The cave you fear to enter


“The cave you fear to enter hold the treasure you seek.” You might recognise the above quotation from Joseph Campbell-an Educator, Author and Storyteller: it’s pretty much self explanatory so I won’t dwell on it now. What I will do is to suggest that you consider taking a look at some of Professor Campbell’s ideas and reflections. He was an accessible, beguiling teller of stories with lasting relevance.

When we create our “Leadership Culture” how much room do we allow ourselves to admit to uncertainties, our fears? Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability is well worth taking a look at, she is clear in her view that the understanding sharing of our uncertainties strengthens rather weakens us. There are some strong implications for the manner in which we as leaders establish a culture in which it’s alright to to express our vulnerabilities without feeling that this will result in our being judged as “wanting” by others. It’s a challenging journey!

I want to share a recent personal experience. On the morning of January 26th I knew something was wrong. I went to scratch my nose and poked myself in my eye, the left side of my face felt like I’d had some dental work done and my left leg felt weak. An ambulance arrived, I was admitted to A&E and the following day was told that a tiny piece of arterial plaque had found its way into my brain, causing a minor and temporary blockage. I was discharged and went home to get on with the rest of my life.

Only I didn’t.

It’s Saturday 29th January, and I’ve developed double vision and having spent most of the day hoping it might “go away,” I present myself at A&E again, only this time I wait, and wait and … you get it. At 2:30 am on the morning of the 30th, I was taken to an acute ward, I was being kept in for observation and my reaction was an angry refusal. I asked for a disclaimer form, making it very clear that no one had suggested that I might be detained, that I’d waited for eight and a half hours and I was hungry and thirsty. A nurse, with interpersonal skills of the highest order said “Mr Dooner, shall I get you a cup of tea and a sandwich, then we can have a chat?” And that connection with me, at a very human level, worked: I stayed.

The following day and after a repeated set of tests, I was seen by a consultant who was very clear in his assessment of my condition, “If you don’t make some adjustments, you’re heading for a catastrophe!” I was discharged, feeling nowhere near as chipper as I did a few days before.

It was time to reflect, and I quickly realised that my anger wasn’t anger at all. It was fear that expressed itself as anger: I was too scared to say I was scared! I had for years treated two chronic illnesses with contempt, almost as if to say “If I don’t behave as if I’m ill, I won’t be ill!” And as I continued my reflective journey, I realised that I was frightened to be seen as anything other than the person I wanted to be: hard living and undaunted and my answer was to do more of the same, often harder and faster.

I’d had all sorts of gentle nudges about lifestyle but this one, “CATASTROPHE” Wow! The power of that word! It was a key to a door that opened to the world I might inherit. One that had been broken with a life changing episode that might have been avoided “if only …” It was a “red button word.”

Once I was able to understand my anger in the context of the fear I felt about having to accept my conditions(s) it became easier to deal with, allowing me to be more accurate about what needed to happen to make the “change journey” work for me. There are functional changes (reduce weight, increase fitness, monitor your condition, take your medications as prescribed and not when you “think about it”), and these are pretty easy to address. Put bluntly, you’re either doing them or you’re not. The behavioural changes go deeper and are slippery characters. Our behaviour plays to audiences:

● The external one – ”Here’s who I am and this is what I do!”

● The friends and family one: as above plus “but that’s not all true, there are other, deeper aspects to my character.”

● Then there’s the individual, internalised audience one, the one we often daren’t face, the one that holds us accountable in the wee, small hours …

There are some learning points here that I feel might help us in our Leadership roles. The acceptance of the vulnerability I experienced allowed me to clarify the all important “it,” namely that my anger was a product of unacknowledged fear. So, in our leadership roles, where are we vulnerable and how do we manifest our vulnerabilities? What stories do we tell ourselves that keep us from confronting the necessary truth and in whom do we confide, colleagues, family and friends or a mentor/coach?

It goes further, can we establish a workplace culture where openness about vulnerability was seen as a strength that inspires, protects and develops us and increases resilience in doing so? What are the risks and perceived benefits for us individually and collectively? What impact might this cultural shift have on our organisation?

Some closing thoughts. Not everyone will find it easy to buy into the idea that shared vulnerability is a good thing: it’s in danger of sounding like a move to work-based group therapy! So here’s an idea. Can we in small groups/networks agree to talk to each other about where we sense vulnerability and describe its impacts. And, if we can do that, might we be able to assist each other? I’m going to suggest that in the process of considering vulnerability and its impacts, we create possibilities and opportunities to arrive at the “red-button word”, (remember, CATASTROPHE?) and in doing so understand what this really, really means to you.

How am I doing? Pretty good: I’m 14.5 kgs lighter, my blood sugars are “in the zone” and other vital readings (Blood Pressure) are heading in the right direction. So, the metrics are good and people tell me the optics are too. I’m happy with that!

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John Dooner
My work is informed by the belief that Human Dignity is the key to great outcomes and after leaving my last Local Government post (2002), I had the opportunity to work with people and teams who were looking for better alignment, a sense of purpose beyond the now and an opportunity to resolve tensions and conflicts that were holding them back. There have been some huge turning points; the opportunity to work with people as an enabler/coach has been fantastic. I’m a qualified mediator working with individuals and teams and work with groups in developing approaches to see us into a challenging and exciting future that’s also just a bit scary! I like walking, cycling, photography and using my local gym. I delight in connecting with people and believe that we all of us, hold the present in stewardship for the future. I’ve been lucky because I’ve worked with great people, I have to quote Einstein and Oasis, “Stood on the Shoulders of Giants!”


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