The Winnership of Leading

Mark Twain wrote: ‘There was a song in every heart.’

Zaida, my nine year old daughter, and I are heading to Missouri in a few weeks. We’re so looking forward to camping, seeing our friend Will Bowen and his amazing wife Marti, and – we just realized – we also will visit the home of Twain. The land and energy that underlay the stories of Tom Sawyer and Huckelberry Finn.

Leaders are people who win. They do whatever it takes to win, and if they are good leaders, they do it in way that everyone involved feels fantastic with the win, which means, in a sport context for instance, the ‘losers’ too.

In the space that I live in, most often, our ‘battles’ are more with our own fears, judgements or blind spots. What we overcome is usually negative emotion, a state that could pull us, or the beings around us, down. And if there is a loser, it’s the ego.

Another great friend, yoga teacher and writer extraordinaire, Alanna Kaivalya once said to a group of our trainees once: ‘you want the students to win.’ Yes, it’s essential as leaders and teachers that we offer enough challenge and stretch for people to grow into whom they wish to be, and it’s equally important that they achieve many small wins along the way.

I have an incredible blessing of getting to spend time with a group of ‘differently-abled’ kids at a Balinese charity/school called Sari Hati. If you ever get the chance to meet Sari, who’s a marvel of an inspiring Balinese woman – take it. I’m hoping to interview her for our blog one day soon.

Every Wednesday morning I hang out with 10-15 ‘children’ of varied ages, some of whom are adults, and all of whom have a different emotional or mental experience from ‘normal’ people. I’ve appreciated not knowing any of their diagnoses or labels. No matter my medical, psychological or therapeutic training and knowledge, I believe my best service to them is simply being with them, loving them and hopefully offering inspiration, education and, of course, entertainment through my stories.

The love and kindness they give to me, their appreciation, and the modellling of their authenticity – wow. Incredible gifts I receive each visit. Beyond that (amazing that there could be more), I learn so much about how I can grow in my abilities as a story teller, teacher and leader.

One boy whom we call Adi, who is thin and loves to wear yellow or red t-shirts, joins about once every three times I’m there, and best I can tell, whether he joins or not depends on how well he’s doing that day. He seems to have little capacity to focus, both with his eyes (which aren’t able to look in the same direction) and with his attention. Sometimes he gets agitated and needs a lot of support.

Each morning just before we start into story, one of the kids leads the others in some good morning songs and prayer, then the leader calls out good morning to each and the others respond in kind. Most of these kids are fairly able to respond by saying ‘Selemat pagi,’ and then the leaders name. Adi, however, doesn’t seem able to say much, and sometimes it seems he isn’t even aware of what’s going on, and instead sits staring crook-necked into space.

I’ve always appreciated how the other kids and the staff there take care of everyone, and especially Adi. Yesterday though, I realized that they are also embodying great leadership.

‘Selemat pagi, Wayan.’ For most of us, even if Indonesian is not a language we speak much, we could learn to say that phrase easily. For Adi, who’s been around Indonesian language a lot of his life (Balinese is spoken at home instead), it’s a far reach.

They break it down for him.

Sel-e-mat pa-gi, Way-an. Seven syllables.

On a day when he’s doing phenomenally well, is relaxed and happy, the leader can say Selemat pagi, Adi,’ and he might say the whole seven syllables back. More often though, he’s silent when it’s his turn to bounce the greeting back.

When that happens, someone in the group – teacher or student – says ‘Selemat…’ Leaving a space for him to finish the greeting, and Adi will finish the phrase by saying ‘pagi.’ We all breathe a sigh of relief and joy when he does that.

On days when he’s not doing so well, when there is mixed up energy in him or in the environment, even that might not work. Then someone will say ‘Sel-e-mat pa…’ With that same ‘now it’s your turn’ tone, and Adi will then add the ‘gi’ to complete the phrase.

Leaders help those around them to win. Just before the victory, in that time when we don’t know how we’ll get there, and part of us might doubt that we are good enough, it’s often uncomfortable, or downright discouraging and painful. And it’s often in those moments, when it seems dark and bleak, that we find the light, the truth of who we are, the courage to find the answer – a single syllable of a word, the courage to admit our mistakes or the power that allows us to be a vulnerable, authentic inspiration for everyone else. Humility can come quickly when we realize that all of us are sometimes doubtful and seem imperfect.

The last bit I’ll add to this for now is a moment of myth-busting, in this case the myth that leaders know how to win. Very often they don’t. And, in fact they are freaked out scared on the inside wondering how on earth they can pull it off, turn it around or really find a way to reach the person in front of them with love. What leaders do know is that not only can they get to the victory, not only can they lead the beings with them to overcoming their obstacles, they must. And in so knowing, they find a way.

I send a special shout out and thanks to all those who work with, teach and care for those among us that are considered different. In my book, you are saints. Thank you for leading the rest of us.

Mark Twain knew that hearts were made for loving, and singing. Another term for leader is one who helps bring forward the song. Let’s listen.


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