Grasping the Struggle

Mau ZedongOnce all struggle is grasped, miracles are possible.
Mao Zedong

To be sure, Chairman Mao is one of the most controversial figures of the 20th century, revered by many cursed by some, the world power we see today as China stands on foundations he lay. He leaned to poetry and philosophy as much as war and politics and it is from these gentler leanings that we have received this most potent aphorism ‘Once all struggle is grasped, miracles are possible.’ This may be held to be true in many endeavors but my interest here lies in its profundity in relation to great leadership.
While I am on the dichotomy of autarchs and angels, let me continue with the case of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon was from Corsica, an island state conquered three months before his birth by France. He of course rose from this subjugated state to rule all of France. Remarkable really. Napoleon BonaparteNapoleonic scholars cite many struggles which prepared him for the miracle of his ascension to the apogee of military, political and economic leadership in Europe. But there was one experience in particular which many view as an inflection point for him, the nadir from which he sprung to unimaginable heights.

PBS describes the aftermath of his failed ambition to gain political power in Corsica:
“Bonaparte no longer had the right to live in Corsica, he had been given a death sentence by his own people. His idealism was shaken…The defeat in Corsica, the break from his hero Paoli had toughened him, made him shrewd and turned him toward France.
Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas in their 2002 Harvard Business Review article, Crucibles of Leadership, explore what they call a crucible experience and the role of that experience in creating outstanding leaders. According to the authors ‘ A crucible is, by definition, a transformative experience through which an individual comes to a new or an altered sense of identity.’ and from this transformative experience they emerge stronger, more confident in themselves and their purpose, and more committed to their work. In other words, crucible experiences make better leaders.
As a leader challenges will come; there seems to be no shortage of those, and they will come fast and furious, without regard for your strength of spirit or your strength of cash or your daily schedule or without regard to any of the more convenient times in the future which they may present themselves or better yet, not come at all. They will just show up uninvited with an air of their right to be there, and say to you, ‘deal with me and grow or quiver and shrivel’.
Disposition to disaster is more important than disaster itself. Great leaders don’t just try to get by or survive their obstacles, they actively drain every pint of lesson and learning from them and add that to their arsenal. When they rise, they are better armed, better equipped tougher, more formidable.
The mark of a leader is in the rising up. Bennis and Thomas put it this way ‘Our recent research has led us to conclude that one of the most reliable indicators and predictors of true leadership is an individual’s ability to find meaning in negative events and learn from even the most trying circumstances. Put another way, the skills required to conquer adversity and emerge stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders.’
This is not an easy thing to do, but I have found Jim Collins’ observations a useful practice and recommendation. He notes in his article Level 5 Leadership, The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve the Stockdale Paradox:
“Named after Admiral James Stockdale, winner of the Medal of Honor, who survived seven years in a Vietcong POW camp by hanging on to two contradictory beliefs: His life could not be worse at the moment, and his life would someday be better than ever. Like Stockdale, people at the good-to-great companies in our research confronted the most brutal facts of their current reality, yet simultaneously maintained absolute faith that they would prevail in the end. And they held both disciplines-faith and fact-at the same time, all the time.”
Do not be deceived by the outward trappings of leadership that you may aspire to, money, power influence, deference, and someone bringing you lunch on a platter and calling you Mr. Leader. Understand that once you decide to do something extraordinary with your life, to test yourself, to see how good you are, how far you can go, you will be faced as much with serendipity as with calamity. To succeed, to achieve, to lead, those moments of disaster and despair must be used as a launching pad and not a headstone.

My Yoga Purge

Something was awfully awry.  I left the toilet seat up (again) and my wife did not repeat the diatribe, one of many, IMG_0020to which I had become accustomed and which had been slowly sizzled into my memory, such that I could repeat it, as if the words were the thoughts of Longfellow, Kipling or Shakespeare, punctuated with the colloquialism, ‘how yu head so tuff’.  Nothing came.

I did not witness the calm that overcomes mass murderers as they are about to do their deed, but rather the calm of a centered person, breath and body in synchronous undulation, the calm of an emerging Yogi.

When it comes time to work-out my wife had taken on the insane habit of heading to Bikgram Yoga Jamaica while I, trying to hold on pathetically to the inexorable ebb of my testosterone headed to the gym to pump iron with real men where we shout and scream, veins popping, muscles bulging, and look askance at how much the other guy is lifting.  This is the world I was accustomed to.  In my head my body could still devour the track with huge graceful strides to win the 100m Class 1 event at Boy’s Champs, or propel a 390 kilo bobsleigh from zero to fast in little seconds at the Olympic Games.  In truth my body had been trying to have a heart to heart with my head for some time but alas, ‘mi head tuff’.

Out of curiosity, I decided to try the practice which had produced this strange woman walking around in my house.  The first few times I went to Bikram Yoga I prayed after minute 1 that I would make it to minute 90.  After minute 90 I swore on the honor and courage of my African forebears that I would not set back foot in that place.  But I went, or was called, drawn, back.  Something strange was happening.  I started to make connections.

It was not the heat in the room that frightened me so much at first, but my fear of the heat.  I had then, not to overcome the heat, but to overcome my fear.  I knew from a lifetime of challenge that beyond fear lies courage, beyond courage lies challenge, and beyond challenge lies change.  I began to breathe.

I am now over half way into a 40 day challenge.  I take what I experience in life into my practice and what I learn in my practice into my life.  What was left of my ego went first, high level athletic credentials matter little in the studio.  A young lady, who calls me Uncle Chris, hits a perfect standing bow pose in her second class, and holds it for 20 seconds, feet visible above her head in the mirror.  I spend the twenty seconds stumbling about like a drunkard making his way home late on a Friday night payday.  But even that is Okay.  I was trying.  ‘To stumble is to be human, to try again is to be a Yogi.’ 

I am reassured by the teacher, and I understand deep in my consciousness, that the benefit is in the effort not in the result.  So different from the ethos that only winning matters in my outside worlds.  One day I will get the pose, but by then I would have learned what I needed to.  Another practice aphorism echoes in the back of my mind as I am in Awkward Pose and feel as if I am going to fall backward ‘trust the process’ and I try, even as my legs tremble as I squat beside a fifty something mother who has done little more than PE in high school but is holding the pose steadily, head up, arms reaching, elegant.  The struggle is never against the person beside you, it’s always against yourself.

Exhausted, I collapse into dead body pose.  Will someone please turn on the fan, its hot, how many poses left, what time is it? Lawd Jeezas help mi!  I am about to have a panic attack, but I breathe.  The teacher, in tune with the class, says, ‘own your breath. If you own your breath, nothing or no one can steal your peace.’  I calm down, like the hollering baby I saw in the airport last week who was only calmed by its mother’s breast, I breathe and am comforted.  The breath connects me to the milk of the universe and I am at peace…’heels, toes, together…sit up.  I am renewed.

I am getting dressed to go to a meeting; my clothes no longer fit.  My waist is now what it was in high school, having been lost somewhere in the yoga studio.  I tighten my belt and smooth out the wrinkles in my pants waist. I am accustomed now to the various comments, ‘how yu so mawga’ from my mother to ‘you look so good’ from a passing stranger.  My wife is smelling the roses and causes me to be late for the meeting.  She is anticipating my own diatribe, I breathe, and it’s all good.  My head may not be that tough after all.

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