“Be brave enough to live creatively. The creative is the place where no one else has ever been. You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. You cannot get there by bus, only by hard work, risking and by not quite knowing what you are doing. What you will discover will be wonderful; yourself.” — Alan Alda, American actor, writer and director
I once heard ballet dancer Karen Kain reflecting on how lucky she felt to have become a dancer, since it was this life’s work that had allowed her to “find her voice” – to express what was truly inside herself.
Miles Dewey Davis, Jr. has been called “the Picasso of Jazz” for his creativity and constant reinvention of his music. He was the forerunner and innovator of many distinct and important musical movements. As Davis once noted, “Sometimes you have to play for a long time to play like yourself.”
“Finding my voice” is a phrase often used by artists, writers, musicians, and other creative people to describe the often difficult process of learning from other artists’ styles and, from these, developing the style that most truly represents yourself. This applies not just to artists, but to people in just about any walk of life. Each of us learns from what surrounds us – for example, the expectations and value systems of parents, society, institutions, friends, peers, our boss, or our organization. But then we have to ask ourselves whether these things really reflect our own personal values. And if they don’t, we need to move beyond them to find what does. This takes a lot of work – and even more courage.
One of the toughest times in my life was the two-year period after I had sold my interest in The Achieve Group to California-based Zenger Miller. I spent many sleepless nights and morning meditation and weekend reflection time trying to find a place for myself in the new company. I tried unsuccessfully numerous ways to influence the larger company in the direction I felt it needed to go. I felt like I was wandering in the proverbial desert without a clear role and direction that fit me.
Ultimately, I felt my only choice was to leave. In doing so I left behind a secure job and substantial salary for the uncertainty of independent speaking, workshops, and consulting in a new business we called The CLEMMER Group. In our first five years of business, Heather and I earned a combined annual income of less than half (sometimes less than a quarter) of what I would have made had I stayed with Zenger Miller (later merged with other training companies to become Achieve Global). And this was with substantially longer hours and harder work than before. Still, it was the right thing to do because I have always believed, like the late comedian George Burns, that “It is better to be a failure at something you love than to be a success at something you hate.”
The guiding vision of my career has been less about where I want to go and more about who I want to become. There have been times when this has meant passing up lucrative opportunities because they didn’t fit that vision. But I am even more convinced today that if we are to remain true to ourselves, we must always keep searching for what will fulfill our vision, values, and purpose.
Our values are most truly revealed when times are toughest. When the heat is on and the pressure is building, what do we care most about? Psychiatrist and author Elizabeth Kьbler-Ross once provided this powerful observation: “People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”
So what’s my light within? Where is my energy source? How do I stay centered and focused when challenged with major, negative changes – when the need for strong leadership is greatest? As jazz great Charlie Parker once said, “Jazz comes from who you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve done. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”
Before I can have, I must do. Before I can do, I must be. This critical sequence of Be-Do-Have is at the center of authentic leadership. It all starts with being a leader. Consult the wisdom of the ages or the latest research studies and you’ll always find that leadership is an inside job.