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outward, we come to the center of our own existence. And where we thought to be alone, we will be with all the world.”
Lesson #4: We must embrace cathedral thinking.
Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy captured this idea best when he wrote the following: “I recently visited Norte Dame in Paris with my granddaughter. It took 104 years - three generations - to build. The architect who designed it never saw it finished. The stone masons never saw the stained glass windows. They had to have the commitment and faith to dedicate their passion and their life to it. I call that “cathedral thinking.”
As we move through the aforementioned stages and contemplate the above four lessons, then we will walk the labyrinth of renewal to a greater sense of purpose, passion and clarity in our lives. The journey begins when we embrace our challenges and move forward.