We’ve all seen a fuzzy caterpillar make its way across our path. Inching across the pavement makes it vulnerable to the traffic and the weather, but it must get to a cocooning spot. It seems so small and sluggish but it has something more inside it. It will become that something more. It will morph into a butterfly.
For the transformation, the caterpillar stops eating and hangs upside down from a branch, again at considerable risk. But it has no choice. It has to go inward in order to grow wings.
Soon it will be able to fly, to mate, to pollinate, to do everything. Except one thing, of course. It cannot turn back into a caterpillar.
How like a farm!
The fire within
The world is complex. Experiences differ. It is difficult to lead a team to places where we ourselves have not been. It takes great empathy and understanding of the people you are trying to lead.
There are many books on leadership that talk about what you should DO. Very few address who you should BE.
In speaking with global leaders in food, I have found leadership is not about a linear focus on training or performance. Leadership is about living experiences that transform the way we see ourselves in the world and how we walk beside those who journey with us. It is about our purpose.
These leaders talk of experiences that shifted their perspective so profoundly that the idea of a leader’s purpose became evident to them.
Interestingly, these people often didn’t set out to be at the top but were driven to follow the vision or create the change that derived from a transformative moment. It was a tough, sometimes heart-wrenching or inspiring experience that ignited a fire in these men and women and morphed them into amazing influencers.
No turning back
The butterfly can’t become a caterpillar again. Oliver Wendell Holmes said: “A mind that has been stretched by new experiences can never go back to its old dimensions.”
Tough and crazy times can be our best teachers, and although that is hard to appreciate in the moment, the global leaders I talked to had seen it too. You don’t forget the day when you saw your focus on your work had blinded you to the needs of your family, or that a mistake on your watch caused a financial collapse or damaged your reputation and the reputation of others.
These are transformational teachers.
Likely of Buddhist origin, there is a saying: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. It means we have to drop the idea that progress is always incremental and linear. We have to accept the new, and it is this acceptance that will be challenging. The past was just part of the journey. The teacher had yet to appear.
Living the problem is part of the solution. It allows experienced leaders to repeatedly ask themselves critical questions such as: How do I help my community? How do I lead in this business? How do I fit in this world? Where am I making a difference? Do I deserve to be here?
There is not one solution, just as there is not one experience. Each day brings challenge and some bring crisis. Others bring pure joy. Any can be transformational.
Most important is the ability of the leader to create a culture where others can follow their curiosity and where they can experience the transformation themselves, allowing them to also fly away.
Staying in the same place is like a caterpillar that does not cross the path, climb the tree or want to hang upside down. Stuck on the other side — that is the only world they will see.
Unless the caterpillar lives fully and with some risk, it will never live at its best.
So find ways to increase your experience. There is a reason many interesting and very effective leaders have a lot of air miles: they travel a lot and say this is important.
It isn’t being in a meeting that matters. Instead, it’s who is there, why they are there, and what is the challenge in that place and at that time. How are people building pathways that are reflective of need and respectful of the culture you are in.
It is finding ways to empower those around you to be creative, transformational leaders themselves.
Be that person. Be in the same space as those you lead. Listening, caring and taking action will encourage others to appreciate the value of their own experiences. The metamorphosis begins simply and by going within. It leaves one both vulnerable and transformed with a greater appreciation of the broader context of the world in which we live and our role within it.