I know, we’re tired of the word leadership. “If I hear that word one more time,” said my friend who is the CEO of a tech company, “I’m going to throw up.” (Glenn, this blog is for you).

I was bothered. How else are we supposed to say it? But I also get his sarcasm. When a concept becomes a cartoon character of itself, and ends up on those cliché soaring eagle posters pinned over the water cooler at the office, then we have to roll our eyes and cast our sights towards the next cutting edge.

I remember in the days I identified myself as someone ‘spiritual’ (complete with long sojourns to India), anything with the word leadership embedded in it, went straight to the trashcan (or recycle bin as it were). Leadership was for those courting ego, I piously thought.

Regardless of one’s source of cynicism, the concept of leading, of being a leader, is vulnerable to misunderstanding, and with that we miss an opportunity. So before we reject the land of leading (and it’s Hallmark card imagery of zen gardens and a solitary figures in front of a still lake), I’d like to argue that we have not yet gone deep enough into the soul of it.

How I know this is by the various comments I receive from men and womenmostly womenwhen I describe the work I do. “That sounds so terrific,” they say, “but I’m not really a leader.” Or “I used to run a company, but now I’m just taking care of my parents.” And “I am more of a behind-the-scenes kind of guy.”

These comments point to a fundamental flaw in our concept of leadership that is based on an outdated paradigm which infers that there is a leader at the top, or in the front, or at the fore….and then all the rest of us behind, or under. Right? Wrong. It’s wrong for lots of reasons but I’m going to address two: it’s wrong structurally, and it’s wrong conceptually. Hang with me.

 Leadership is not about a position, it is about a mindset.

Our current culture assumes certain structural hierarchal attributes to leadership. We believe that leaders are at the top, or in the front. Think about it. When someone says leader, check out your imagination. If you are like most of us, you might see a figure, alone, at the top of some hill, or at the front and center of a crowd. If you are romantically inclined, you might imagine your leader like Mel Gibson donning blue face-paint astride a mighty black horse.

We imagine this because we’ve seen few, if any, other models.

There is one model out there that demonstrates another kind of leadership. The horse herd is a 55 million-year-old system that is so effective, it places horses as one of the most successful mammals. Contrary to the myth of the aggressive solitary stallion, the herd is governed by a sophisticated lateral ‘moveable’ shared leadership governance that serves the whole. Leadership is assumedmoment to momentdepending upon the presence and responsiveness of any given horse. In other words it is those necessary qualities that arise in the present moment that dictate leadership, and not the horse itself. While a horse may embody a basic propensity towards presence and responsivenessgiving her a certain rank as leader over timethis can change quickly depending on the circumstances, and who is the most responsiveagain, in the moment.

What this means is that, using the herd as a non-predatory leadership model, leadership is available to you, all the time, in the form of your presence and responsiveness in the moment, not depending upon your position in your work and life.

Conceptually, if you imagine that leadership is about position, then it undermines and undervalues your presence and awareness in every situation. It’s easy to make leadership conditional upon external events, and roles, rather than internal resources.

In his seminal book, Conscious Business, Fred Kofman distinguishes two essential internal mindsets: Victim and Player. Each of us has both. It’s best to think of this Victim / Player archetype like a flashlight. Where you put your focus (shine your flashlight) determines which mindset you are in. The Victim mindset puts focus on what you cannot control. The Player mindset puts focus on what you can control.

A victim statement sounds like this: My computer crashed, all my files were lost.

A player statement, same scenario, sounds like this: I didn’t back up my files, and so I lost them when the computer crashed.

Here are two more sets:  ‘It’s hopeless,’ (victim), and ‘I haven’t found a solution yet’, (player).

‘Traffic was terrible,’ (victim) and ‘I made writing that last email a priority over getting here on time,’ (player).

A player mindset takes circumstances as a challenge that allows you to show who you really are, and what you stand for.

You will take accountability within any situation, regardless of their position of authority. For example, if you are a direct report to the CEO, and the CEO attacks you in an unskillful fashion regarding below-par results in a project, you can as a player reshape the conversation to be much more collaborative, informative and constructive conversation. This is being a leader to the leader in that moment, by modeling skillful communication.

Being the leader means that we work to step into our best, most authentic and skillful selves each and every moment by being accountable first and foremost to ourselves, and then to the others around us.

Every moment becomes a moment to be a leader, from the grocery store line, to the kids’ soccer game, to the boardroom. We are called upon to be the change: to model a more constructive conversation, to engage in a greater sense of presence, to participate in the collective with more awareness.

Real success in our lives is not about meeting goals, it’s about how we live. When we crown ourselves as leaders, we claim a joy that comes with that dignity and integrity. So, be joyful, and ride on.

Every month my colleague Anne Fullerton and I host a Women & Power conference call for women who have attended one of our retreats. This particular circle of wise women has been coming together via phone for almost a year and a half now. Each month, we explore a particular topic that is emerging for the group and last night’s topic was resistance.

Curiously, the topic emerged on the heels of inquiring into passion. Resistance and passion, we discovered, are inexorablyand annoyinglyconnected. So to serve our commitment to a more passionate, purposeful life, our circle of women dove wholeheartedly into passion’s counterpart.

‘It’s such a puzzle…’ said one member, ‘…sometimes resistance comes as an intuitive knowing that I should not do something. And sometimes resistance asserts itself between me and something that I should do, or even want to do, like work out, take time off, or journal.’

We hate resistance. It’s uncomfortable. It’s a puzzle. And when it stubbornly plants itself on our doorstep, many of us blame ourselves, judge ourselves and muscle ourselves through it. We tell ourselves we’re lazy or stupid and to just get on with it. We call ourselves cowards and failures. We say we’re bad friends, or terrible parents, or incapable of commitment.

So the women’s circle decided to do something bold. For one month they invited resistance in, and took the time to explore it completely through the lens of unconditional inquiry: What is resistance? When does it come? How long does it stay? What does it require? Why is it there? Is it just some kind of pathology, or is it a messenger? Should we trust it, or crush it?

After a month, here’s what we discovered: there is an invitation inside all resistanceto wrestle with it. Resistance is neither good nor bad, it is a doorway created to make us pause, wait, reflect and question. If you are willing to heed its invitation, then it will provide you with deeper insight into all manner of things.

Sometimes it makes us pause and discover that we don’t need to do something, or it is not in our best interest to do it. I recently committed myself to facilitating a workshop with several other people. I love my work. I love facilitating dialog. But for some reason, I found myself increasingly resistant to doing this particular workshop.

At first I berated myself, ‘Oh, you are just feeling intimidated by the topic; stop it!’ ‘You’re just a loser; you just want to sabotage yourself.’ Then I went into my own private version of spiritual conspiracy theory, ‘Something terrible is going to happen at the retreat and you are sensing it…cancel it!’ or my personal favorite ‘Your plane is going to crash.’

After spending some time with it, and discussing the above scenarios with a mentor friend, she said, ‘Or….it could be something else entirely.’

‘Like what,’ said I, in an accusatory tone of disbelief.

‘You could just be exhausted,’ she said succinctly.

I started to cry. She was right. It had been an enormously emotionally taxing winter and I had yet to catch my breath and recalibrate my life. The workshop was scheduled in a particular window between my children’s school holidays, and it was a possibility for some rare solitude me-time. Just the idea of several days off made my mouth water. 

I resigned from my facilitation post and took the time instead.

Sometimes resistance gives us insight into other helpful information. Like when we resist things we love.

My favorite thing in this entire world is taking my horse Artemis out for a long ride in the mountains. And guess what I resist most? You got it, taking Artemis out for long rides in the mountains. So, instead of judging myself as entitled, lazy, no longer passionate, or pathological, I spent some time with it. I discovered that it is not the time or the riding per se that I am resistant to. It is the fact that I hold myself to such high standards when I ride. How silly is that? My resistance was an doorway to discovering a hidden habit of self-criticism, and an opportunity to heal it.

No more resistance to rides in the mountains.

If you think about exercise, the principle of resistance is important. Resistance training works by causing microscopic damage or tears to the muscle cells, which in turn are quickly repaired by the body to help the muscles regenerate and grow stronger. The breakdown of the muscle fiber is called “catabolism,” and the repair and re-growth of the muscle tissue is called “anabolism.”

Anabolic means to grow, and that’s exactly what happens after you break down the muscle fibers with resistance exercise. In fact, many biological processes of growth in the body require some breakdown, or catabolism, prior to re-growth. For instance, bones must be broken down first before calcium and other growth factors repair the bone and make it stronger.

So, resistance in our life helps us grow and become stronger. It breaks down our plans, our beliefs, and our preconceived ideas so that we can be better. So that we can live better. If we embrace it as an essential personal development mechanism, available to us as a means to pause over, to wrestle with, and emerge from with new insights, then life becomes more magical.

But if we try to muscle through it, berating ourselves along the way, then we miss how life supports us to grow and become wiser.

Next time you are resistant to anything, drop what you are doing (or not doing, or dreading doing, or forcing yourself to do) and hang out with it for a while. And then take it by the hand and hit the mat. It’s your wrestling buddy sent to bring you a gift.

(with much thanks to Linda, Marilyn, Betsy, Hilary and Cheryl)