Aspirations of GreatnessExcerpts
Mapping the Midlife Leader’s Reconnection to Self and Soul
by Jim Warner
The Betrayed Executive
Thad is on the sidelines – again – this time of his own choosing. He’s just finished a three-year turnaround assignment with a second-tier regional distribution firm, where he was the hired-gun president trying to save a family business gone awry. The company’s chairman and great-grandson of the founder refused Thad’s requests for stock options and overruled his plans for much-needed plant expansion and modernization, opting for higher cash flow and return to stockholders. Thad wanted to grow the business; the owners wanted to milk it. He spent most of the past year creating his own exit, but would have willingly left without a severance package – that’s how frustrating the job had become.
Now 40, Thad has invested the past 14 years bailing out institutional investors, nursing silver-spoon family-business heirs, and making other guys rich. While he’s accumulated a reasonable nest egg, he’s always been the professional manager, never the owner.
Thad has the rare combination of deal wizardry and a motivational management style that make him the ideal executive team player. But now he wants to form and coach his own team. The money doesn’t really matter, nor the time commitment – he has vast reservoirs of untapped energy, and he and Rachael are childless, though not by choice.
Thad loves to be the guy out front. He got his first taste of the spotlight as producer, director and star of the graduate school follies. In later assignments he inspired his staff at quarterly all-company meetings and held court at industry conclaves with his quick wit and repertoire of stories. But his relational gifts have been shelved during the past three years of dismantling and asset sheltering.
With over two years’ worth of cash tucked away, he doesn’t have to take the next job offer. He feels blessed that Rachael wants him to rediscover his passion in whatever time it takes. But a wary voice in Thad’s head keeps resonating, “Get a secure job as a professional manager. You’re good at this. It’s what you know. It’s all you know. Play it safe.”
The Family Business Heir
Peter, 48, is the czar of an 87-year-old family-owned distribution company. His father died three months ago and the reins have fallen into Peter’s ambivalent hands. Unmotivated financially – he amassed his “I don’t need to work anymore” money years ago – Peter labors to maintain the oft-tainted family legacy. The business is in cruise control, like Peter’s life. After 26 years in the company he longs for a vocational overhaul, but what would he do? The business is all he has ever known. And as he’s the glue of the company, his departure would almost surely lead to a gradual but relentless decline in sales, morale, and return to the remaining shareholders – his uncles and cousins, who, like Peter, have been at the company their entire working lives. Like Peter, it’s all they know.
Peter reflects on his early 20s – his love for teaching and history, his competitive fire in golf, and the adventure of international travel. He then snaps back to the boredom in his life today. Pegged from birth to run this business, if he leaves now, he will defame the image of his father and betray his relatives. Now he’s the patriarch; he’s responsible.
Later in the book …
Peter had become close to a couple of men in his small group, who saw through the mask of humor and duty he wore at their monthly meetings and elicited from him the truth about the guilt, shame, and fear that kept him toiling in the family business. When these emotions surfaced, he was overcome by a sense of unworthiness – “Now even these guys know I’m a loser” – and offered to withdraw from the group: “I really don’t have much to contribute to the group. I’m sure you can find another member with more experience and energy. I’d better leave.”
One man in the group sensed that Peter was close to a breakthrough and invited him to join him for a weekend getaway, where Peter could tell his full story from the inside. As his friend simply listened, Peter’s story came pouring out – the wounds from his childhood, his love-hate relationship with his father, and his fear about leaving the business. By simply listening, Peter’s friend gave him permission to explore his emotions and find his life.
For three days the men have been on eggshells around Susan. This woman is angry! – and exhausted and fragile. Her practice as a neurosurgeon is booming. She speaks often at conferences, sits on local nonprofit boards, and reads bedtime stories to her three young children in her meager spare time. Her husband, who has been duped by both family members and an unscrupulous partner in two prior business ventures, looks for new opportunities while siphoning her hefty income to pay litigation expenses. But, no matter how glamorous her specialty, medicine is a piecework business, and if she doesn’t practice, they don’t have income.
Most galling has been the strain with both her husband and in-laws. Communication is at a standstill with her husband, who closes down or escapes to the golf course when she confronts him about actively resuming his career, or at least standing up to his father and brothers. Her in-laws view her as the pariah who wooed away their number-one son and should be home with her children.
With no local support community, a reclusive husband, and ever-mounting responsibilities, her life is unraveling. And beneath all of this she yearns to tend her neglected flower beds, curl up with the great literature she escaped into as a child, and just “hang out” with her kids. In these three days with seven other leaders navigating treacherous midlife waters, it’s no wonder her anger, sadness, and helplessness have begun to seep out and then overflow. She needs help, fast.
Marty is associate pastor at a suburban megachurch, where he oversees the lay ministry. A gifted communicator and counselor, he has breathed intimacy and relevant teaching into a comatose congregation, launched a vibrant contemporary service, and now coaches 100 small-group leaders in the dynamics of community building by living the Word of God.
While Marty sees the life changes spawned in his ministry, he’s bored and longs for more pulpit time. His leadership and creative skills, honed over 15 years working with teen groups, are now dormant as he endures pointless staff meetings, classroom juggling and capital fund drives for the new sanctuary. But his salary is steady, and he’s more secure than five years ago when the funding for his paraministry dried up, leaving him on the street with no money and two young children. His wife regularly reminds him of this.
At 42, Marty yearns to marry the reckless, attack-the-world attitude of his juvenile delinquent youth with the street-level preaching, leadership skills, and love for Jesus that he’s developed over the past 20 years. While he has the vision, it’s a big risk to start a new church. It will further strain his already fragile marriage and will almost certainly engender bad blood with this church’s leadership. But something’s got to change. This isn’t working.
For the first two days of this retreat, Fletcher suppressed his welling frustration at the neediness of the others. “Why can’t these people just suck it up and get a life?” he stewed. The consummate entrepreneur-competitor, he has grown his one-van office equipment installation and maintenance business into the premier service and supply network in the region, with $12 million in annual sales and healthy profitability. As 100 percent owner of his sub-S corporation, he takes home over $1 million annually.
Fletcher’s life is almost perfect. He vacations around the world, flies his own plane, and has his pick of women. The company has healthy cash flow and ready buyers in the wings the moment he chooses to sell. At 38 and single, he can hardly ask for more, except perhaps a serious, not-just-for-sex relationship. But as he hears the marriage-collapse story of Stan, and the relational influenza of the others, why would he want to screw up a good thing?
Yet his defenses have begun to dissolve over the past two days. He is beginning to sense glimmers of his own hedonism and selfishness, which disgust him. An inner voice counters with conscience-soothing stories of his employee education programs and profit sharing, his low turnover and employee loyalty. “C’mon, you’re benevolent and charitable; you give a lot to your people. They love you. You deserve to take care of yourself a little bit, too. You’ve earned it!” But now Fletcher yearns for intimate connection – to give and receive love.
The openness of the discussion also highlights the spiritual void in his life. He checked out on religion long ago, but he longs for a sense of peace and blessing without having to control everything. In the safety of the group he finds himself receptive to the “God stuff.”
This is new territory for Fletcher, another new adventure. And for once he can’t predict the outcome. He’s not in control – and he’s scared.
Later in the book …
Fletcher’s turning point occurred at a retreat with his executive small group, when the other men confronted him on his rudderless life. As he prepared to deliver his standard defense to these stodgy fellow presidents, he saw their sincere concern for his well-being and stopped cold. This was the first time he could recall anyone caring for him without wanting a piece of him. He returned from the retreat knowing he must shed his addictions, but still terrified of entering an honest, intimate-without-sex relationship. He came to understand the price of living in the truth. He had arrived at his edge: Was he willing to risk rejection by a woman of character and depth after she saw the real Fletcher? Fletcher’s breakthrough required the tentative first steps toward sobriety. After 20 years of hedonism and chameleon-like behavior, he prepared to walk into the naked truth about his vulnerabilities. With the support of his small group and a fledgling faith in God, he entered a stage of sexual abstinence and substance sobriety, open to explore his shadows and, perhaps, find his soul.
Life as Adventure
Many of us have caught the scent of our greatness, a grander vision that calls us to forsake our false security, descend from our towers of success, and reengage life. This scent beckons us to live among the common folk, to act in a play, rake leaves, paint a mural, till the garden, announce a hockey game, write a book, whistle, dance, camp, do something totally different, stay right where we are, confess, forgive, weep – whatever it is, to do it as a heart-beating, sweat-pouring, lump-in-the-gut adventure that makes us and everyone around us feel alive.
The aroma of greatness challenges us to spit out the choking pablum of a “nice, comfortable” life, with its excuses and rationalizations, and chew on the meat, fat, and gristle of our passion – with no retreat, no reserve, and no regret.
Greatness requires us to take a stand, to say "This is what I believe. Succeed or fail, I will see this through.”
The seeds of greatness germinate during times of solitude, are watered and nurtured by supportive guides, and blossom in service.
The Mystery of the Soul
The soul…is an endless maze of wounds and disowned parts, while simultaneously a vault of precious jewels: latent creativity and innocence, healthy sexuality, a life purpose, and a sense of destiny. Interspersed with the brittle shale of the wounds is the priceless gold of life…. As you increase the light on and love for all of your soul, you’ll find the abyss is really a treasure mine, and the rejected tailings are the nuggets of your greatness, simply waiting to be rediscovered, loved, and deployed joyfully in service to your world.
Grief vs. Guilt
Grief and guilt are very different. Grief is the natural feeling of sadness over loss (including the loss of what might have been). Guilt is a gnawing feeling of self-reproach, failure, and shame. The expression of grief cleanses and purifies, while guilt festers and condemns. Grief can be a pathway to Spirit. Guilt is a downward spiral into darkness and self-condemnation.
Be in Community
Besides being supported by a community of friends and mentors, we need to be in community where we can return this gift of caring to others. In a confidential, open community we can offer the gifts of kindness and mentoring to protégés and peers. Our compassion gives rise to patience, tenderness, mercy, and humility in our words and actions, and affirms the worthiness of others. We become cheerleaders and advocates to others, with no agenda and no thought of payback.
Find Out Who You Are
Before we can plan the second half of our lives we must actually do our inner work – get out of being “big” and find our souls…. Climb down the ladder, leap from the tower, take a sabbatical, ratchet back your lifestyle, work no more than three days a week in your practice, migrate to a chairmanship and hire a CEO – in short, create space for you. Then build a support community, go into the back of your bus, do your soul tunneling, purge the sediment from your energy conduit, get clean and make amends for your wounding of others – and you will find out who you are.
Truth in Relationships
Vitality in relationship begins with our willingness to work on ourselves, without trying to fix our partner. For a relationship to either heal and flourish, or to dissolve cleanly, both parties must get to the truth – about what’s working, what’s not working, individual needs, repressed emotions, boundaries, what each person wants…. Facing conflict is the royal road to union. Truth doesn’t solve issues; it gets them out of shadow. Truth quashes hidden agendas, exposes secrets, and gets the wheat and the chaff, the beauty marks and the warts, all out in the open. Truth is the entry point into shadow transformation and the entry point for relational healing. At first, the truth may induce more pain; eventually, it makes possible the release of pain. For lasting relational healing, we must stay in the truth.
Spirituality is about connection, not membership – connecting with ourselves (including our shadows), with others in community, and being in communion with Spirit. All are intertwined. All are one.
The ultimate goal is not feeling good, but communion. Somewhere along this spiritual journey you will come to an edge of commitment and belief; the sampling period ends and you will choose the route to God that feeds you and best enhances this communion. Without this commitment, you risk becoming a spiritual dilettante who hovers around the fire of transcendent love, but never allows himself to become one with the flame.
Genius vs. Excellence
Genius is the soul manifestation of excellence. Genius refers to our calling or destiny, and aligns closely with greatness. It embodies excellence and enjoyment, but is inherently fulfilling and therefore indifferent to personal recognition or rewards. Genius involves Sovereign stewardship of our gifts in unforced, flowing service to and love for our realms – our business, profession, ministry, family, children, community, church – every person or organization we touch in our lives…. When we are in our genius, love and energy flow into us unimpeded, assume our unique personality and giftedness, and flow out, unhindered, in service and love to others.
True genius is not new terrain; we’ve had it all our lives. It’s often part of either the mischievous streak that got us in trouble or the grand fantasies we’d play out in our imagination when we were children. To reconnect with it requires in part a return to the innocence of childhood, with the same vulnerabilities and risks of betrayal, but this time seasoned by adult wisdom. Vaulting into our genius requires a reopening to the creativity, spontaneity, artistry, resourcefulness, and compassion that were originally wired into our beings.
The great servant leaders are equally at home with the princes and paupers of the world. They can serve outside their comfort zones, in jails, in poverty and squalor, in environments where they are derided and even hated. They can operate behind the scenes with equanimity, content to serve anonymously, without fanfare or recognition. They focus on the needs of the present, whoever crosses their path, unconcerned about immediate rewards, much less a legacy. They don’t need to have buildings named after them or be in the philanthropists’ hall of fame.
The Agony and the Ecstasy
Living in our genius, guided by our mature advisors, mandates direct exposure to the negative realities of the world – the squalor, poverty, betrayals, rage, rape, atrocities, the desperate cries for help of a ravaged world. No more denial, diversions, or escapes. The truth becomes crystal clear, both the noble and the evil. We can no longer hide behind affluence and politeness. We become aware of the wonder, but also the suffering. To experience ecstasy we must equally embrace agony. To be pure we must confess sin and become a contemplative-activist. Life in the world becomes a furnace, and we must either endure the flames or retreat to the mediocrity of the tepid sidelines.