Thirteen years ago, I launched Horizon Leadership Institute Inc. In doing so, I launched my second career (and my second business) as an executive, leadership and team coach.
"Every experience, no matter how bad it seems, holds within it a blessing of some kind. The goal is to find it." ~ Buddha
We've all heard the phrase 'there is an elephant in the room'. It's code for a difficult issue or significant problem that people don't feel comfortable talking about. It has a power and weight to it that can immobilize an organization or team. However, despite being unspoken the "elephant" issue is either consciously or unconsciously impacting relationships and the ability to get things done.
I believe we should learn to embrace the elephant in the room. Yes, it means that there is some force causing people to be uncomfortable and not talk about something. It's an energy that is big and unmovable. In fact, it could be something that is so sacred, fearful or important that no one wants to go near it. Isn't that usually a signal of something of vital importance that has to be courageously and respectfully explored?
Elephants as a species are powerful. They are very strong and they are gentle. They are loyal. They are patient. It is often said that elephants do not forget nor do they forgive. They are also associated with having great wisdom and compassion. They will fiercely protect what is important to them.
I would like to shift the perspective on elephants in the room. I believe that when the elephants emerge in team processes it's a signal of something transformative unfolding. It may be a bold change that is on the verge of happening. It could be a shift in dialogue that is becoming more open and honest; that the true essence of something important is being revealed. The elephant tension denotes vulnerability and diversity of opinion emerging.
Elephant energy can feel edgy. However, when we embrace it and explore it we can reveal important things that untended to will limit change, innovation or brave new visions from emerging. When we pause to honour the elephant, to name it and work with its energy, we are tapping into a wisdom force that needs to be honoured in order to move forward.
In my experience coaching teams, I often call out the elephant(s). I draw one on a flip chart and ask the team what it is. I playfully identify that the elephant(s) are in the room. I then ask people to pause and quietly reflect on what elephants are present and to write them on a post it note. Everyone gets to put them on the elephant. From there we group them by similar themes. This is a way of revealing the voices of the system; often the marginalized or unpopular ones.
Once we see the themes, we create conditions for people to talk about the elephants. It requires a tenderness and respect in how people talk about them. I always ask about the elephant wisdom and how it is trying to serve at this time. We explore what is needed so that this wisdom can be considered as we go forward.
While it may be easier to ignore the elephants because they take energy to deal with, I find that when teams can talk about the elephants in a curious and supportive way they release energy that blocks them from true creative collaboration. Acknowledging and processing the elephants can be a bonding process. It is a way of sharing history and story of an organization in a constructive manner. By speaking of the elephants some of their power is diminished. It frees up energy and opens awareness to what people want to see happen. Elephant exploration helps rewire the collective brains of the team so that new energy can be realized.
It is my wish that instead of ignoring or marginalizing the elephants in the room, that we embrace them and actively invite them into conversations. Only then can we access their wisdom so we can move forward together in more productive and positive ways.
We have much to learn from elephants. The following is a description of the attributes of elephants from a shamanistic perspective. May we embrace these qualities for the sake of healthy and vibrant team relationships and organizational cultures.
"Elephants can teach us that gentleness, commitment, and communication in relationships is very powerful and necessary to keep relationships alive, trusting and loving, whether it be friends, family or partner. Deeply committed to all creatures with whom they have relationships, elephants are tough when protecting others and gentle when nurturing them. The matriarch (the oldest, most experienced female leader of a herd) leads in a way that is both gentle and inclusive. Elephants are able to communicate telepathically. This can teach us how to truly listen to others."
This past weekend I visited my sister Ellen. She’s on the cusp of a grand new adventure as she prepares to move to Nanaimo, BC. She’s picking up her life, packing her belongings and will be driving across the country in just a few weeks. Other than a destination and a new home to move into, the rest of her future is unwritten. She admitted she’s both excited and scared.
As I drove away after visiting I thought how courageous she’s being. Would I or could I do the same? Contemplating it gave me butterflies.
As I pondered, I thought of the many courageous people I am surrounded by. Most of the clients I work with are experiencing some form of vulnerability. Most of the time they are on the cusp of change – either one that they are designing with intention or one that life has presented and they are reacting to.
Moving to a new city or country without a job or a social network because of a vision and dream of something different.
Fleeing your home land so that you can find a safe country to call home.
Speaking your truth at work or in the community when you know it will be unpopular and possibly put you in danger.
Continuing to apply for jobs after being rejected or ignored many times.
Saying no to people you love to preserve boundaries that you need to sustain so you stay whole and healthy.
Taking a stand for your values and making choices that others might not understand.
Taking the leap and starting your own business.
Asking for help and being uncertain how people will react.
Believing in yourself when no one else does.
Trusting your gut feelings and acting on it when there is no “tangible” proof of evidence to support your actions.
Leaving a job when you don’t have a new one to go to. Doing so because you aren’t fulfilled and won’t stay in a role that sucks the life out of you.
Courage and vulnerability go hand in hand. Courage requires us to dig deep into our own soul, our own beliefs, and our own spirit. It’s a call that reminds us of what is important. It’s a choice to be brave, to take action when we don’t exactly know how it will end. It’s the belief that action is better than doing nothing.
As Brené Brown says, “You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability.”
I’m inspired by the many people I work with and witness who choose courage. In doing so they are honouring their own vulnerability. They are being wholehearted in their action because they are choosing to change their state of being for the possibility of something bolder, brighter and more fulfilling.
Courage is not easy. However, courage is choice in action. It reminds me that vulnerability is the flirt of something trying to happen. For me, that is inspiring and exciting.
So as my courageous sister drives towards her new life, I’m going to be paying attention to my own flutters of vulnerability actively listening for the call of courage to move me forward in my next adventure.
I just experienced my first C2MTL Conference – Commerce + Creativity. One of the speakers challenged us as participants to have the courage to change before we have to. All of speakers spoke about the importance of leading change, embracing change or being the change we want to see. However, I love that there was the acknowledgement that change requires courage.
Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why, is one of my favourite thought leaders. This quote of his spurred me to reflect on both the power and vulnerability of standing in the place of "I don't know". "When we say what we don't know, it increases the likelihood that someone who does know will offer to help."
Our vulnerability is the source of our greatest power. It’s also the access point for your life purpose. Bold statements I know. In fact, I know many will not agree. And that’s fine. I’ll offer a perspective from the greatest teacher - life. If nothing else, I hope that it might provoke new thoughts and new awareness. Vulnerability is being exposed. Vulnerability is not knowing. Vulnerability is scary. Most people do anything to mask vulnerability. Sometimes though, life creates circumstances beyond our control. No matter what, you simply cannot pretend that everything is "OK".