Real Leaders

The Pains And Gains Of Leading

Last night I watched Braveheart, the 1995 Mel Gibson movie about Scottish hero William Wallace. It’s one of those movies we trainers can draw lots of clips from to teach leadership, and the story is as good as it gets where hearts are concerned. Of course they didn’t spoil an epic romance with the truth. It’s more of a legend than a factual depiction of what really happened. Legends have inspired many generations before us. This one may inspire you and your kids too.

The whole theme of the movie is freedom, one of humanity’s eternal challenges which I just wrote about last week. But the reason why it’s a great story to watch again with your kids, is pain. Braveheart shows how leaders are actually transformed by hurting emotionally and physically. It tells how humans used to march straight into pain instead of avoiding it and escaping it at all cost. Our current intolerance of pain in any of its forms, however, is holding us back.

Last week I fell off my horse. It was a clean fall on soft soil, but all the energy of the impact shot straight into my left hip. It took me about thirty minutes to get up, another thirty minutes to get back to my car, and another good while to breathe my way through aching joints and muscles as I drove very carefully and slowly back home. Something very important realigned in me that day, and diminishing physical aches throughout the week have impacted my way of thinking and feeling significantly. Oh, and the walking! Walking around like an old lady for a few days is a learning lesson in itself. But here’s what most impressed me: it’s how everybody advised me all the different things I could take to avoid feeling the pain.

It was so close to harassment that it was quicker just to act like I felt fine. People couldn’t even look at me straight in the face when I told them about the fall and its consequences. They winced, they looked away, they grimaced with imagined torture. All ages, genders, cultural backgrounds, races. Seriously. How can we become leaders if we can’t hear talk of potential bruises and contusions? Mel Gibson’s very handsome impersonation of William Wallace shows a man who loses his new wife, endures several injuries, faces betrayal from trusted allies and, not to spoil the ending for you, but it’s public record how Wallace was tortured once he was captured. During the entire movie different people come to him suggesting ways to reduce future agonies.

And every time he rejects their solutions. Every time he says that “every man dies but not every man truly lives”. When was the last time you rejected a pharmaceutical remedy to escape from physical or emotional distress? If there is one thing I have learned in my studies of human behavior and leadership, it’s that pain is the most effective master. Without a doubt. Pain in all its forms is “fuel for learning”, as Michael Brown puts it in his bestselling book The Presence Process.

Michael defines real learning as “an irreversible shift in perception,” a definition I retell to many clients and students. Without hurting, without falling, without failing, we remain innocent and naïve to leadership’s deepest and most significant mysteries. We remain weak in the face of greater, more complex battles. Not only is pain essential to actual leadership growth. It’s also a small price to pay for the qualitative jump ahead experienced when we come out the other side.

Once we have endured the ugly and challenging sensations that life’s setbacks impose on us, we suddenly begin to feel more alive and inspired than ever before. We reach a new level of performance that was unimaginable before we dared to fall apart. And it feels so incredibly great. It feels AWESOME! This is why escaping harm, or trying to surf over it with sedatives is delusional. If we don’t face and feel the aches life and business bring upon us, we waste a chance to grow as human beings and as leaders.

We remain just as we are. Not for long, though. Every man does die. We modern humans like to think that we have improved our quality of life enormously. It’s part of our credo of progress, democracy and capitalism. And it’s easy to believe because we didn’t actually witness any of the earlier, wilder forms of life. It’s easy to buy into the comforts of cozy homes, over-the-counter sedatives and mostly secure ways of life. It’s not, however, easy to truly live.

It’s increasingly hard to feel heroic, to feel brave and adventurous, to feel proud and passionate after thirty or forty. It takes very brave hearts to truly live through middle and old age. The only secret to becoming a leader is to slow down and breath. This is the summary of everything I have learned about leading others. Pain comes and goes. It’s a wave that grows and then suddenly diminishes. In all its forms. It just goes away exactly the same way it came.

And it only does so once learning has been achieved. But the only way we learn to go throw the waves of aching sensation is by going through them. There is no other way. Leaders don’t become leaders by reading, or copying other peoples’ tricks, or hiring experts to tell them how to do it. Leaders grow themselves by facing hardship, feeling the many pains that come with it, and breathing deeply until aches and grievances dissolve. It’s obvious the film inspired me.

I do recommend you watch Braveheart with your kids to help them see the role of pain in life, in freedom, in everything that makes life worth living. Nobody will have a bigger impact on your kids’ future leadership than you. Over a hundred years of psychological science and thousands of philosophical knowledge confirm this.

If you can teach your kids to slow down in the face of pain and breathe through it, you can also show your employees how slowing down reduces errors and focuses attention on the nuclear cause of pain. If you stop avoiding all the incredible assortment of bruises, mishaps and grazes life provides you with to help you grow as a leader, you won’t even have to talk about it out loud.

People around you will naturally follow your example, feeling comforted by your slow, breathing presence behind them. We all have a Braveheart inside us. We can all truly live before we die. All we need to do is face pain, slow down, and breathe until we feel our heart beating the timeless tune of heroes.

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