#136 Learning to Dance

"The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, join the dance"

Alan Watts

I'm standing in a doorway now.  In fact, I've been here for a little while.  Behind me is the past.  Yesterday.  The first 43 years.  Ahead of me is a partial unknown.  My instincts are a little rusty, but generally solid.  I need to move.  Need to push my way through the door.  A friend of mine is standing right behind me.  She will not force me forward, but she will not let me step backwards either.  She stands there quiet and calm and unwavering.  A voice inside me keeps asking me the same damn question over and over and over...."Hey man, when you gonna step through?  When you gonna move?  I'm getting tired of standing here spinning my wheels.  C'mon, brother, it's time to leap. Lets go."  For a long time, I have been trying to silence that voice.  Not sure how much longer I can.

I got a note last week from an Army friend asking me facetiously whether or not I'd retired. Part of the note said, "Your blogs are more about life nowadays, than Army leadership.  Well, actually, it all turns out to be applicable to both."  Thank you my friend, you managed to say in 2 sentences what I have been trying to say for the last year and especially the last 6 months.  This is a blog about leadership.  It is also a blog about life - my life - and my leadership journey. It is a blog about me learning how to lead myself.

Anyone remember middle school dances?  If you are my age, they might have gone a little like this: All the boys would stand on one side of the gym, all the girls on the other and everyone would stare at each other all night until there was 20 minutes left and the DJ would play either "Free Bird" or "Stairway to Heaven".  And then suddenly you would screw up enough courage to walk across the dance floor and ask some girl to dance. Praying to God she said yes, so your buddies wouldn't laugh at you.  And then you would get to put your hands on her waist and she might put her hands on your shoulders and the two of you would slowly spin in circles even though the songs picked up their tempo.  Sound familiar?  Remember that second when you knew that it was now or never?  That if you didn't walk up and ask her right now, then it would be too late?  Well, minus the too late part, that's a lot how I feel tonight about my own leadership journey.  It's that last second before I break away and screw up the courage to ask her to dance. In this case, before I let go of the my past and embrace my future.  Embrace my authentic self.  Embrace the truth.  Trust my instincts to guide me.  My hands are shoved down deep in my pockets now, my feet shuffling around and kicking at some imaginary piece of invisible something on the gym floor, starting to rock back and forth a little....What have you got to lose?  Go ask her!  It's time to move.  It's time to dance.

I have spent the better part of the last 6 months pulling and tugging and stretching and tearing and trying to look at my life and see how I got to this place.  To see how I could end up feeling so paralyzed sometimes that it's almost impossible to even breath and then feeling such an amazing burst of energy and confidence that it feels like you can't be stopped.  To peel back layer after layer after layer and start to take full responsibility for my own life.  My own happiness.  My own success.  See, that's the part that confuses people about me the most.  I am very successful.  I have enjoyed a ton of good fortune throughout my Army career and most of it through my own efforts and determination and passion and drive.  I have ambition and a talent for this particular profession.  I have every reason to know - truly know - that I possess every single attribute and skill necessary to truly enjoy the challenges that lie ahead.  I know it like I know my name.  I know that I am a leader.  I know that I have vision.  I know that I can read the tea leaves and see around the corners better than most.  I have faith in my ability to deliver what I say I will every time.  And generally better than anyone expected.  All if that is simple truth.  But what drives all that success?  Is it pure self-confidence, pure self possession?  Pure belief in my innate abilities?  The knowledge that I have an entire careers worth of success that informs me?  

Don't I wish!  If only it were so.  Why, given all that I know to be true about myself, can't I seem to break free from this final chain?  Why will I walk all the way to the edge and stick my toe over it and then pull back?  Why is this final doorway kicking my ass so hard?  Simple. I'm afraid to fail.  I'm afraid to strike out.  I failed once in a really big way and it made a lasting impression.  A lasting impression because it had never happened to me on that scale before.  An impression that has been hard to break free of. A self-trust that has been hard to regain.  I walked across the gym floor and asked the pretty girl to dance, and she said no and then turned back to her girlfriends and they all started giggling.  

It's coming back though.  I can feel it.  All the hard work, all the excavating, all the stripping away of the layers.  Every second of the journey completely worth it.  Each day, I get a little bit closer to me again. My legs are getting stronger, my eyes clearer and my purpose more narrowed and pure.  I have failed and I have survived that failure.  It's time to cut all of the things that have been chaining me to the doorway loose and start to trust my instincts and my abilities again.  It is time to take full possession of my life.  To not be a victim of my own creation.  Not personally, and not professionally.  It is time to walk through the door.  

As a leader, there will always be times when you come up short.  Those times deserve to be looked at, studied and learned from.  They deserve an honest appraisal and a search for the cause.  But once you have done that - and God knows it might take some time - you will come to a doorway.  On one side you remain chained to the failure and let it redefine you.  On the other side is the humble acceptance that you won't always get it right.  The other side holds one other important piece too.  There's a pretty girl over there who just might say yes....I guess it's time to learn how to dance....

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

#135 Who Are You? Wanna Bet?

Who are you? Who are you really?  How do you define yourself?  Think you know the answer to that?  Try it.  See if you can come up with the truth of who you are.  Clean and pure and honest.  Try this....If someone walked up to you today and asked you to describe your best qualities and your worst, how true and accurate do you think your answers would be?  Would they be the truth of you, or would they be neatly packaged to highlight what you think the 'good' parts are and downplay the 'bad'? I'm not judging the highlighting itself, but is it the truth?  Would they be you, or what you think the world wants to see?   Can you see and accept your own truth?  I found out last night that it's not always easy to do.

I have spent a lot of time lately thinking about my personal definition of manhood.  What I value about being precisely me.  Not my biological maleness, but my definition of what it means to be a man.  What are those parts of me that are fundamental to me.  The values, the qualities, the character....What makes me me?  Each of us will have our own set of understandings about what these things are, and that is critically important to understand.  Does being a man equal physical strength?  Intelligence?  Emotional hardness?  Softness?  Stripping away every other definition that the world bombards us with, what does being a man or woman mean to you, and do you live in accordance with that understanding?  Do your actions match your character and values? Is your truth that cleanly lived?  The more layers I peel away, the more I am finding out that for me, a lot of my truth has not been cleanly lived.  I just got very very good at sliding around in the muck.

I have said many times, that if you want to know who someone really is, take their public 'persona' and then do a 180 degree shift.  Take what they give you and spend some time looking right behind that and seeing what you find. Look for the opposites.  For many people this will be your first inclination of who they truly are whether or not they know it.  In fact, until recently, I had done a damn good job of convincing myself and the world around me that what I was living each day was who I truly am.  Oooops!  Not so much it seems. 

This whole idea came to a head last night.  I was asked to list those qualities of mine that I thought were central to my manhood.  As I listed some of them, one stuck out and deserved a little more attention.  Needed to be looked at more thoroughly.   And what I found in the end was what I often give the world is a facade.  I present what I think the world wants to see instead of remaining true to who I am at my core.  I am not being authentic. I guess at what I think someone might want to see and then craft myself to meet my understanding of what they want. I bet a lot of other people do that too.  I am absolutely certain that I'm not alone here.  After awhile though, you get so good at shifting and sliding around that you lose sight of who you are.  That's what happened to me.  I have been denying myself to myself.  I have not been truthfully me. 

Why does all this matter?  Why am I telling you this?  Why should you even care?  Why all this soul-searching and the journey and all of that?  Why share it on a leadership blog?  Because it truly does matter.  It matters very much if you are ever to be a leader.  A leader in your family, in your workplace, in your community.  If you are ever to lead, then you have to be authentic.  You have to know yourself completely.  And you have to continually pull apart the layers of falsity until you get there.  That is what I am doing here.  I knew that I wasn't being truthful to myself, but couldn't see what the truth was.  Now, as I peel back the layers, I may not always like what I see, but I damn sure like knowing that it is at least honest.  I am not hiding anymore. 

In the purest sense, what sets leaders apart from others is that they are honest with themselves and authentic.  They know exactly who the hell they are.  They do not placate, or shield, or deny, or hide, or look away from the truth of themselves.  They know the good parts and the bad parts in equal measure.  They calmly say, "This is who I am.  Take me or leave me."   And we know who they are too.  We can see it, and even feel it when we are around them.  When a leader walks in the room, everyone else knows it.  It's not the title, or the rank, or any of that crap, it's them.  They possess a peace, a calmness, a certitude about themselves that makes the rest of the room take notice.  And that calmness and certitude generates from their authenticity.  They accept themselves completely honestly and don't give a damn if you do or not.  They do not care about your judgement of them for they are the only judge of themselves who matters.   They make their choices based upon their values, and their character.  They make decisions based upon their understandings and priorities, not yours.  And they stand comfortably on that ground.  

Those are the type of leaders our Army is crying out for.  Men and women of known character and values.  Of calm certainty and truth.  Men and women who will make the best decisions they can, the best choices for their people, who can see more accurately what the mission demands and rest more peacefully because they are not worried about what the boss might think.  Those are the leaders the Army demands.  

I came out of last night  in a different spot than when I went in.  Something I had convinced myself I am, I really am not.  My 180 degree rule came home to roost.  Ultimately, I am glad of it though.  I really am.  What I found last night was a sense of calmness and peace knowing that I had settled a small question about who I am.  In and of itself, that doesn't make me a leader, but it's a small step closer to becoming an authentic one.  And that is the purpose of all of this.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.