Leadership is the art of feeding heroes. To be clear, let me define what I mean by the word hero. Heroism is the spirit with which you engage circumstance. Heroes are the ones who willingly enter into their own suffering as part of the journey. They are therefore unafraid to enter into the suffering of others. There is nothing superficial or shiny about the journey, it is about grit and love, the dirt and the glory. Heroes are not two-dimensional images of perfection. They are fully human, light and shadow, present here with an eye to the realm of the spirit, knowing any moment can be an opportunity to present love, courage, and humility. It is getting up again and again without losing sight of why you started in the first place.
Leadership, including leading yourself, is the discipline and the privilege of calling out heroism. It involves feeding the aspects of our character that draw us towards vision with courage, care, and humility while being at peace with our imperfections. It is an art that requires a willingness to stand.
Leadership is a way to capture the imagination and move people from their current state of reality towards vision; it is an invitation to their hero journey. It calls for a dynamic way of being and a willingness to continue learning, exploring, and most importantly—failing and getting up to go at it again. Making course corrections in real time is one of the hallmarks of a great leader.
In Daniel Coyle’s book, The Talent Code, he illustrates how talent is actually built by attempting something, making a mistake, self-correcting, and going again. Any transformation requires this type of discipline—making friends with what other people call ‘failure.’ Embrace the fail! The fail is what makes the victory possible.
“The key to transformation is time, intensity, and repetition.”
—Dallas Willard, American philosopher
In our three strikes you’re out culture, we have lost the value of perseverance. The repetition part of the formula is undermined by our aversion to failure. The culture informs us if something feels bad then it is bad and to be avoided. We have this idea that if you are learning something new, you should be able to do that something well the first time you do it. When that fantasy evaporates, the default reactions are to blame or walk away. So often when working with leaders around the world I hear them say, “Oh, I tried that, it doesn’t work.” Really? How many times did you try it? If it is a conversation with someone, it may necessitate more than one shot (or twenty, depending on the value of the relationship). The risk of going, again and again, involves the possibility of repeated failure, rejection, or disappointment. Any leader who resists this reality will remain in their proverbial comfort zone and will become, well, comfortable—and ultimately irrelevant.
Transformation involves risk. In many ways, it is a violent process. It violates our comfort, our view of ourselves, our view of others, our view of our circumstance and ultimately, our relationship to God. It is a risk to release what is known and reach for what is unknown and unprecedented. Transformational leaders are willing to make the exchange time and time again.
“To be great, struggle is not an option, it’s a biological requirement.”
– Daniel Coyle, author
Perhaps you are familiar with the old Cherokee tale of the two wolves. An old Cherokee chief was teaching his grandson about life:
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, self-doubt, and ego. The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. This same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old chief simply replied, “The one you feed.”
In 2015, I was in South Africa, Cape Flats, working with a sixth-grade class at Perivale School. Cape Flats is one of the most undeserved, violent, gang-infested areas in South Africa. The sixth graders live with their parents and relatives being shot, stabbed, imprisoned, or drug addicted. There are regular shoot-outs on the streets. After-school programs are non-existent because it is unsafe to walk home after 3 or 4 in the afternoon. My nonprofit, GAP Community, has had the privilege of serving in South Africa since 2006.
Standing in front of the class after spending two days of training on vision, value, and voice, I was struggling to find a way to communicate clearly to these kids the value of choice. I recalled the old Cherokee tale and reworked it a bit. I asked, “Do you think you have a hero inside of you?” A few answered with no, some with maybe and then silence. I reminded them Nelson Mandela grew up not far from this school. Was he a hero?
“Can you make the same kind of choices he made?” A few yeses, but mostly still hesitation.
New question. “Ok, do you think you have a criminal inside of you?” A loud yes! came back to me. “So let’s say you have both, a hero and a criminal inside, and they’re fighting. Who is going to win?”
“The strongest one!” they say.
“Yes! And how do you get strong?”
“You build your muscles and eat food!”
“Perfect,” I say. “So what choices feed your hero?” We made a list on the board, I heard: “be nice to my sister,” “tell the truth,” “don’t steal,” and more. Then I asked, “What choices feed your criminal?”
I heard: “being mean,” “taking what’s not yours,” “lying to people,” and more. It created a great context for them to consider their choices and where their choices were taking them.
And it is not just for kids! As a leader, one of my primary responsibilities is to call forth the hero in the people I serve. If you listen closely to people’s conversation you can hear when they put their cape on, when their purpose comes alive, passion gets sparked, and they are playing all in. Listen for those moments; feed those moments as a leader. And no, not everyone will take you up on your invitation. It is ok. Work with those who are willing. As the saying goes, you can’t push a rope.
Even though I know not everyone is willing, I choose to assume people want to be heroic. I operate from that assumption because it changes me and the way I relate to the people I meet. When I go in thinking not everybody will want this I notice I immediately start separating people in my mind between those who do and those who do not. And I am often wrong. I decided if I was going to be wrong, I would rather be wrong by thinking the best and being disappointed instead of assuming someone was not interested and not giving 100% to have it happen. I know transformation is always possible.
[i] Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. (New York: Bantam Dell, 2009), 60
[ii]Dallas Willard, Transformed by the Renewing of the Mind video series at The Carl Henry Center, February 2011
[iii]Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. (New York: Bantam Dell, 2009), 34