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Reflections on becoming a leader


1 The only journey is the one within. Rainer Maria Rilke

I’ve been capturing the moments of my life by learning how to take a ‘good’ picture. It’s been a terrifically satisfying process – not that my pictures are anything extraordinary – but, I’ve enjoyed the learning process and what it tells me about the world in which I live.

My life in Denver has been nothing like my life before. Moving to Denver in 2006 was an adjustment – a big one. The move, which happened for various reasons outside my control, took its toll on me and who I was in the world – or at least, who I thought I was. Needless to say, it was trying.

There were times when I felt as though my life was over and times when I wished it was. Now, seven years have gone by and I have a goodly amount of perspective on living in Denver and on living, period. Lo and behold: I’ve discovered how beautiful Denver is and how much I love being alive.

Although I’ve never been able to find a corporate job in Denver, I have found myself anew. I am older and wiser and joyfully dancing to the melody in my heart. I learned to compose a sacred (whole) life – to ‘cultivate presence as a person’* – on the ‘Denver journey,’ which, I believe, was a spiritual ‘dark night of the soul.’

I tip my hat to the great Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross; for without a fortuitous reading of his well-known literary poem and treatise, Dark Night of the Soul, translated by Mirabai Starr (Riverhead Trade, 2003), I would have perished; perhaps not in body, but surely in spirit.

Here’s what I’ve discovered for myself along the way:

A. Spiritually, we are always becoming.

B. Intuition is our personal guide.

C. There is both meaning in and relief from suffering in life.

D. Acting with goodness is a choice.

A short list, yes; but one for which ‘cultivating presence’ is the price.

*What does ‘cultivating presence as a person’ mean? Martin Buber, noted 20th century German philosopher known for his writings on dialogue, offers an understanding of ‘cultivating presence’ as I experienced it during my ‘Denver journey.’ Buber’s reflection on I-It and I-Thou in his work, I and Thou (Continuum International Publishing Group, reprint 2004), differentiates the ‘world of experience’ from the ‘world of relationships.’ The attitude of I-It is one of using the world for experience; the self is subject and the world is object. I-Thou acknowledges a living relationship with the world; the self and the world are subject-subject. Ultimately, Buber’s I-Thou relationship expands to God and the sacredness (wholeness) of life as a human being. ‘Cultivating presence as a person’ – whether realized through a ‘dark night of the soul’ or not – is a dialogical process; one of becoming ever more in relationship with the self, the world and the sacredness of life.

2 The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe. Albert Einstein

I live in a friendly one, finally.

It’s taken decades for me to discover how friendly – and as I said beautiful – life is. I hovered perilously between the black and white edges of life since birth. I wasn’t fully alive; nor was I dead. I was, however, becoming.

Becoming – becoming what? In a word: present.

The ‘dark night of the soul’ is a cultivation of body–mind–spirit toward greater presence as a person. It is a purification that completes itself in illumination – or a process of becoming – and it seems lost in today’s world of ‘pick and choose’ spirituality, material gyrations and rigor to the shallow and disingenuous.

Allow me to digress to my work as an organizational communication consultant for thorough explanation. The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) lives and breathes in Greensboro, NC and Colorado Springs, CO. I’ve lived and breathed in both NC and CO and as a ‘communicating-at-work’ consultant I have been duly influenced by CCL.

CCL’s staff focuses on leadership, obviously. They research and write. They educate. They’re premier at what they do. They also ask particularly good questions – one of which sparked my imagination. ‘What if everyone on the planet had access to leadership development?’

Now I have an itch I can’t scratch.

You see, leadership development – much like a ‘dark night of the soul’– is a process of becoming. Leadership development in its finest form purifies and illuminates. It is, at its essence, a dialogical process of ‘cultivating presence as a person.’

Presence is grounded in who we are – mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. More importantly, it’s grounded in who we are becoming (e.g., as leaders).

You’ll discover what I discovered – ‘spiritually, we are always becoming’ – on your life journey, I hope

3 The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift. Albert Einstein

It was 1998 and I had been living in the Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina for nine years. I had determined it was time for a ‘new’ job in my field which was in a nutshell: the ‘people-side’ of business or human performance technology consulting.

I was going about the everyday tasks of landing a job – sending out resumes, telling my professional colleagues I was looking for a job, attending monthly meetings of professional associations, etc., when I ‘heard’ Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBSNC) inside my head. I knew instantly that I was being intuitively guided to a new job at BCBSNC.

I didn’t hesitate for a minute. I called one of my former colleagues, Florence, who worked at BCBSNC and she told me about a position that was in the works. A new IT project was being initiated and there was an opening for a consultant to manage the people/process-side of the design and implementation. Florence made a couple of phone calls and I had an interview. The rest is history.

What is intuition? I don’t know what it is, but I do know when it is. I ‘see,’ ‘hear’ and ‘feel’ intuitive information on a daily basis and it makes all the difference in my life. I owe much of my success as a consultant to my intuition.

Here’s what I’m getting at with regard to ‘communicating at work:’ ‘Communicating at work’ in the 21st century is different in kind than ‘communicating at work’ in the 20th century.

Granted, I am making a shallow generalization, but it’s a worthy starting point if we want to become aware of what ‘communicating at work’ in the 21st century’ requires from us – i.e., higher-order functioning. Intuition is one of the higher-order skills we need to cultivate in the 21st century.

I am not alone in the business world in placing value on my ability to intuit. Many of the executives I coach are highly intuitive – although, up to now most would not admit it.

4 What is to give light must endure burning. Viktor Frankl

The 21st century is a time of volatility, uncertainty, chaos and ambiguity (VUCA) as Bob Johanssen said in Leaders Make The Future: Ten New Leadership Skills For An Uncertain World (Berrett-Koehler, 2009). I believe it. I've never been as disrupted by a truth as the ‘constant inconstancy’ of our time.

My life experiences in the last seven years – wherein I fell apart and came back together repeatedly, to eventually form a new whole (presence) – have given me an understanding of two quintessential, intertwined ‘constant inconstancies’ in life: mercy and severity (in the broadest sense).

Mercy and severity – one, the other and both together – are a living equation; polar opposites and seeming complements that must be mastered within each of us to reach the highest level of presence.

Certainly we can read works such as Man's Search For Meaning (Beacon Press, reprint 2006) by Victor Frankl to intellectually understand how the integration of mercy and severity takes place within the psyche (soul). His was an extraordinary example. Yet, without a direct experience that allows us to integrate mercy and severity within our own unique psyche (soul) we will always be a lesser, split-off version of ourselves.

It is through my 'dark night of the soul' that I learned there is both meaning in and relief from suffering in life and it comes from a genuine focus on mastering the polarity of mercy and severity.

So what? What does this have to do with ‘cultivating presence as a person?’

Presence is anchored to how one experiences mercy and severity. In leadership, mercy and severity are expressed as warmth and strength – i.e., a polarity all leaders manage for greater or lesser influence.**

It is in managing polarities, especially mercy and severity, that we find ourselves (or give meaning to our lives) and cultivate presence; presence as a leader – one that can change the world for good if we let it burn brightly enough; thereby, relieving suffering in ourselves and our fellow human beings.

Presence; it is yours to choose.

**Neffinger and Kohut, researchers and authors, describe two indispensable qualities, warmth and strength, that make a person influential in Compelling people: The hidden qualities that make us influential (Hudson Street Press, 2013). The polarity of warmth and strength is a quotidian rendition of mercy and severity.

Organizational communication maven by day. Food, wine and beer buff by night. World traveler. Entrepreneurial spirit. Contact Eroca Gabriel, a former Fortune 100 'people and culture' consultant at

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