A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of spending several days with an extraordinarily wise teacher named Koan. This sage reminded me of lessons in leadership that I had forgotten. What’s unusual about this particular spiritual guide: he’s a 17-month-old toddler to whom I am known as Auntie Karen.
One of the motivational quotes I’ve seen countless times says, “Life begins outside your comfort zone.” While I absolutely understand and agree with the concept of stretching into the unknown to discover new realms of possibility, there is an unspoken – and often missed – counterpoint. Rarely, if ever in the popular personal development culture do we celebrate the deep dive into our own knowing that elicits unequivocal trust in who we are at our core. We call this aspect of multidimensional leadership the leader within. It’s the voice of wisdom and compassion, inner strength and acceptance that says with a smile, “I’ve got this.”
For months leading up to visiting Koan and his parents, I’d been anxiously struggling to understand why I wasn’t happier. One part of my life was getting a lot of attention because it wasn’t working the way I wanted it to or thought it was supposed to be. I was frustrated and beginning to lose faith. The day before I went to see Koan, I took a private surf lesson and realized that as a grown-up, I made up a story that mastering new skills is fast, easy and effortless. Surfing reminded me that when you love something and want to get better at it, you practice. A great quote that describes my experience in the ocean, toddlers get instinctively: Fall down seven times, stand up eight.
Change occurs in quantum leaps and baby steps. When I was a new mom, I was not a stellar student of my tiny teachers. But now, with years of practice and reflection, I’ve cultivated patience and a grateful appreciation of the present moment. Koan and I played together to make each other laugh. He took my hand so we could explore a nearby rock garden. I sat with him to ease him into his nap, sharing with him the music I play for my Ellie as she goes to sleep every night. One afternoon, he sat in my lap, and we did nothing at all for some of the most blissful moments of my stay, maybe of my life.
I’ve had too many people tell me that they aren’t leaders. Something about the word makes them look to others instead of trusting their own innate power to make a difference, regardless of how big or small it is. Leadership means seeing an opportunity – no matter how big or small – to create something new and taking action. One quote I share frequently:“Leaders don’t know what’s next. If we knew, we’d be followers.” Babies are extraordinary adept leaders who create their future concurrent with their growth into it.
Leaders grow other leaders in belief, words and whispers. In his actions and his toddler essence, Koan offered me a new inquiry to consider in my struggle: what’s the rush? As Auntie Karen, I can observe and enjoy what I didn’t have the capacity for as a young parent, striving to reach the next developmental phase or milestone on behalf of my children who hadn’t yet shown signs that they had inherited my ambition. It was as if once they reached what was expected of their age and stage, I could relax – but growth and learning never ends and I couldn’t keep up. Once I learned that we’d figure it out along the way, I became a better mother and human.
Koan reminded me of who I am as a leader at my core: strong, playful, visionary, patient, curious, wise, confident, loving, calm, gentle and nurturing.
It’s been said by many that “We teach best what we most need to learn,” and perhaps this is why my work has found its home in experience-based leadership development. We learn by doing, and with thoughtful repetition and refinement, we gain mastery. It’s a lifelong pursuit, and I’m not in a hurry anymore.