By Anne Harbison
“The only hope, or else despair,
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.”
—T. S. Eliot
Fire, “braving the heat,” is the alchemy happening all around us. We see it when we cook food, style our hair, make pottery, sterilize equipment, bend steel, and transform base metals to gold.
There is a reason that the discovery of fire marks the beginning of all civilization. It is the extreme heat of fire that transforms one substance into another, vastly expanding its utility and value.
And we will all walk through the fire at some point in our lives..
For different reasons, for different lengths of time, through different heights of flame. But we all walk through. These are the crises that shake us to our core -- to wake us up from living on autopilot, to teach us something, to make us grateful, and sometimes for no discovered reason at all. But just the same, we all must walk through.
“The greatest illusion about communication is assuming that it has happened.” —George Bernard Shaw
Language is everything. It is how we perceive the world. It’s how we describe our experience in order to relate to others. It’s not only how we can communicate how we feel, it’s often how we know what we feel at all, even if we don’t speak it aloud (why talk therapy can be so transformative).
True, I can think of some exceptions to this, some things that defy language:
“A crisis reveals what is in the heart.” —Pope Francis
Years after working with Naomi -- the corporate superstar who had faced a breast cancer crisis that we introduced in “Why We Can't Seem to Get Out of Our Own Way,” -- I ran into her at a leadership conference.
At an impromptu dinner with her that evening, we celebrated two things:
Namoi caught me up to speed in her life. With a thumbs-up from her oncologist, she returned to work, but in a pivoted career path. She had reconnected with family members and fostered a less stressful lifestyle. Then she told me,
“This seems ridiculous looking back, but when I signed up for your study, I was actually thinking my crisis was my career setback, not the cancer diagnosis. I had recently signed a contract for a big project that would require...
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still obtain the ability to function. . . You should be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald
In the past few weeks, our Surviving and Thriving Together Community has broken down not only what crisis is, how it happens, and how it tends to make humans feel, but we’ve also dug into the downfalls and mind traps we all can easily succumb to when trying to face the crisis.
It’s difficult to learn when we:
[You can catch...
"Learning is not compulsory. Neither is survival." - Edward Deming
Protecting us from danger is what a security system is all about. For most of human history, evolutionary impulses have served us well. When we see a lion ready to pounce, a journal and discussion group is not the way to go. For physical survival, fight, flight, or freezehave gotten us a long way.
Of course, the modern world presents dangers more psychological in nature. What once could save us from a saber tooth tiger is not helpful in the face of a major slip-up at work, a frightening health diagnosis, or anything that threatens our psychological safety.
In front of a huge crowd, we don't need our heart to beat out of our chest and have the blood rush to our extremities so that we can run away as fast as possible.
When challenged in a meeting (or in a relationship) we don't need to armor up with aggressive counter-attacks (i.e., get them before they get you).
And when crises around...
"We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations." - Charles Swindoll
Naomi loved the thrill of a crisis. This is what I was made for, she thought every time she got the call to turn around a failing business, squash a public relations disaster, or revive a dysfunctional team.
A renowned fixer, Naomi lived up to her reputation of being calm under pressure, savvy, and decisive. Supremely confident in her well-honed abilities, Naomi felt that a crisis brought out the best of her—until she faced a crisis of her own.
On her forty-fifth birthday, in response to a yearly mammogram, she received devastating news. She had advanced breast cancer, the disease that had taken her mother at the same age.
After the diagnosis, Naomi went into crisis management mode, contacting experts, researching, rallying her friends and family, and adopting a strict organic nutrition plan. But six months into her...
In the depths of 2020, I joined many in a Netflix binge of “The Queen’s Gambit.” I'm not a chess player, but the mounting tension of the competitions and mind maneuvers was irresistible.
Along with being a welcome distraction from the rising toll of Covid-19, the show got me thinking about the metaphors we use when facing problems in our lives. When you face a problem or crisis, are you charging the hill? Taking the bull by the horns? Beating down the door? Running a marathon?
Playing a game of chess?
As humans, we tend to frame crises by searching for certainty, concentration, and closure.
For example, in chess, the rules are specific and consistent. Because of this certainty, players can practice, refine their skills, and even develop mastery within those unchanging parameters.
Then, there’s concentration: keeping the player grounded and free from distraction. A win depends on the sustained concentration of the player as...
In their book Strengths-Based Leadership, authors Tom Rath and Barry Conchie share Gallup's ground-breaking study about what we need most from leaders. Along with trust, compassion, and hope, we yearn for stability.
If we don't know who and what we can count on, how can we feel safe? If we don't know what is expected of us, how do we move forward?
It's especially important to find stability when the world seems to be cracking open beneath us. We may not always find comfort in our leaders but we have sources from within that can give us grounding and guidance when we need it most.
One of the first things I work through with leaders and companies in the midst of crisis or a challenging transition is the THRIVE model. We identify their Talents, Home Team, Relationships, Impact, Values, and Experiences.
By naming and claiming what’s still stable, life-giving, true, and reliable at the onset of a crisis, we know exactly what resources we...
Some crises erupt without warning. An explosive, defining event (a diagnosis, an accident, an unexpected death) sends debris from our "before" lives ricocheting around us. Overcome with disbelief and grief, we grapple with the reality that nothing will be the same.
Other crises emerge slowly. A marriage that has simmered with tension for years finally boils over. We find ourselves depleted after years of being in a job that never fit our passions or talents, now wondering if we’ve wasted years of our life. The demise happens gradually, but wreckage remains all the same.
Whether through eruption or erosion, a crisis leaves us wondering how we will pick up the pieces. It's easy to feel powerless in those moments, but we actually have many choices that make all the difference.
Crisis as a Choice Point
The Greek word for crisis, krisis, means “to distinguish, choose, or decide.” In truth, crisis is more about the choices we make in the aftermath of challenge than...
"To fashion an inner story of our pain carries us into the heart of it, which is where rebirth
inevitability occurs." - Sue Monk Kidd
You'd know that I grew up in Kentucky, I was a national speech competitor in college, and my first job was at Procter & Gamble. I received my doctorate researching leadership development. I've been married to my college sweetheart, Steve, for over twenty years. We love being parents.
Pretty basic stuff, which makes it a tame (and lame) icebreaker in the retreats I facilitate for leadership teams. But conversations like these get more interesting when we start telling the stories behind the stories. So...
Before joining P&G, I spent a year with a music group that traveled around the world. We were in Eastern Europe when the Berlin Wall came down, performing in the shipyards of Gdańsk where Poland was invaded at the start of WW2.
After P&G, I joined an...
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