Issue 5.7 | March 2017

In this Article: progress, collapse, recovery and the making of healthy leaders.

by Jonathan Wilson

Here’s the kind of story we like in business. Ten years ago this month, with barely a penny to my name, I sat in a government office, obeyed my belief that business should do good, and registered Soul Systems as a company: the tagline, leadership by soul.

In March 2008, I landed my first Fortune 500 consulting contract. In October, the entire business world was delivered a concussive blow to the head by a stray financial hardball let loose by irresponsible bankers. 2009 saw Soul Systems hobble along with a couple of faithful clients, but also gain and lose, in quick succession, three significant contracts, as each new client reacted in panic to the deep bite of the Great Recession.

Had I known in 2007 what I know now, I don’t think I would have had the courage to start Soul Systems. When it is difficult just to make ends meet, the pressure to give up is immense. Nevertheless, if we are to pursue what truly matters, we cannot allow our desire for relief dictate our response to difficulty.

A decade later, Soul Systems is a team of strategic partners and has served in substantial change and strategy processes across a dozen industries, locally and internationally. We have seen deeply divided teams unite, competing stakeholders collaborate, global strategies built and executed, leadership cultures shift, and individual executives transformed as leaders.

Most of us measure leadership by achievement. We expect that along the way things will be tough, and things will go wrong, but we learn and we progress. On these terms March 2017 is, for Soul Systems, an anniversary worth celebrating.

But what happens when the things that go wrong are inside you? What is leadership by soul when one’s soul is in fact shrouded in darkness? This is not the kind of story we like in business.

Into the Dark Night

During 2014-2015 I provided guidance to a peace process in South East Asia. It was a simmering, ugly tribal-political conflict, spread across a large region. Working in that context was stressful, especially whenever the deep hostilities between stakeholders were turned and directed at me.

Half-way through 2015, an influential stakeholder brought an abrupt end to the process. I took this disappointment as an opportunity to re-engage the Canadian market with vigour — and return to work on a book. Then, weeks later, my health took a nose-dive. An old illness came back to haunt me. Suddenly, I fell into a debilitating cycle of symptoms I’d never experienced before: intense bouts of anxiety and nights of unrelieved insomnia. At one point, I delivered a conference plenary after only three hours of sleep in four nights. During those months I wasn’t sure which might happen first, the loss of my mind or the loss of my life.

Through the Dark Night

Many leaders I know have been through a dark night of the soul. The instinct of most is to run. A few fight. Both responses express our desperation for life to return to normal, because normal is much less painful. But the dark night comes precisely because our normal is not healthy enough. The dark night of the soul is a theatre for spiritual surgery. It is a place marked by dependence and discovery.

Dependence

We cannot be our own surgeons. Rich resources are available to us, but come only through the help of others: they are not ours to take or manage, like some commodity or tool we independently master to lead better. It seems counterintuitive, but there is a dimension of our leadership that comes to us only from without, not from within. It comes only as others give to us, and that requires that we ask for, and welcome, help.

Like Frodo under the oppressive weight of the One Ring*, we stagger towards redemption, not alone, but by means of our companions. We become dependent on the (often sacrificial) help of others. I received uncomplaining care from my wife, whose own sleep suffered as I wrestled with sleeplessness. Close friends welcomed my (probably intense) late night or early morning calls. I received guidance from my doctor, from a counsellor specializing in past trauma, and from a specialist in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Each played a part in my healing.

Discovery

In the dark night comes discovery. I encountered my complexity as well mystery. I learned how much of what I feared was false. I learned not to dread sleep deprivation. I found how much I could do even if my head throbbed with fatigue or anxiety gripped my chest.

The dark night of the soul teaches us hope that is rooted in a sober appraisal of life’s challenges and human frailty. Such hope is far more powerful than the self-inflating clichés that often count for inspiration today.

It produces compassion: a deeper, empathic sense of connection with those whose condition would previously have seemed worthy of concern but ultimately “other”. Our leadership is for fellow humans, not lesser humans.

Out of the Dark Night

A year ago, this month, the CBT specialist declared my dark night to be over. By the summer of 2016, anxiety and insomnia were only occasional companions. However, while I probably couldn’t have been described as fully recovered, I was in certain ways healthier than ever. My perceptions of threat were more accurate, my resilience greater, my heart both softer and bolder and, one therefore hopes, my leadership stronger.

Out of the dark night comes, one hopes, a better leader. One broken, but healed; dependent, but stronger for it; clear-eyed, but full of hope.

*****

Another leadership insight from www.leadbysoul.com.

Leadership by Soul™, Trademark and © Jonathan Wilson, All Rights Reserved.

*See The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

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