More than ever, the world needs people in business to be their own stories.
Our society rewards bankers who steal, businessmen who lie, sportsmen who cheat and politicians who steal, lie and cheat. We face a crisis of leadership and it’s man-made.
Feeling powerless, it is natural to look outside of ourselves; to political leaders, someone, anyone, that will take the lead to sort out this mess. But, when good people, powerful people, fail to generate the political capital to make a difference, it’s time to recognise that we must connect to ourselves, to our own power. We are the ones we have been waiting for.
We are failing to equip people to lead the kind of change the world needs. Some, too gentle for the gladiatorial sport that is business today, are ground down by the seeming stupidity and ignorance of those who don’t seem to understand that their actions are unsustainable. Unable to continue on their leadership path, they invest their energy in their families, communities and pursuits worthy and deserving of their vitality and talents.
Others battle through the labyrinth, slaying many dragons along the way, only to discover that despite their seniority, their voice will never drown out those “intellectually incoherent” voices intent on maintaining the paradigm of short-termism and shareholder value that is about value extraction not value creation.
It’s hard to make a difference and sustaining ourselves in such a world is challenging. For those of us who wish to create a different world, to do things differently, to lead from the heart, we must expect to be lonely: it’s lonely to get to the future first. How, therefore do we develop the resilience required to make an impact?
In her book Perseverance, organisational consultant Margaret Wheatley, suggests that patience and compassion are the only ways. We must avoid the trap of judging those who steal, lie, cheat and extract. Rather, we must re-define our task and challenge ourselves to become gentle guides to the world as we see it, not fierce advocates for our view of reality. We must not flee, but become warriors for the human spirit.
I suggest, we cultivate the patience and compassion required to persevere in our leadership task by first connecting to ourselves. To our own genius - our wisdom and intelligence, to what makes us feel alive, to what brings our meaning to life. This is our “battery” – the source of our energy and our optimism. That which will power the effort required to keep showing up, and to lead for change, one day at a time.
This is a call to ask you not to wait until a “cement shaking” experience jolts you out of comfort and complacency. It is a call to consider that security is not the point of our existence. It is a call to ask that you to be fully alive: to find the courage to choose to live and lead consciously, intentionally and by your highest calling, now.
To be your own story, starting today.
"Be your own story” is inspired by the commencement address given by Nobel prize winning author Toni Morrison to the graduates of Wellesley College, Massachusetts (an “uncompromisingly intellectual” women’s college).
In her 2004 address, Morrison inspires us in a way that standard commencement addresses often fail to. She reminds us that only when we question what is expected of us, only when we are willing to throw that away and act from our hearts, only then do we create true beauty; only then can we inspire others and begin to change the world.
Morrison cautions against pursuing happiness because that risks “never maturing, wanting only to look, to feel and be the adolescent that whole industries are devoted to forcing you to remain.” The process of becoming [an adult] is not inevitable: its achievement is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory, which commercial forces and cultural vapidity should not be permitted to deprive you of”.
The world the young graduates of Wellesley are inheriting has been created by Morrison’s generation of “heedlessness and denial, its frail ego that required endless draughts of power juice and repeated images of weakness in others in order to prop up our own illusion of strength, more and more self congratulation while we sell you more and more games and images of death as entertainment.”
But she reminds the women that “You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine what it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox.”
I graduated with an MA in English Literature from the University of Aberdeen in 1994. My dissertation was titled “A Psychoanalytic Perspective on the Work of Toni Morrison”. Naturally, I then became an accountant.
Photograph by Richard Avedon in The New Yorker, 2003