Authentic Leadership Lessons From The Dead Poets Society – What will your verse be?

This past week I was in Ottawa visiting my daughter, Hayley, who is proudly starting her teaching career in a Montessori high school. She finished her dual degree in Education and Arts this past year and is a passionate, purpose-driven new teacher.

In our conversations I asked Hayley about her vision for herself as a new educator. She referred me to a scene in Peter Weir’s 1989 wonderful film, Dead Poets Society. Set in 1959 at the fictional elite conservative Vermont boarding school, Welton Academy, it tells the story of an English teacher who inspires his students through his teaching of poetry. Hayley was inspired by the movie when we watched it many years ago. In one scene, John Keating (played by Robin Williams) teaches his pupils the reason for reading and writing poetry by quoting Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute,” explains the teacher. “We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering; these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love; these are what we stay alive for.”

To paraphrase Whitman:

“O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring.

Of the endless trains of the faithless.

Of cities filled with the foolish…

What good amid these, O me! O life?

Answer: That you are here. That life exists and identity.

That the powerful play goes on, And you may contribute a verse.

That the powerful play goes on, And you may contribute a verse.”

The teacher then stopped and asked his students to reflect upon a life-changing question: “What will your verse be?”

The scene has applicability not only for high achieving high school students but also for those who are committed to live authentically. Authenticity asks us to look within our heart and soul, and to stop long enough to ask the tough questions:

  • What is it that you care most deeply about?
  • What in your life is calling you – beyond what others expect from you?
  • How aligned are you with the life you are meant to be living?
  • What’s the difference between living in the midst of the tyranny of the urgent, and living with a sense of purpose?
  • What do you most need to do in your life?
  • How are you supporting others to find their voice?

What will your verse be?

AN UNDERVALUED VIRTUE CALLED GRIT – The Power To Persevere In The Pain

When the morning’s freshness has been replaced by the weariness of midday, when the leg muscles quiver under the strain, the climb seems endless, and suddenly, nothing will go quite as you wish – it is then that you must not hesitate.
– Dag Hammarskyold

 

In the classic 1969 Henry Hathaway movie,True Grit, John Wayne plays a drunken, hard-nosed U.S. Marshal who helps a stubborn teenager track down her father’s murderer. In true John Wayne fashion, he demonstrates a most valued virtue: grit. It’s a short word with great power. Grit is tenacity, perseverance, stamina, sticking with the task at hand day in and day out, not just for the day or the month or the years, but for as long as it takes. Grit is about passion and purpose and persistence. Grit is about living life as a marathon, not a sprint or a walk in the park. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, grit is defined as “firmness of character… an indomitable spirit.” Those with grit know that everything will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, it is not yet the end.
It’s easy to start, but it takes grit to finish. While authenticity in leadership is learning to connect, to be vulnerable and open and humble, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have a spine. Leadership without backbone, without grit, isn’t leadership at all. Leadership means, at times, the toughness to stand for something, the toughness to finish, and the toughness to refine our soul with the sandpaper of hardship.
When my grandfather worked three jobs raising eight kids during the depression, he modeled grit. When I watch my friends, colleagues, and clients here in Alberta display courage, innovation, and tenacity to get through today’s challenging economic times, I see grit. When someone sets aside personal gain to be beside an ill loved one through a long illness, I am reminded of the value of this precious virtue. Grit means seeing the task through, not because it’s easy or comfortable or self-serving, but because it is the right thing to do.
Here are three qualities that both demonstrate – and inspire – grit:
A COMPELLING VISION
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s unwavering persistence in fighting for civil rights, justice, anti-discrimination, and peace inspired a broken nation. An athlete training for the Olympics will persevere through the pain of getting up early, endure the hours of brutal workouts, and see it all the way to the end. Why? Because of the power of the dream. Thomas Edison allegedly tried 10,000 times before succeeding in his light bulb. A gritty undergraduate college student will study long into the night, night after night, with the vision of becoming a doctor. A young entrepreneur endures the challenges and setbacks of failures to find a way to bring her vision to the marketplace. A recovering alcoholic, with a vision of self-respect and a commitment to the wellbeing of his family he loves, will muster the grit to stay with he program. It’s a captivating vision, along with a profound and sustaining commitment to that vision, that inspires and awakens the human spirit.
COURAGE
Theodore Roosevelt, a true exemplar of grit, spoke of overcoming fear by embracing it with vulnerability and courage in an address at the Sorbonne in 1910.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…
It takes courage to dream, and even greater courage to persist in the realization of that dream. It takes courage to identify the habits that will create and realize your dream, and even greater courage to get up early and implement those habits and ignore a thousand possible excuses to stay in bed. It takes courage to keep making progress, to keep setting new standards, in the midst of the world telling you to settle for conformity and mediocrity.
Courage, however, isn’t always apparent. You can’t always see courage, nor can courage be accurately assessed by anyone else. It takes courage to finish a marathon, and sometimes it takes courage to stop. It takes courage to build a business, and it takes courage to find other priorities in your life. It takes courage to do a job right, and it takes courage to let go of perfection, and instead allow excellence to be your standard. It takes courage to get back on the proverbial horse, and sometimes it takes courage to walk away from the horse. It takes courage to stay in a relationship, and sometimes it takes courage to leave a relationship. It takes courage to love, and it takes courage to let go. Courage, a quality vital to grit, is developed with practice and identified by a well-tuned conscience.
CARING
Jeff Clark, President of Kitchen Partners Ltd. in Edmonton believes, “there are two kinds of people in the world: ‘me’ people and ‘we’ people.” My conversation with him got me thinking that ‘me’ people turn grit into greed. Without the ‘we,’ without humanity and a dedication to the greater good, grit turns into obsession and narcissism. Grit without caring isn’t grit at all. Grit without compassion is bullying and tyranny.
Grit combined with caring is character. As I write in my book, Caring is Everything, caring enriches every facet of our lives. Grit is caring enough about someone or something to persevere. Grit is caring so much that you’ll do whatever it takes. If you care enough, you will find the grit. If you can’t find it in you to dream, maybe all you need to inspire grit is to care.
Grit, like other qualities of character, cannot be “taught” to others like you teach algebra or organic chemistry. Grit, however, can be “caught.” It can be discovered. It can be fostered in the cultures where we work and live if we take the advice of Albert Schweitzer, the theologian, philosopher, and physician:

“Example is not the main thing in influencing others, it is the only thing”.

5 WAYS TO REWIRE, REIMAGINE, AND RECREATE YOURSELF AND YOUR WORKPLACE

There is little doubt that the environment where we work and live impacts our lives. However, by taking charge of how you perceive your environment, you can make incredible changes in your life. Rewire your thoughts about your environment, reimagine the reality of your environment, and you will recreate your environment.

Quantum physics has discovered something that many mystics have long since known: that your perception of the universe actually invokes the very universe that you observe. If you change the way you view the environment around you, the environment around you changes. This means your creative imagination literally affects the very blueprint of your reality. How our universe manifests itself depends on how we both individually and collectively dream it up. The real power, then, is in the viewing – the lenses we look through as we observe the world around us.

There is a wonderful story of William James, one of the leading thinkers of the late nineteenth century, who, as a young man, went to Paris to study. He was depressed and suicidal at the time. However, he decided to take a wager suggested by a French philosopher, to act each day as if the universe was full of purpose and meaning. By the end of his studies, he had discovered so much meaning and purpose that he changed his life. He became a great philosopher who influenced many.

You play a role not only in how you experience your universe, but how the universe will experience you and continue its creative expansion through you. It is important to note that at any moment you can effortlessly step out of your various dilemmas. You can stop endlessly recreating a toxic or negative reality. The key is whether you recognize how you are feeding into, supporting, and hence helping to create the very problem you are reacting to. As the philosopher, Jean Houston, puts it: “Don’t keep feeding chicken soup to your pathology.”

Another way to say this is that through our perceptions and our choices we are actually creating the culture that we so enjoy complaining about. Deciding that you have co-created the world around you – and therefore you are the one to step into healing it – is the ultimate act of accountability. In order to do this, every so often you need to stop, rewire, reimagine, and recreate the world around you.

Below are five practical strategies for rewiring, reimagining, recreating your current reality.

  • Work as if you have the perfect job – now.
Regardless of whether you like or dislike your job or the environment where you work or live, act every day as if this were your ideal career in an ideal workplace. Imagine that this is where you have always dreamed of working, with the kind of colleagues you always dreamed of working with, doing the kind of work you have always fantasized doing. Act every day as if your current environment was full of purpose and meaning, and observe how the environment around you changes.
  • Create a vision. Without a vision you perish. And if you don’t perish, you will likely get depressed. Rewiring, reimagining, and recreating means stepping back every so often to clarify a vision you are personally moving towards. Organizational vision statements will have little meaning for you until you have a sense of your own personal vision. What gets you up early? What keeps you up late? What inspires you to go the extra mile? What keeps you going on the darker days? Regardless of whether you are working toward a goal in your personal life or work life, be sure to make time to work for a dream that engages your unique talents and that is bigger and more powerful than simply “getting through the day.”
  • Choose service over self-interest. Imagine ways you can make the world you live in better for others. Decide, just for today, that you are going to be a giver – by your smile, kind words, encouraging attitude, and generosity. Decide, just for today, to be a contributor, a helper to others rather than expecting so much from others. Decide, just for today, to replace unearned entitlement with gratitude. Make it a point to say thank you three times each day. Decide, just for today, to “lift,” rather than “lean,” to build rather than tear down. Ask how you can best be of service and grant some grace to your fellow human beings.
  • Make yourself happy. Make a decision to enjoy the environment where you live and work. You don’t need to have the “right” job or the “right” boss or the “right” family to be happy or engaged in your work. Happiness is not a destination; it’s a method of travel. You can decide to be happy. It’s an attitude, a mind-set, a choice. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Happiness comes from the inside; it is not a matter of externals.
  • When the horse is dead, get off. Maybe recreating your current environment means doing just that: finding something new. If you are in a job that you hate, and you need more than a renewed reality in your current environment, then cut your losses, quit your job, and start again in a new environment. Most importantly: STOP COMPLAINING, starting right now. Sometimes relationships need to end. Rewiring, reimagining, and recreating may mean starting over in a brand new environment with brand new relationships. One important word of caution: before you leave any relationship be sure that you are not running away from something you need to face, learn, and contribute to. If you seek a geographic cure, be prepared to meet the same problems in your next environment.

Put some of these intentions into action. Pay attention to the effect they have on you and your environment. You will create a new world when you rewire, reimagine, and recreate.