“By the end of the week, we’ll have turned you into a blues band.” Gulp. I could feel the anxiety rise when I heard those words. A blues band?! Me?! I have no musical talent and my Mennonite body is rhythmically stunted from all of those “dancing is sin” messages I heard growing up. How could I contribute to a blues band?
That statement still stands as one of the most intimidating things I’ve ever heard from the facilitator of a leadership workshop. Not surprisingly, it also turned out to be one of the most life-changing. Of course, in order for it to become life-changing, I had to get out of my own way first. I had to loosen my grip on some beliefs about myself and be willing to be uncomfortable for a while. By the end of the week, I had indeed written a verse for a blues song and performed it together with a rag-tag bunch of other equally intimidated participants over dinner in front of hundreds of people.
The invitation came from Jerry Granelli, a famous jazz drummer best known for the soundtrack of Charlie Brown’s Christmas movie. He was teaching the workshop together with Margaret Wheatley and Jim Gimian, as part of the annual leadership intensive program of ALIA (Authentic Leadership in Action, formerly Shambala Institute). I’d signed up because I was a fan of Margaret Wheatley’s work. I left a fan of Jerry Granelli’s.
Last week, I re-listened to an interview that Jerry had done with CBC radio in the year before he died. And then I listened to it again and wrote down notes. Next I found a documentary about him and watched that. Then I watched an hour-long workshop that Jerry taught two days before his death (in 2021). Posthumously, Jerry had returned to be my teacher once more. Although I learned a lot back in 2010 when I was part of that blues band, I find myself even more tuned in to what his teachings offer me now.
Here’s some of what I took notes about:
1.Years and years of practice brings you closer to your own voice.
“It takes forever to sound like yourself,” Jerry said in the interview. “If you put a seed in the ground, it takes a lot of water to get a tree. So why should you wake up one day and find your voice? You practice in order to find your own voice, but at first you have to try to sound like other people.”
In the early years, Jerry rose in prominence as a drummer because he’d gotten so good at emulating other drummers. But then one of those drummers stopped him and said he had to figure out what “Jerry’s sound” was. From then on, he got clearer and clearer about what was uniquely his to put into the world. He’s now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for being a pioneer of psychedelic jazz. He’s also well known as an innovative teacher of Buddhist practices.
Jerry’s words were resonant for this moment partly because of the book I have coming out, Where Tenderness Lives: On healing, liberation and holding space for oneself. Even more than my first book, The Art of Holding Space, this book feels like a fine-tuning of my own voice. Like a sculptor, I feel like I’ve spent years chipping away at all of the “not-Heather” words to get closer and closer to the essence of the “pure-Heather” voice – the voice that’s less weighted down with other people’s expectations and my own self-imposed limitations. Perhaps when I’m eighty, as Jerry was, I’ll be as close as I can get.
2.Our habitual patterns limit our capacity to make beautiful music.
“On a good day,” Jerry said, “we have the least amount of habitual patterns, so we’re completely spontaneous.” That spontaneity and freedom from the old patterns allows us to make innovative music. Unfortunately, a lot of days are not so good and our habitual patterns keep us stuck in mediocre melodies.
In my upcoming book, I unravelled some of those habitual patterns in myself in order to release myself from them and become more free to be spontaneously and authentically myself (at least… on a good day). Like Jerry, I want to be a channel for the music, not get in the way with my own hang-ups, self-doubt and ego stories.
I believe that this is such important work that I’ve also created a course where I provide tools and practices for witnessing and releasing those habitual patterns, because I want to help others get closer and closer to free, authentic and joyful living. If you’re noticing patterns of self-sabotage, perhaps that’s related to the way you’ve been taught to treat yourself by your family of origin. If there are shame stories you can’t let go of, perhaps there’s a thread that’s connected back to your religion of origin. If you’re driven by perfectionism and a value system rooted in performance and productivity, perhaps that can be traced back to grind culture and capitalism. Once you see those patterns and the threads that tie them back to their roots, they’re easier to let go. (Maybe one day I’ll even be able to dance as though the habitual patterns of a Mennonite childhood are no longer in my body.)
3.Practice is a life-long commitment.
“Last week,” Jerry said to the interviewer, “I had to keep from setting fire to my drums… I couldn’t make love to it… I went looking for salvation and the drum said ‘oh no, you can’t use me like that.’” At eighty years of age, he was still wrestling with the demons that got between him and the music, between his ego and his own voice. He was still humbled by the process. He was still slipping back into his own habitual patterns.
Unravelling and releasing those habitual patterns is never a “once and done” story – we still live within the systems that shaped us and we are still inescapably human, so it’s an ongoing, never-ending practice. There is always new information, there are always new ways to examine our patterns, and there are always more fumbles to keep us humble and in the practice.
4.Making beautiful music requires our willingness to be uncomfortable.
“What makes him special,” Jerry’s son said in the documentary, “is his willingness to be uncomfortable.” It’s clear in both the documentary and the interview how much Jerry pushed the edges of the music, and pushed the edges in himself, to allow something truly unique and revolutionary to emerge. That requires courage and a willingness to be unsettled – both individually and collectively.
In the documentary, Jerry can be seen creating rhythm with all manner of sound-making objects. He didn’t limit his imagination or playful spirit to what is conventionally known as a drum kit. During one of our plenary sessions at ALIA, the year after we’d created the blues band, I was puzzled to see a collection of pots, bowls and buckets on the stage, until I realized that Jerry was part of a team inviting us into a collective act of creation. Soon, he was making sounds and rhythm with that random collection and inviting us all to make music with him.
5.Music requires us to be willing to spend time with ourselves.
“Here’s a new way to make art – to start with myself. Start with my own mind, being brave enough, being willing to spend time with myself. Without the instrument.” In the workshop, Jerry goes on to say that “this (pointing to himself) is the instrument”.
A healthy, ongoing, honest relationship with ourselves is what allows us to access our own voices and to make beautiful music. As a Buddhist, Jerry nurtured that relationship by committing to an ongoing seated mindfulness practice. You can do a seated practice together with Jerry if you watch the workshop video.
My mindfulness practice has been less attached to seated meditation than Jerry’s, but it is still very much a part of how I spend time with myself. I practise mindful self-reflection in my journal, and regularly take myself out for mindful walks in the woods. On social media, I have, somewhat jokingly, said that one of my goals for 2024 is to spend more time sitting on things in nature. It’s not really a joke, though – it’s part of my practice. It lets me spend time with myself and it helps me see myself as part of the landscape. (I teach more about my practices in Know Yourself, Free Yourself.)
6.Our music is meant for the collective.
“What does it take to play music with another human being? Interestingly enough, what it takes is the same things to live together as human beings.” – Jerry Granelli
As much as the interview and documentary focused on the unique genius of Jerry Granelli, none of it is really about individual genius. As a drummer, Jerry didn’t make music that was meant to stand alone – he was always part of an ensemble. He committed himself to his practice and to releasing his own habitual patterns not to become a solitary superstar, but to make beautiful, spontaneous music together with other people with a similar commitment. He did his individual work to find his own voice, and trusted other members to do their work to find their own voices, and together they created the conditions for magic.
As I develop my own work, I find myself in a similar dance – often creating independently, and yet always with the collective in my heart and mind. As much as I can, I try to remember that my voice is part of an ensemble.
The music was always much bigger than Jerry Granelli, just as this work that I do is much bigger than me. The work that you are called to do, the art that you are called to create, is always bigger than you.
7.Change the way you make music and you’ll change the system.
During that plenary session where Jerry was playing on pots and buckets, and a few hundred people were making sounds with their voices and bodies, there were other things going on as well. Arawana Hayashi invited some participants into an unchoreographed dance, and Barbara Bash invited a few to pick up brushes to make a massive collaborative art piece at the front of the room. I volunteered to be part of the brush work, and I can honestly tell you that few experiences have ever been more moving. For an hour or two, that conference room was buzzing with possibility and promise as we all contributed to creating something fully embodied and fully collaborative that had never existed before (and seemingly had no “purpose” in the way capitalism has taught us to understand purpose). (You can see a similar spontaneous co-creation by Jerry, Barbara, and Susanne Chui in this video.)
Not only do we often get stuck in individual habitual patterns, we get stuck in collective ones. Those habitual patterns end up becoming our systems (and driving our systems) and they exist on the micro level and the macro level. We are part of family systems, religious systems, economic systems, cultural systems, and political systems. All of those systems continue to function – often in increasingly destructive ways – because we fail to examine the habitual patterns at the root and we resist the discomfort of co-creating something new.
We can’t make jazz together when we accept the status quo as the only way to make music. How many conference rooms have you been in where nothing new was being created, where the only voices allowed to speak were telling the same old stories, harnessed to the same old habitual patterns? What will it take to change what’s happening in that room?
Systems are only as strong as the commitment people make to upholding them. When we unravel our codependence with those systems, shift our habitual patterns, and stop treating ourselves the way those systems have taught us, they have no choice but to evolve or die. Then, out of the compost, something new can be born.
We all have an opportunity to be in the magic of that conference room, where something new is being created. We have opportunities to unlearn our habitual patterns, find our unique voices, and create new music.
That music might seem a little amateurish at first, like the blues band I was part of when I first met Jerry, but that’s only a place to start. With time, we’ll each get more and more clear about our own voices so that together we can make something beautiful.
Thank you Jerry, for being my teacher.
p.s. Want to be in conversations about what it means to release habitual patterns and co-create the conditions for something new to emerge? Join me forKnow Yourself, Free Yourself. It starts March 5.
At the smallest level, you are the individual at the centre (with your own system existing within your body). Then you are part of a number of microsystems (your family, school, peer groups, local church, etc.). Next is the mesosystem (which weaves together the relations between microsystems and exosystem – for example, the relations between your family members and their coworkers). Then the exosystem (your neighbours, friends of family, mass media, government agencies, social welfare systems, social media, etc.). Then the macrosystem (attitudes and ideologies of the culture, ethnicity, geographic location, socioeconomic status, etc.). Finally, the chronosystem holds all of the experiences of a lifetime (environmental events, major life transitions, and historical events).
Let’s expand the analysis of the person who’s a member of a local church. Not only is it insufficient to examine that person separate from the church that they’re a part of, it is also insufficient to examine that church separate from the broader systems that it is part of. That local church is likely part of a denomination that shapes the traditions, historical relevance, ideologies, beliefs, and biases of that church. That denomination may have multiple levels of influence, from the localized grouping of churches, up to the global governance structure. It is also embedded within a religion that informs, among other things, what version of God is worshipped and how members of that religion interact with people of other religions. And then there is the neighbourhood, city, country, and region of the world that the local church is located in – all of these things also have influence, meaning that a local church in one country won’t look the same as a local church in another country even if they’re in the same denomination.
At an even broader scale, that local church (and, by extension, each member of the church), is being influenced by what’s at the macrosystems level. This is where things like colonization, patriarchy, white supremacy, classism, racism, and capitalism come into play. A church rooted in the patriarchy, for example, will likely still be led by a man, and where white supremacy is an issue, that man will likely be white. And, here in North America in particular, no church is completely free of the colonization that built our countries.
ALL of these systems are at play in that one individual who is a member of that one local church, and so that person cannot be fully witnessed without recognizing what’s at play. Even when that person leaves that church, the systems will still be at play, especially if the person is unconscious of the way that they’ve been influenced while part of that church. (Also at play will be all of the other systems that individual is part of – family systems, community systems, work systems, etc.)
Systems usually evolve as a way to organize us. A system without some form of organization won’t be able to sustain itself or serve the purpose it’s meant for, and so, if we value a system and find meaning in it, we organize it. Imagine, for example, a school that has no sense of order – nobody is responsible for doing the teaching or clean up and students are allowed to do whatever they please. That’s not education, it’s anarchy. (Some would suggest that it would eventually become a self-organizing system, if the desire for education is great enough.)
The problem is that what organizes us often begins to control us. When we become too rigid to allow a system to evolve, when we put the value of the system above the value of the individuals in that system, and when we embed a measurement of worthiness into a system (what Isabel Wilkerson refers to as Caste), then that system is no longer just organizing us, it’s controlling and measuring us. That’s when we end up with the dominance and oppression of systems like colonization.
Then, when a system begins to control people using dominance and oppression, that system begins to cause trauma in its people. A system that causes trauma becomes a system full of traumatized people and (because what happens at the micro level is also what happens at the macro level) it is therefore a traumatized system. Once you have a traumatized system, it becomes particularly destructive and particularly difficult to change. That’s when you see the levels of brokenness that have been showing up in the world – like climate change, and what’s currently happening in the Ukraine.
A traumatized system (just like a traumatized individual) needs people that can hold space for it while it heals. But the challenge is that EVERYBODY in that system has become traumatized and so it’s difficult to step outside of the system enough to help it with its healing. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of trauma.
I am not without hope, though. I have personally witnessed many people, in recent years, who are waking up to this trauma enough so that they can heal it in themselves, and then move themselves far enough outside of the traumatized system so that they can offer healing back to that system and the people in it. These people are learning to work with each other, with the natural world, and with whatever form of spirituality might support them, so that they can work to heal a broken world.
In the Berkana Institute’s Two Loops Model (below), we’re given a hint about what happens when people begin to move away from a traumatized system. The upper loop represents the dominant system, which was once vibrant and alive and served a purpose (the top of the loop). At some point, though, a system’s purpose is fulfilled, and then it needs to complete its cycle so that it can die and make space for a new system. Lots of people resist that system’s death, because it keeps them safe, but some people recognize that the system needs to die and they step away from that system. If those people were traumatized by the dominant system, they must do healing work or they will continue to perpetuate the same trauma that was embedded in the system. As they heal, their imagination becomes reawakened and they become innovators who begin to imagine the birth of something that can replace the dying system. That’s what the bottom loop is for – it represents the evolution of the new system.
In addition to the innovators, there is also a role for hospice workers – those who are willing to support the hospice work of the dying system. Once the old system has been released, the hospice workers join the innovators.
That’s why I’ve created my new course, Know Yourself, Free Yourself. I want to support those people who are waking up – those who are doing their healing so that they can become hospice workers or innovators (or both). I want to help them see the systems more clearly. I want to walk alongside them as they examine their lineage, trauma, beliefs, biases, and relationship patterns. I want to help them imagine themselves as whole people, apart from the systems that measure and control them. I want us to imagine collective liberation and generative love. I want us to know community, connection, and joy. I want us to set our imaginations free so that we can dream our way into new ways of being.
I hope that you will join me in this. It feels really, really important, and perhaps even urgent. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve created three levels for the registration fee – because we want this program to welcome into the circle people from around the world and from across the socioeconomic spectrum.
It happened repeatedly in my youth. I’d come home from a friend’s house and walk into the house to find nobody there. I’d look in all of the rooms, start to get that panicky feeling and then go out to the farmyard to see if somebody was in the barn or cattle pasture. Suddenly, I was desperate to know that somebody was home – that they hadn’t all abandoned me. I only felt secure when I heard my dad’s voice or spotted my mom in the garden.
It was the end times I was most afraid of – being left behind when the rapture came. Every person I know who’s grown up in an evangelical home has a similar memory. “What if they’ve all gone and we didn’t get taken with them? What if we weren’t Christian enough? What if we haven’t sufficiently confessed our sins and will be denied entry into heaven?”
There’s a certain trauma that gets left in a person’s body when you grow up with that fear. There’s a heightened awareness that threads through your nervous system, reminding you always that you have to be good enough, obedient enough and repentant enough to make the cut when the second coming suddenly separates the saved from the unsaved.
It’s taken me a long time to recognize how much of that early conditioning has left me with an easily triggered fear of being found out to be sinful, wrong, or bad. To be bad is to be separated from God, shunned from your community, and at risk of spending an eternity in the fires of hell. Even long after you stop believing in hell, the trauma stays rooted in your body.
Abandonment. Shame. Shunning. Pain. Death. This is what my amygdala still tries to convince me – in moments when it’s triggered into fight/flight/freeze/fawn – are the consequences of being bad.
I have been wondering, lately, whether this isn’t just a personal experience (the result of being raised in an evangelical home) but a collective one.
How much have we ALL been socialized into this kind of reactivity, even those not raised in evangelicalism? How much of that trauma remains deeply and subconsciously rooted in our culture, here in North America (and elsewhere), given the fact that we are, ostensibly, “Christian” nations, colonized by countries where Christianity was the dominant religion? How much have we internalized the fear of separation and abandonment that a sin-doctrine embeds in a culture, even long after it’s not the central narrative?
There’s a pattern that I’ve witnessed over and over again when I teach the Holding Space Practitioner Program… people show up eager to learn about holding space for others, and somewhere around Module 2 (on holding space for yourself) they come face-to-face with their own biases, trauma, blind spots, and shadow. Suddenly… WHOA! I start getting remarks about how hard the work has become and how they need more time (we’ve lengthened this module for that reason), and the resistance shows up. Some push back, some want to abandon ship, some create conflict. Many end up begrudgingly thanking me for nudging them into work they were avoiding doing, but first they have to fight it.
It’s hard to look into your shadow. It’s painful and shame-inducing to suddenly have to face your biases, blindspots and blunders. It’s also, if my theory is right, trauma-inducing. It triggers a deeply rooted, culturally sanctioned, subconscious fear that we will be abandoned, shunned, and “sent out of the kingdom”. We’ll lose our standing in the community, we’ll risk an eternity of pain and separation, and we might even be put to death. Or at least that’s what the amygdala believes.
It’s why we have things like white fragility (though I appreciate what this writer says about renaming it “white flammability”). People who’ve convinced themselves they are good people, in good standing with their community, are suddenly sent into spasms when their biases and blindspots are revealed. They can’t fathom the fact that they are capable of causing harm. They haven’t been equipped to hold space for their own shame. Subconsciously, they’re terrified that they will be abandoned and, at worst, banished from the kingdom.
It’s also why we’ve developed such a punitive legal system in our culture. We might call it a “justice” system, but it’s really not about justice. It’s about shaming, blaming, and punishing those who do wrong. It’s about creating separation from those of us who are seen to be “upstanding citizens” and those who are criminals. It’s about sending people out of our communities and abandoning them in prisons, so that we can hide the collective shadow in our culture. Out of fear of our own shadow, we call out those with more obvious shadows (or those marginalized by the dominant culture and made to look like they are bad) and project our shame onto them.
Because of this collective fear of being wrong, we’ve not only punished the transgressors, but we’ve also elevated and idolized those with curated lives who look like they’ve managed to transcend the messiness the rest of us get stuck in. We overlook the cracks in those we want to emulate because we want to see the polished life, and we want to believe that it’s possible for us, too, to live untarnished lives. We project our unhealthy aspirations and expectations of ourselves onto those who appear most worthy of our adoration. Social media makes this even more tempting because it allows us unprecedented access into our heroes’ lives and opinions.
When you find yourself in a position of influence like that, with people projecting their ideals onto you, it becomes surprisingly tempting to give them what they want. If they give you money to teach them how to live a charmed and curated life like yours (or to model it onscreen), it’s even more tempting. The money allows you to put even more polish on your life, so it perpetuates the cycle. Meanwhile, your own trauma and fear of abandonment is at play, so you work extra hard at meeting people’s expectations of you for fear of being found out and suddenly shunned and left behind.
Unfortunately, that charmed place on a pedestal rarely lasts. People find the cracks in your facade and when they start poking around, they find that those cracks are really deep, dark chasms of shadow. And then, because they feel betrayed by you, because you no longer give them hope that a shadow-free life is possible, they tear you down, with a vengeance. That’s what “cancel-culture” is all about.
Sadly, if those influencers had known, early on in their development, that the uncomfortable shadow work that they avoided is what could have saved them from the destructiveness of the tear-down, they might have found themselves on a different trajectory. Sure, they wouldn’t have found the same level of celebrity and status, but they would have found something much better and longer-lasting — authentic community. Relationships rooted in truth-telling and vulnerability are worth a lot more than those shallowly rooted in performance.
In recent months, with Black Lives Matter at the forefront of our consciousness, we’ve seen several people, especially in the coaching and personal development world, with large followings and lots of influence, whose cracks have been revealed. People are pointing out the lack of consciousness around anti-racism and anti-oppression and revealing where harm has been done to the marginalized in their communities. Some of them, in avoidance of the shame of being called out, use gaslighting to shame and reject anyone who might challenge them. Some teach spiritual bypassing as a way of avoiding the darkness and keeping their followers in a state of compliance and fake peace.
Some of these leaders, sadly, have developed cult-like followings where people are shamed by others in the in-group for daring to challenge what their leader says. As Alexandra Stein has pointed out in Terror, Love, and Brainwashing, these leaders manipulate their followers into unhealthy attachment systems, where followers will do anything to stay connected to the leader because of the way that their needs are met in the community. The leaders manipulate the trauma coursing through our culture, reminding people that they will be rejected if they step out of line, if they point out the flaws in the leader or what’s being taught within the community. The trauma bond floods the nervous system and makes it nearly impossible for people to think clearly and notice how messed up the leader, community, and/or belief system is.
The only solution, as I see it, is for us to work to heal the collective trauma and begin to create greater space in our culture for shadow work. We need to make it acceptable to speak of our mistakes, to admit our biases, to own up to the ways in which we cause harm because of our trauma and social conditioning. We also need to build collective systems in which we learn how to co-regulate in those moments when we are triggered so that we don’t cause so much harm as a result.
We also need to change our collective views about leadership. When leaders and influencers can be flawed and vulnerable, when they don’t feel the pressure to meet unrealistic expectations, and when they are embedded into communities that both support them and hold them accountable, then there is less inclination for them to become abusive when their biases and blindspots are pointed out. They don’t have to hide their shadows because they’ve never pretended they didn’t have them.
In just a few weeks, we’ll be launching the Centre for Holding Space. One of the reasons why I’m going into partnership in launching this, instead of building it alone, is that I want to be intentional about building a structure that doesn’t elevate me into an unrealistic position of leadership and influence. I don’t want to be the influencer who cracks under the pressure of meeting people’s expectations. I want to be able to continue to reveal my shadow, and I want to be held accountable for the ways my biases and blindspots get in the way of the work. I don’t want my trauma – my deeply held fear of being found to be bad – to be running the show and separating me from my humanity or the humanity of those in my community. I want to be imperfect and I want to keep striving to welcome imperfect people into the circle with me.
My partner, Krista, is very good at supporting me and helping me stay grounded and honest. We have built a solid relationships of trust in which neither of us has to be performative or defensive of our flaws. We are also growing an incredible team of people that is eager to support this work as it grows, and they’re all equally committed to showing up flawed and vulnerable alongside us.
In building a solid foundation for our business, we recently worked through a Conscious Contract with our lawyer, in which we developed a co-founders agreement that will help us work through conflict and hold space for the shadow when it shows up in ourselves and our business. We’ll hold each other accountable for doing the messy work and for staying in the discomfort long enough for transformation to happen.
We are excited to welcome you, our readers, clients, and friends, into this space we’re creating. We want to hold space for your imperfections. We want to create a space of healing where trauma isn’t shamed and nobody is shunned for being wrong.
Whenever I teach my workshops on holding space, I warn people that there will likely be a moment when they have to face their own shadow and their discomfort might make them want to run from the room. “You’re allowed to step out of the room if you need to,” I say, “but know that you are always welcome back. We will hold the space for you to return.”
This is what I want for the Centre for Holding Space to be – a place where people can peer into their shadows, and trust that, even if they run away, they’re still welcome back in the room. Because when people come back to meet themselves in the circle, that’s when the real healing happens.
I sweat. A LOT. And my face turns beet red when I exert myself, so if you’re ever present when I exercise (which, sadly, isn’t often enough) you won’t be able to miss the evidence of my efforts.
But this post isn’t about physical exertion. Instead, it’s about the kind of sweating (both physical and metaphorical) we do when we’re under stress, when we’re afraid of failing, or when we fear that people might be disappointed in us.
Mostly, it’s about vulnerability and when it’s okay to reveal our flaws, our fear, and our fumbling.
Thanks especially to writers like Brené Brown, lots of people are talking about the value of vulnerability, but what’s sometimes missing from the dialogue is the nuance of WHEN it’s appropriate to be vulnerable, HOW MUCH vulnerability is appropriate, and WITH WHOM it’s okay to be vulnerable.
What if, for example, you’re in charge of keeping people who are more vulnerable than you safe from harm (small children, for example) and you admit that you have no clue how to do so and suddenly they feel even more unsafe than before? Was it wise, in that situation, to show your vulnerability? Probably not. That might be when it’s wiser to put on a brave face and prioritize their needs over your own. As a parent, there have certainly been times when I had to keep my fears and self-doubts to myself (or when I cried behind my bedroom door) because it wasn’t in my children’s best interests to doubt my ability to protect or provide for them. As they’ve gotten older, I’ve increased how much I’ll admit my flaws and fears to them, but in the early days they needed my strength more than my vulnerability.
Or what if, by becoming vulnerable, you’re drawing the attention away from the people who need it more than you do and then your vulnerability becomes a stumbling block rather than a building block? If, for example, you’re working with traumatized or oppressed people and you can’t stop crying about how much the work is impacting you, you’re likely making it about yourself rather than about them. Suddenly those people have to spend their energy caring for you rather than themselves. That’s when it’s best to take your vulnerability somewhere else where people have more capacity to do emotional labour on your behalf.
Or what if you haven’t gained enough trust in the other person or people and you suspect they might further harm you or use your vulnerability against you? Some people are masterful at manipulation and at using other people’s weaknesses to their own advantage (someone who’s trying to sell you an expensive coaching program, for example). Other people may be less intentional about it but still harmful in how they respond to you because of their lack of capacity or self-awareness. With those people, it’s better to withhold your vulnerability rather than put yourself at risk.
Vulnerability, then, is best shared with people who have earned your trust, people who aren’t under too much of their own burden at the time, people who aren’t fully reliant on you for their own safety at the time, and/or people who have enough emotional intelligence and self-awareness to respond in appropriate ways.
Recently, I found myself in a dilemma about whether or not my vulnerability was the best course of action. I was facilitating a three-day workshop on holding space in the Netherlands, and, to be frank, it wasn’t going well. By the end of the first day, I could sense that there was dissatisfaction among participants and I wasn’t sure why. I had started the workshop in much the same way I’ve started many other workshops, and those workshops progressed much more smoothly, so I didn’t understand the source of the problem.
Was it because I was tired, having just spent an intense week in Uganda? Was it the cultural and/or language differences, since this was the first time I was teaching in a place where English isn’t the first language? Was I using language or a teaching style that wasn’t relatable to this audience? Was there some pre-existing conflict among participants that they’d brought with them to this space? Or was it because I’d started with the basics of holding space and many people in the room were already experienced practitioners who wanted higher level training?
One of the things that I sensed was going on (that I picked up from some of the comments coming my way) was that my style of facilitation was falling short of what people had expected of me. There were quite a few experienced facilitators in the room, and most of them had been trained in styles that are different from my own (ie. systemic constellations, for example, which incorporates more movement and less conversation than tends to be my primary style) and I began to feel the scrutiny of their evaluation.
On the morning of the second day, trying to adapt to the style that I sensed they were more comfortable with, I made changes to the process. But that didn’t seem to be sufficient – I got even more feedback during the breaks that indicated the dissatisfaction was growing rather than dissipating. (Sadly, dissatisfaction is contagious and even those who’d seemed happy earlier were now starting to squirm in their seats.) What was especially challenging is that the feedback was often contradictory – one person would come to tell me that they needed more of one thing, while another person would come to me five minutes later to say that they needed more of the exact opposite. It seemed there was no way of meeting all of the expectations in the room, not even if I contorted myself to try to satisfy people.
By lunchtime on the second day, the picture started to become more and more clear to me. There was an expectation in the room that was, quite honestly, impossible for me to live up to, because it was an expectation crafted out of who they THOUGHT I was and not who I REALLY am. A couple of people, in their conversations with me, referred to me as the “Queen of Holding Space”, and it wasn’t reverence I was hearing in their voices but disappointment. These people – because my work has been broadly circulated in certain circles in the Netherlands – had constructed an image of me as a guru who knows all there is to know about holding space and who would walk into the room and wow them immediately with my exquisite ability to hold space.
Unfortunately, I walked into the room fully human, fully flawed, a little jet-lagged, and with a lot that I still need to learn about holding space. I didn’t speak their language (not only the language of their country, but the language of a systemic understanding of the world), I didn’t facilitate in the way that they’d become accustomed, I made mistakes, and the opening check-in circle dragged on too long so the opening pace was slow.
Over lunch, I agonized over what was the right thing to do. Should I just keep trying to adapt my style to find the sweet spot that might satisfy the highest number of people in the room? Or should I simply push through with how I’d planned the workshop and hope that by the end, something of value would be transmitted? Should I hide my fear and flaws in the face of these people who looked up to me and pretend I was oblivious to their dissatisfaction?
OR… should I speak my vulnerability out loud, trust them to have the emotional intelligence to receive it well, and hope that it might help us collectively dive deeper into our learning?
I chose vulnerability. I knew it was a risk and I knew that I might lose some credibility (and people might leave even more dissatisfied than they already were), but it seemed like the only viable option.
I told them that I’d become aware that there was a shadow in the room and that that shadow was a reflection of the way that I was letting people down. (In process work such as this, the shadow refers to “that which is hiding under the surface which is unspoken and therefore potentially destructive”.) I said that I wasn’t interested in the pedestal that people had put me on – that pedestals are lonely, dangerous, and uncomfortable, and that I prefer to be in the circle, alongside them, doing the work in messy and flawed ways and learning shoulder-to-shoulder. I spoke of my imperfections and told them I knew I wouldn’t be able to meet all of the expectations in the room. I promised, though, that I would continue to do my best to offer them what I have learned so far about holding space. I invited them to trust me and to stand by my side as we went deeper into the learning and into brave space together.
My sharing, like everything else I’d done up until that point, was imperfect, and when I was finished, I wasn’t sure what to do next. When I looked around the room, what I thought I saw was a softening and greater acceptance of the imperfection and releasing of the unmet expectations, but I wasn’t sure if I was interpreting it correctly.
Slowly, though, things started to shift, and, in the end, my vulnerability helped us go where we needed to go as a group. It didn’t happen magically (there was still some resistance that afternoon) but gradually the energy in the room shifted. We stepped more deeply into a place of trust, depth, and bravery. Other people began to open up and some spoke to their own wrestling with what had been going on in the room.
The next morning, a couple of moments of inspiration helped to take our learning to an even deeper place. First, I shared a story of how I’d been invited to dance with Ugandan women the week before, how miserably I’d failed at it, but how I recognized that it was in brief moments of my most pure surrender to the music and to those who lead me in the dance when I could most successfully move with the rhythm. “That place of surrender is what brave space is like,” I said. “And today, as we finish up this workshop, I want to invite you into that dance of surrender and trust. I’m asking that you trust the music and that you trust me, as your leader, to know what the rhythm in the room needs to be.” I looked around the room, and what I saw looking back at me were nodding heads and a deeper trust than I’d witnessed up until that point.
The other moment of inspiration was one that I can take no credit for – it came in the form of a piece of camel shit. A participant named Roeland brought a small container that he wanted to add to the collection of items at the centre of the circle (items that represent the people in the circle and that we use as talking pieces). “This is a dried up piece of camel shit,” he said, while people snickered in response. “I picked it up while on a spiritual retreat. At first I thought it was a rock, but when I picked it up, I discovered it had very little weight to it. The lesson in it for me was that my shit is lighter than I expect it to be. I can carry my own shit and it doesn’t feel like the burden I anticipate.”
From that point on, that piece of camel shit became a symbol for the group of what it means to “take responsibility for your own shit”. At one point, it became the talking piece and we all discovered how light it was to “hold our own shit”. But then one person put it down and chose another talking piece because “that’s not my shit and I don’t want to carry it,” she said. We all laughed and realized that some of the deepest learning of the day was coming from the lighthearted way that we could talk about taking responsibility for whatever we brought into the room. It wasn’t lost on us that this was connected to what I’d spoken of earlier – that some of the dissatisfaction and shadow in the room was because we’d each brought our own shit (ie. expectations and fear of letting people down) with us and had projected it onto other people. (This is true for me as well as anyone else. There were moments when I was looking for people to blame rather than recognizing my own part in what was transpiring.)
By the end of that third day, the energy had completely changed, and the workshop ended with some of the warmest hugs and words of appreciation I’d ever received. Several people remarked on how we, as a group, had been through a liminal space journey together – how we’d started with one version of who we were and what we expected, how my vulnerable sharing had helped us let go of that story and those expectations, and how we’d emerged into something new. This is one of the first things I teach in my holding space workshops – that when we hold space, we have to be prepared to hold the complexity of the liminal space.
It’s quite possible that my vulnerability could have backfired and that people might have left the room frustrated and disappointed. (Perhaps some did and I’m not aware of it.) It’s never a guarantee when we take a risk like that. But more often than not, I’ve found that my willingness to be imperfect and authentic, as the leader of that space, is directly correlated with how deep the learning can go.
In retrospect, though, there were a couple of factors that helped the vulnerability land well. For one thing, I let the participants know that they didn’t have to take care of me – that I wasn’t so vulnerable that they had to spend their energy making sure I was okay. Whenever I teach, I have other people that I trust outside of the circle to whom I can send a distress signal (usually via text message) simply to ask them for virtual support. I’m careful not to have the expectation that people who’ve come to learn from me also have to look after my emotional well-being. (Though I do appreciate their concern, I don’t make it their responsibility.)
Secondly, I paired the vulnerability with strength – letting them know that I was still prepared to take responsibility for leadership and for making decisions about what direction the workshop would take. I invited them to trust my sense of the right pace, content, etc.
As in the Buddhist teaching around warriorship, I practiced showing up with a “strong back and soft belly” – prepared to show them my vulnerability while still carrying myself with strength.
In the end, the workshops that take me through the most difficult terrain are usually the ones where I walk away with the most learning. I hope the same is true for those who were there with me. I am forever grateful for their willingness to step into the liminal space with me.
“I don’t think of myself as a leader.” I hear that statement often from my clients and I understand it – I used to say the same thing myself. It wasn’t until a special mentor/boss took me aside and told me that she saw leadership ability in me and then offered me my first leadership position that I first started to recognize that I had capacity to lead.
One of the reasons that the people I work with don’t see themselves as leaders is because they equate leadership with authoritarianism. In their experience, a leader is in control, has more knowledge than those they lead, provides solutions to all of the problems, and makes all of the tough decisions. In an authoritarian model, the leader has “power over” their subordinates and is expected to be the authority on all things. While that form of leadership may be desirable for some people (especially those who feel fearful about their safety) and may be necessary in some situations (when children are small and need to be kept safe, or when a country is at war), it can easily become destructive and disempowering.
Anyone who’s attracted to what I teach about holding space is not inclined to seek out or emulate that kind of authoritative power and has likely witnessed its destruction, and so they steer clear of the mantle of leadership.
Instead of steering clear of it though, I’d like us to consider an alternative model that fits us better and that I believe is badly needed in the world today.I’d like to invite us to consider what it means for a leader to have “power with”.
These books made leadership feel possible because they were about leading from a place of humility and authenticity rather than authority and control. I didn’t have to be invincible or unflappable to be a leader – I could bring my flaws, my insecurity, and my humanity into the role.I could step into it with curiosity and openness and I could rely on those I lead to bring their skills to the table where mine were lacking.
These three books taught me that a leader:
is a host rather than a hero
collaborates rather than controls
claims and shares power but doesn’t abuse it
has authority and influence but doesn’t need to be authoritarian
gathers people for meaningful conversations and practices genuine listening
shows up authentically and with appropriate vulnerability
admits what she doesn’t know and allows others to fill in the gaps
co-creates an environment where ALL can shine
invites people to contribute with their unique strengths and abilities
isn’t afraid to apologize and/or admit she is wrong
balances innovation and progress with stability and contemplation
knows how to hold space for complexity, growth, change, etc.
Meg Wheatley says that “a leader is anyone willing to help, anyone who sees something that needs to change and takes the first steps to influence that situation.” In other words, we don’t need to wait until we’ve been given leadership positions in order to lead – we simply have to notice the need and step in to offer what we can to help fill it.
If we alter our definition of leadership to this more collaborative model, what are the most essential competencies and qualities that a leader needs to foster?Here are some of my thoughts (in no particular order):
Humility. It takes humility and a willingness to give up the need to be right in order to be a collaborative leader. Effective leaders share the spotlight (or step out of it entirely) and share the credit (or give it to whoever earned it). Their humility is not self-deprecating, nor does it mask insecurity, but rather it is honest, authentic, openhearted, and courageous. Humility welcomes the brilliance of others and doesn’t need to outshine it.
Generosity. Collaborative leaders are generous in their support of other people, generous in offering up their time to others, and generous in how they encourage and inspire people. They don’t see everything they do as transactional (ie. “I’ll do X for you if you do Y for me.”) but instead invite people to function in a “gift economy”, offering up their best toward the common good.
Self-awareness.Self-aware leaders recognize and admit their weakness, take responsibility for their mistakes, and don’t project their baggage and unhealed wounds onto other people. They also know their strengths and capacities and aren’t afraid to step into their own power. While they embrace community and collaboration, they don’t approach people from a place of neediness, seeking out other people’s affirmation and validation.
Self-regulation.When effective leaders are overwhelmed, stressed out, or triggered, they practice self-regulation (and/or have support systems that help them co-regulate) in order to calm and control their emotions rather than dumping them on other people. They’ve done enough personal growth work that they recognize how much instability can be created by their dis-regulated emotional outbursts, and so they work to create a more stable and safe environment for everyone.
Self-forgiveness.While self-awareness, self-regulation, and generosity are important qualities, leaders are still human and they’ll mess up occasionally, and do selfish things or react to triggers in unhealthy ways. When they do, they take responsibility for it, make any necessary restitutions, learn what they need to from the experience, and then practice self-forgiveness and self-care.
Courage. Courage is defined by Google as “the ability to do something that frightens one” and “strength in the face of pain or grief”. I like the combination of these two definitions because it’s not about the absence of fear, but rather the ability and strength to act in spite of it. Effective leaders might be quaking in their boots, but still step forward and do and/or say what’s right. Courage is contagious – when we are in the company of those who practice it, we are more inclined to find the capacity in ourselves.
Power. When I first turned away from authoritarian leadership and chose a different model, I thought power was a dirty word, but I’ve changed my mind since. Power is only dirty if it is abused and if it exists apart from love. As Martin Luther King said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” Effective leaders aren’t afraid of power – they claim it, share it, and use it with love.
Resilience.An effective leader can survive struggle and opposition and can find their way back to strength. It’s not that they are never beaten down – they are – but they get up the next day (or the next week, or month) and do what needs to be done to get back on track. If one path doesn’t work, they adapt and find an alternative. If one attempt fails, they try something else. Repeatedly, they return to their sense of purpose and meaning and they persevere.
Meaning-making. When I first started learning about leadership, I kept hearing about how a leader had to have a sense of vision, and while I agree to a certain point, it always felt like there was something missing from that model. A vision might inspire us for the future, but what about the present? Instead, I now focus on meaning-making. An effective leader strives to make meaning out of the current moment even when the vision is blurred and the future looks dim. Even when there is only struggle and no hope, a leader looks for meaning and purpose.
The ability to hold space. This may be the competency that is the most counter-cultural when compared to an authoritarian leadership model. An effective leader is willing and able to be present for others while they make the journey through liminal space. They don’t impose their own desired outcome and they don’t rush the process. They practice mindfulness and presence, while not backing away from complexity and confusion.
This is only a partial list, and I can think of others (like the ability to build strength in diversity, for example), but this is, at least, a start in exploring what kind of leadership we need for times like these. I wonder how the world might change if we seek to be, to follow, and to elect leaders like these.