In our society we love to give. I bet you’ve been mulling over new year resolutions related to helping others, doing good for those in need, or being nicer to your family and colleagues. Well, I’ve got news for you. The true secret of leadership is not giving. It’s about receiving. Today’s article was born in a truly singular place: the “Ría de Rodiles” in Northern Spain. My dear friend Soha Nashaat, reputedly one of the 100 most influential women in the Arab world, fell in love with Asturias a few years ago.
This special natural paradise knocked on her door to offer her a dream house whose windows boast a magnificent spectacle of natural beauty all day long, all year round. Soha redid the entire house to make it worthy of such a magical setting. I still can’t understand why she’s spent so many years leading financial markets from top class corporations. Her amazing talent for decoration and design have remained as hidden to the world as this beautiful oasis of great food, soothing tides and discrete animal neighbors. I guess the best kept secrets only reveal themselves to those who learn how to receive.
And receive I did, I can tell you. Not only was I lavishly hosted by generous friends with the best money can buy in every possible way. Mother Nature also cradled me with lullabies sung by all kinds of birds and ducks, warm sunny days to bask in, and the irresistible magnetism of tides flowing in and out before us.
The Ria is a charming coastal inlet running eight kilometers inland to Villaviciosa village from Rodiles beach. Formed by a drowned river valley that remained open to the sea in the Jurassic period, it was declared a natural reserve in 1995. I swear there isn’t a better place to reflect on leadership, life and the new year. Because there is nothing to get here. Nothing to fight for. Nothing to worry about achieving. Nobody to help and nobody to give to. Only you. Only the tide. Only birds and fish going about their daily business without you. Green fields and beige hills kissing murky waters under the sun.
All you are asked to do is to sit quietly and learn. Learn to receive. We learn to receive from our parents. They learn from theirs. This is how it works across the animal kingdom. One generation gives everything it has to the next generation, so that they too will nurture and fight for their offspring. Modern humans, however, have become pretty terrible at practicing this law of life. And the smartest, best educated of humans are often the very worst. I wonder if all those humble little birds and slow grass-chewing cows look tenderly at us in our highly intelligent inability to accept what we get from others.
Taking makes us feel small. But we’ve become very hoity-toity about life in general. Maybe we’re too scared. Maybe we’re too proud. Maybe it just hurts too much to feel that familiar softness inside our hardened executive hearts. Whatever our reasons, our difficulty to accept what life gives us sabotages our performance in everything we do. Our culturally accepted preference for giving doesn’t make us better leaders. It actually makes us worse.
Leaders who can’t accept what comes to them tend to find fault in everything they do get. That’s a bad start. Investing a whole lot of energy, man-hours and money to change the companies they are hired to manage, for example. Complaining endlessly about the orientation of their office, or the lack of sophistication of their teams, or whatever it is that helps them feel better about not accepting the reality that cradles them and pushes them to create something useful with it.
When they’re done verbally trashing the place, they launch improvement initiatives that often interfere with the general flow of things, bringing no end of conflict to other departments, rebellions against company founders and veteran bosses, and resulting in numerous failures to materialize flashy figures projected on no less flashy excel sheets. As if this generally counterproductive leadership style wasn’t bad enough, leaders who can’t receive can’t actually give either.
An inability that is sadly “transparent to the user”, as IT experts would describe it. They think they are giving, but they are actually asking for more. They may give you a job and then hold it over your head for the following five years every time they demand more time and more effort from you. They will help you as a way to secretly feed on your company or friendship with endless advice or too many favors that don’t actually change anything for you and make you feel exhausted. They will overspend company resources in an effort to buy approval or popularity in such a way that still feels big, independent and hoity-toity all at once. NGOs and foundations suffer this daily.
I have a client who’s had to fight off several huge banks and multinational companies whose CSR initiatives were actually going to kill her budding foundation with bureaucracy and eternal internal meetings, ambitious programs that completely derailed her from her actual mission, and inappropriate publicity to boost their own corporate brands. My client doubted her own judgment and wondered whether she was the one being ungrateful. But I suggested a simple test.
Pay attention to how your body feels during conversations and exchanges with these leaders. If you feel bigger or stronger than them, then you’re probably the one giving. Taking, accepting, and getting make us feel smaller than the other person. That’s the way it’s supposed to feel! So if feeling smaller in a conversation makes you feel uncomfortable, then you know you’ve got a critical lesson to learn as leader. The problem is not feeling small. It’s feeling uncomfortable about it.
As long as you shy away from receiving, you sabotage your own present performance, and you debilitate your capacity to give in the future. One has to receive in order to give. It’s a simple law of Nature, like gravity. Stop fighting with it and learn to go with it. These are all the things I thought about on a wooden bench overlooking the Ria at the end of Soha’s garden.
I watched how every living thing before me received the incoming tide with pleasure and glee. I thought about how hard it always was for me to accept what others gave me, how hard I tried and how sorely I failed, time and time again, for many years. And I basked in the recently found delight of receiving all day long, day in and day out, until it was time to come home.
Thank you, Soha, for a wonderful retreat of nurturing warmth. Thank you, Ria of Rodiles, for bathing my heart in silent wisdom for a few days. Thank you, family, friends and past employers, for putting up with my inability to receive as a young ambitious executive years ago.
And thank you, readers of Real Leaders, for this space to share my thoughts and air my doubts about leadership and life. I will create great things this new year with what you’ve given me.