Personal Leadership Strategy is a leadership class offered by my employer. You have to be nominated to attend, and they fly you to their training campus for a week. It’s unlike any business class I’ve ever taken, focused entirely on personal work and giving attendees space to know ourselves better. This was my response to the class, most of it written in a frenzy on the flight home.
I am standing in front of my classmates at the end of our week-long, intensive training. In my hand I hold a caricature of myself. The artist has sketched me confident, softly smiling, a questionnaire in one hand and a briefcase marked “skills, smarts, and years of experience” in the other. I know what I’ve been asked to do: Describe my caricature and answer a question selected at random by the faculty leader. I am not nervous. But this isn’t what I want to do. My emotions about this time at Crotonville feel like they want to burst out of my chest. What will happen if I let my feelings speak? Will they come tumbling out, jumbled and unintelligible, like speaking in tongues? I cannot find a way to organize my thoughts. There’s still nowhere to begin. So I do as I’ve been asked and take my seat. As I listen to my classmates, I feel a little bit jealous because many of you articulate these very emotions, while I do not feel ready to give voice to mine. So if you will forgive me for doing it from this distance of time and through a computer screen, I’d like to share them now.
Two nights before I left for the class, I dreamed about the trip. In vibrant color, I saw Pope Francis roller-blading down a New York sidewalk. Since I’m not Catholic and I rarely recall such vivid dreams, I found this a bit strange and wondered what it might mean. I felt excited to make the trip and find out. I knew we’d be doing personal work in the class, and since I have been working on “owning my shit” and being vulnerable (just finished my second read of Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly), and since I recognized I was “stuck” in a few areas, I approached the class with anticipation. When we started to dive into the course material, I was delighted to find it aligned completely with some practices of inner healing prayer that I’ve recently begun following in my church, which have brought me great freedom. It seemed clear that I was meant to be here, that this would only build on what I’ve been learning.
So I was unprepared for the number of times I’d want to “cut and run” and how that would expose some of the very things that had me stuck. The early exercise where partners tried to guess my feelings from facial expressions alone proved fruitless, as my face refused to cooperate and reveal any emotion. Later, as we watched Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk on her stroke and how it changed her understanding of neuroscience and of life, tears sprang to my eyes as her voice cracked and she described “a world filled with beautiful, peaceful, compassionate, loving people.” Too much, I thought. This is too much. During the evening health event, as the doctor coached us on posture and its expressive capabilities, the partner activity, which required us to take turns pretending to be angry and “standing up to” the angry person, nearly sent me scurrying back to my room. What is it about this emotional exposure that bothers me so much? I wondered.
I would soon have a chance to wrestle with that particular demon. When we talked about the negative voices in our heads, I knew pretty well what mine said: You will be ridiculed (and deserve it). I had never considered how that voice emerged from a legitimate, good desire to protect myself during some particularly unkind experiences with peers growing up. It was so incredibly healing to honor that voice’s noble intentions before letting it go. I had always tried to stomp it out, stuff it down, “give it to Jesus,” but never felt truly free of it. Paradoxically, acknowledging that it came from a real place and wanted to protect me helped me release it.
And yet. I told my partner for that exercise, “I’m afraid it will come back.”
The sense of freedom from that voice was exhilarating. Further building on it was the sense of safety, of knowing we were all in it together. That last full day, several of you bravely stepped forward and allowed yourselves to be examples of the healing work we were doing. I hope you felt the support from the room – and from this distance, if it no longer seems real, I promise you it was. I felt those final sessions galvanized us with the sense that we are all part of the same deeply good and deeply broken tribe.
In the middle of the week a thought had occurred to me. This class felt to me more like a church retreat than a business class. And at my last church retreat, we celebrated with a dance party. It felt so amazing to let go of that fear of ridicule and move my body to the beat as it wanted to. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if we ended with a giant dance party?” I discarded the thought almost as quickly as it came – This is still a business class, no matter what it feels like. Yet when the faculty leader arrived at our celebration dinner having changed out of her wedge heels into sparkly flats, it fluttered back to me. And so it was! Down went the lights and up came the thumping bass. When I realized it was really happening, I didn’t need to be told twice. Never before have I been one of the first on the dance floor.
And I remembered what I told the caricature artist about “the leader I want to be”: “I have a clear vision and share it passionately. I sing my song and dance my dance, and others want to join me.”
When I returned to my room that night, sweaty and exhausted, I remembered that I could fill out the course evaluation and in return get a peek at the random question list for our final class meeting in the morning. Ever the dutiful student, I started to review the list. It was never-ending! Quickly I realized I would never be able to prepare to answer each question, nor did I want to. Adding to my stress, a few emails popped up that reminded me of things I’d forgotten to do. Too tired to deal with any of it, I collapsed into bed. The next morning, I awoke with a migraine, my stomach churning, mind racing. I was fearful – Some of those questions cover topics I don’t even remember discussing! What will I say? I was angry – So, after this week of trying to get us out of our own heads, it still comes back to memorizing acronyms and techniques? That dance party was a lie! No wonder they didn’t give the questions until you completed the course evaluation!
I wobbled into the shower, nauseated, trying desperately to employ some of the techniques we’d learned to beat back the anxiety. It was like fighting the hot winds of a wildfire, but slowly, I began to get some relief, and I recognized that old demon, Fear of Ridicule, was being triggered. I forced myself to face the question: Even if I totally bomb – even if I completely blank – is anyone really going to mock me? After all we’ve done this week, would anyone dare? I knew the answer was no. I acknowledged, as we all acknowledged, that I am a novice in these arts, and everyone expected my answers would reflect that. Finally, I realized, smiling to myself, that it wasn’t at all about the content of the questions. It was about what we’d really learned, what we’d taken into our minds and bodies that week, and even if I couldn’t name the specifics, I had surely learned. I could trust that. And the nervousness, the anxiety evaporated and did not return.
If I’d been able to finish gathering my thoughts, here is what I would have said to all of you:
This has been a sacred experience.
We were, are on holy ground.
You are the ones who made it that way.