Real Leaders

Why I’m Over TED Talks. Except for This one…

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

Today I received a link to Dan Pallotta’s latest TED talk, “The dream we haven’t dared to dream”, delivered a couple months ago at TED2016. It was full of wonderful quotes I won’t repeat. I don’t want to wreck it for you. Let me just say it looked and sounded the way leadership should.

Once fascinated by TED talks, I’ve become terribly bored with them over the years. Especially now that we are invaded by innumerable TEDx versions, polluting the internet with over-coached, standardized-to-death accounts of scientific nonsense. They’re linear and forgettable when they’re not delusional. If I have to see another eight-year-old teach me lessons about how to be a better human being I might vomit on my laptop. But Dan was different.

He wasn’t linear. His voice upped and downed, croaked with feeling, shushed with gravity. You can’t practice how to be yourself in front of a hungry TED global audience. You just are or you aren’t. And Dan most definitely was. This is the first symptom of true leadership that rarely presents itself in today’s mass media.

He wasn’t triumphant. He wasn’t patronizing, he wasn’t there to show us how smart he was or how much he had achieved. What a relief! What a wonderful surprise to hear a person just talk about his dreams and his hopes and his pains like any one of us. He showed us pictures of his family, he shared his memories, his dreams and miracles. He was humble. Another symptom of true leadership that has fallen from grace.

He wasn’t trying to change the world. No need to make more money, grow more of this or improve more of that. No mumbo-jumbo about success, trying hard, studying this or investing in that. Thank goodness for a TED talk with somebody who knows that life isn’t so much about changing other people as it is about changing yourself. About discovering who you are under all that jazz. This used to be the way leaders were a long time ago. Unassuming, serene and completely devoid of concerns about how to conquer the world.

He’s always been brave. We all love brave, until brave gets hit in the face. Then we become more cowardly about it. But Dan got hit in the face, fell down, got up, kept going. It takes a brave man to speak openly about “a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which idealists most often succumb: activism and overwork”. It takes a brave man, in fact, to get up in front of a TED audience and say all the truths he said on that stage. Bravery is, we all agree, completely essential to any leader.

And last but not least, his speech was full of wisdom. Deep inner wisdom of the kind you only get when you plunge down into your own darkness, face your demons and cry out your most secret pains. This too should be a sign of true leadership that is sorely missing among most TED talkers, Fortune 500 CEOs and other business celebrities today.

Maybe true leadership is precisely about broken dreams. Maybe it’s a quality of being that requires a lot of wandering through the darkness, bathing in doubt, suffering through insufferable choices that others don’t seem to have had to make. Early human societies used to consider rites of passage essential to personal growth. Everybody in a tribe had to go through rites that tested their resolve, their strength, their ability to dream, their resistance to pain and hardship. Only those who could undergo the toughest, most demanding ordeals could aspire to lead the tribe. Only the strongest, bravest and most humane could rule everybody. Leadership wasn’t inherited, or passed on. It wasn’t even something you made your goal and tried to get. No. It was a gift you found within yourself and something everybody recognized.

In a society that constantly and compulsively prioritizes results, success and popularity, it’s inspiring to find a soul like Dan Pallotta on stage. He has this kind of weathered appearance full of expression that half cries and half laughs at the ironies of life he hears himself share. He looks at stuff that nobody else is looking at and thinks about it, learns from it, becomes a teacher of it: stuff like the illogical, unbearable price of our dreams.

A good friend once told me that ballerinas who had little trouble at the beginning of their careers rarely became great. It was those who had overcome great obstacles in their first years who later became world renowned artists, breathtaking dancers on stage. Broken dreams and failure are the world’s way of putting us through our ancient, forgotten rites of passage. It is in these sore episodes of existence that we become deep, humane, inspiring leaders. It is in our nightmares that we learn to look into other people’s hearts.

Dance away, Dan. Keep thinking, keep writing, keep talking, keep growing. Keep throwing light on what others fail to see or care about. It’s much harder to lead people through the dark than it is to sit on a Fortune 500 board.  Everybody knows it. Deep inside, we all really, really do.

And when the going gets tough, as it very surely will, we’ll all be searching for true leaders to guide us through uncertainty. When we all quit playing these dumb games of power against a world we mean to control, change and “make a difference to,” joy, humanity, presence and true leaders will rule again.


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