Leadership Art: Tearing Down Constricting Walls

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit East Berlin during the summer of 1987, just two years before the Berlin Wall would be torn down.

We’d crossed through “Checkpoint Charlie” from the Allied side to the East German side and almost immediately I could feel my body reacting to the change – it was truly as if the world had transformed. 

Our surroundings suddenly appeared devoid of all color -everything was gray – and it was as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of the air.  You could feel the wall wrapping around you and sense the soldiers and the guns watching your every move.

At one point we took a wrong turn and found ourselves alone with a line of maybe 20 soldiers suddenly “appearing out of nowhere.” We turned and went the other way…

There was very little sound in East Berlin – and I mean that literally.  Even though we were in a very populated area we heard very little sound.

No conversations.  No laughter.  No joy.  No hope.

I don’t think I have felt in my bones the real definition of freedom until the moment I walked back through Checkpoint Charlie and finally felt my feet safely touch the American Sector.  Those last few meters between the two different worlds felt inexorably long – as if I’d walked them in slow motion. 

I could finally breathe again after feeling as if I had been imprisoned in an invisible fortress all day.  And I never wanted to feel that way again…

Well, just like the walls that I felt around me on that unforgettable day, I realized only recently that I’ve been unintentionally erecting walls around myself for years.  I’ve been living in a self-created invisible fortress and it’s been affecting my life and my career.  You see, unbeknownst to me, I wasn’t really breathing.

I put the walls up subconsciously at first to protect myself from getting hurt – by mean things teenaged girls say and then by boys. Because after all, if there’s a wall between you and me then I’m not really “letting you in” – so how can you really hurt me, right?

I suspect that because I got so comfortable with the walls that I simply kept them up when I moved to Chicago by myself after college for a great corporate job that paid wonderfully but was a poor fit for me.

I discovered that I could be very successful working – and ultimately leading – from behind the fortress wall.  I could follow the rules, obey corporate politics, put in the hours, take only calculated risks and be rewarded for meeting the numbers.  The less of “me” in the mix the more likely I was to quickly advance because it seemed doing things “one way” was “the way.”  Advance quickly is what I did.

Let’s be honest, acting like a man – using the analytical, male side of our personalities – is what is generally expected and rewarded.  Now, I mean this as no disrespect to my male colleagues.  I have the highest regard for all of them and count more men among my closest friends than women.  But, to be clear, there has not been an ounce of the feminine me in my career to this point.  

Until this blog.  Which has been freeing in the most unexpected way. 

Here’s the key question for this blog post – how many of you can relate to some, much, or all of this because you’re also leading (and maybe living) from behind walls – walls that may have gotten thicker over time – to protect yourself or because you think that’s what you have to do to be successful?

I’ve only very recently begun to understand the importance to my career and to my life of tearing down the walls, stripping away the drywall – layer after constricting layer. 

The fact that I was able to be successful “dressed as a man” in a man’s world and trapped behind walls makes me more determined than ever to be wildly successful dressed “as a goddess” in a man’s world with my soft, gooey, female side that melts like dark chocolate fully exposed for all to see.

Perhaps this is my “goddess manifesto” (gods, you’re welcome to exclaim it too): I am ready to be vulnerable. 

The reality is, it’s the basis of a Leadership Manifesto as well.

Why? Because being vulnerable means that we have taken away our protective mechanisms and can get terribly hurt – as leaders and as individuals.  I’m at the glorious point in my career where I can accept that risk knowing:

  • I’ll be free to take risks
  • I’ll learn more because I’ll fall down more often
  • Falling down will lead to the greatest successes
  • The highs will finally be full of laughter, joy and color – gray will be a color of the past
  • I’ll start sharing my passion with the world without worrying about just how that “might be perceived” by people who are afraid of emotion in business (last time I checked business was done between humans, most of whom have real emotions)
  • I’ll share my enthusiasm – for my teams, colleagues, clients, partners and projects – more fully now that I’ve learned that in Latin and Greek the word “enthusiasm” literally means the spirit of God within.  I think we should all be sharing the spirit within us in all parts of our lives including our careers!
  • I’ll be a better leader because I’ll create more genuine relationships – relationships that no longer have a fake foundation of me pretending to be a man by using only the masculine part of my personality
  • I’ll also be a better leader because according to a new study by IBM, the most important quality for CEOs is now creativity – a trait that we all tap into from our feminine side – and a trait that I think we allow ourselves to more fully express when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.

 

When I envision inspiring leaders I see people who live with their hearts and their souls.  Who have stripped off their own drywall, torn down their own walls and have no pretensions. People who let their true light shine from within each and every day without fear.

That’s the kind of leader I desire to be. That’s the goddess power I intend to unleash.  And in the same way that I felt a gust of freedom when I stepped back into the American Sector through Checkpoint Charlie and was no longer constrained by a wall, I aim to harness that same feeling of “finally being able to breathe” – but in a much more powerful way…

Who’s with me? Grab your hammer and let’s tear down the walls…

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Photo is the fall of the Berlin Wall by GavinAndrewStewart.

Comments

  1. With you. I think we often spend the early decades of our professional life putting up the safe walls, and only later give ourselves the freedom (once we’ve “proven ourselves” or whatever) to throw all that to the side and just be who we are. Blogging/social networking has been a huge part of that crossing-the-checkpoint-experience for me…and, it’s been fun meeting you on this side of the wall, LIsa!
    Steve Woodruff´s last blog post ..Social Media- Start Here

    • Steve,

      You’re right – it’s the act of giving ourselves the freedom – and yet we don’t know early enough to just claim that freedom… I wonder how our lives would have been different if we’d given ourselves the freedom a decade or two earlier? :)

      So glad to have met you on this side of the wall as well! I love knowing I have a kindred spirit in New Jersey… :)

  2. Lisa, What comes out of blogging is simply wonderful and mysterious at the same time. Love your story, please keep telling it :)
    Jim Raffel´s last blog post ..Start at the bottom of the list

    • That means a lot to me, Jim. I promise to keep telling it if you promise to tell me when I’ve bored you silly! :)

    • Jim I loved your comment because I was thinking the same thing, that Lisa is using this blog to tell her story. It’s making for fascinating reading, isn’t it? ;) And what makes it even more interesting is that it seems we are discovering the next chapter as Lisa does.

      • Mack,

        The sentence about this blog being freeing in the most unexpected way was written with you in mind. Thanks to your encouragement I reaffirmed my own commitment to myself to make this blog what it really needed to be for me. So, having said that, I hope you realize how much your kind words mean to me. :)

  3. Lisa,

    I have preferred being surrounded by feminine energy. It IS more cooperative, sympathetic, creative , and relational.

    The breathing metaphor you started off with should also be looked at literally. Too many of us create the walls that you mentioned by losing touch with our bodies and breath. This prevents us from fully expressing who we are as people and as leaders.
    Hans Hageman´s last blog post ..Goals And Well-Formed Outcomes

    • Hans,

      Did you always know that – or did you learn that over time? And I couldn’t agree with you more about breathing. Yet, though I’ve been told for years the importance of breathing properly and being attuned with our inner selves, it’s only recently started to fully register, I guess. I envy you for understanding this so much sooner than I did.

      What a brilliant insight that losing touch with ourselves – our physical selves in addition to our inner selves – prevents us from fully expressing who we are. Love that. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Lisa,
    Another great inspiring blog! I am not a CEO in business but I am a CEO of my life and in many ways, put walls around myself by doing what was expected of me to raise a family and support my husband. I had a very promising career that I put on hold to raise the family, and realized as I pushed down my desires, in order to support the wishes of my significant other, that I had to live with the choices he made….because I had done what was expected of me. I was like the East German side–afraid to voice my own desires and not truly free.

    Now, I am freeing myself and have learned more about myself and these exciting but difficult economic times in the last year. Yes, I am vulnerable, and maybe I am going to do what I want, listen with my own ears, and make my own decisions–knowing I can feel happy to be free…to be me! I am still and a wife and mother, and would never trade that for the world, but I am allowing myself to grow, to be active in business, and to become a better leader in life!

    Thanks again for your words!

    Nancy Meeder
    Nancy Meeder´s last blog post ..Creativity is a magical and powerful business tool

    • Nancy,

      YOU are an inspiration because YOU are already living the goddess manifesto! I am just so thrilled for you and so excited that you clearly recognized how you were “pushing down” your own desires and making them “less worthy” of your devotion than others’ desires.

      I genuinely hope that you are *feeling* that freedom in every possible way – it sounds like you are or are at least beginning to! Thank you for sharing your story – hopefully others will be inspired by it!

  5. Lisa Diomede says:

    Lisa,

    You have this amazing knack for articulating the professional (& personal) struggles so many of us face daily.

    You’re absolutely right, there are risks with being vulnerable and that’s scary. But without risk, we move methodically through the stages of life and as a result, circumvent the path less traveled –the one that leads to success and personal fulfillment.

    And for this reason, I cherish your posts. You add validity to all the confusion and apprehension but in your goddess way, offer guidance and inspiration to find the freedom to express your inner creativity and passion. I’m in the midst of finding the right path but your words of wisdom help me live up to the challenge. So yet again, thank you!

    • That means a lot to me, Lisa. And I am absolutely positive that you’re going to unleash your own goddess power and find your right path! So glad we’re getting together in person soon to ruminate on all of this together!

  6. This is an incredibly powerful post … great writing and a willingness to share your innermost thoughts and feelings. All I can say is Wow! The writing painted a vivid picture for me; it communicated cleary and powerfully — you have a rare gift.

    Thanks for sharing this perspective.

    • Wow – Kevin, those words mean a lot to me, thank you. I wasn’t originally so willing to share my innermost thoughts – it definitely took some courage and a lot of encouragement from those closest to me. But, I must say, blogging has been a godsend in so many ways. Thank you for being a part of my journey!

  7. Lisa, great thoughts here, and good comments as well.

    Don’t know if this refers to the goddess or the guy side, but early in my career, working in a dysfunctional organization I realized that leadership abhors a vacuum. Where the recognized guy leaders couldn’t step up to the challenge, many of us junior folks were able to be influential – I mean empowering. ;)

    Now, 30 years later and involved with another struggling organization, where the “god” is also struggling, I’m finding that showing vulnerability – the willingness to take risks, not be afraid to fail – provides that empowerment, not just to me, but to others in the organization who become willing to step up and take some risks themselves. Pretty cool to see.

    ~ Scott
    Scott Woodard´s last blog post ..Labor Day 2010

    • Scott, that absolutely sounds amazing to see and to experience first-hand. I think we are so much more inspired by people – the real humans inside the roles of leader – and when you can see the truth about who that person is, and when they are open to allowing others in to help them, it can be such a freeing, bonding and ultimately successful experience!

      And thanks for that little twist on the influence/empowerment thingy – I really appreciate that you’re reading my posts! It means a lot to me. Thanks for sharing your story and keep me posted on the progress of your organization.

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