Leadership Library: “You Make the Path by Walking”

October 2020

“You Make the Path by Walking”

A favored quotation of poet David Whyte’s is this one from the 19th-century Spanish writer, Antonio Machado:

Pathmaker, your footsteps
are the path and nothing more;
pathmaker, there is no path,
you make the path by walking.

In my view, this is a crucial observation about leadership in these unpredictable times, for which there is no path.  Paradoxically, pathlessness is the source of both the enormous suffering as well as the massive transformative potential in our response to the virus plaguing our planet. 

There is no path

The complexity and uncertainty of this era, reflected in a relentless cascade of daily news revelations which are impossible to digest, also means infinite opportunity to reframe what we are going through globally and individually.  As leaders of our own lives, how do we recognize – and begin to let go of – the resistance we humans innately feel toward uncertainty?  How do we cultivate easier present-moment awareness, and first bring to ourselves the compassion that is necessary if we are to fully offer it to others?  What renewed sense of purpose can we find in our lives and our work precisely because they have been disrupted by Covid-19, political and cultural turbulence, accelerating climate change, etc.?  These are the questions of a path-making leader.  If you are able to mindfully place your footsteps into the unknown with open-hearted courage and curiosity, the spaciousness of your presence will allow you and the path to invite and meet one another. 

Pathmaker, your footsteps/are the path and nothing more

Navigating complexity and transformation requires transforming ourselves first, because to some extent we are a microcosm of each system in which we operate.  As Einstein famously said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”  When we change our consciousness, everything around us changes.

This kind of self-transformation requires basic wellness habits before anything else: healthy nourishment, sufficient sleep, regular exercise, human connection and spending time in nature.  (For more, see the updated Seven Things I Am Learning from My Clients in the Pandemic post here in the Leadership Library.)  We must also have a consistent reservoir of trust, confidence, and sense of safety – within ourselves – to make a path by walking it.  There is no shortcut to growing this powerful capacity, but at least there is a well-researched way to develop it, and that’s through mindfulness meditation.  (A meditation practice can take many forms, including by literally walking.)  When we discover the practice that works for us, the relaxed yet alert awareness we eventually experience in the meditation enables us to access a deeper kind of “knowing” in ourselves, from which feelings of trust, security and expansiveness naturally arise.  Some of the leadership traits that can emerge from contact with this wisdom include knowing ourselves (i.e. the authenticity that comes from continual, unvarnished and compassionate self-observation), intimacy with our own intentions, commitments and shadow aspects (the bedrock of integrity), and clarity on our evolving purpose.  And playfulness!  When we have access to these qualities – which are true super-powers available to anyone willing to cultivate a meditation discipline – we can lead from wherever we are in a family, community, organization or cultural system.  We can even lead from simply adopting a connective mindset of loving-kindness.

Because it requires a transformation of our own consciousness, I believe the journey to becoming a transformational leader is an inherently spiritual one.  The journey often begins in response to a mysterious invitation or “call,” from that deep-knowing place inside ourselves, to vocation and action: to take the (sometimes terrifying) next step and just keep walking.  It tests us at the core of who we think we are. It offers us the transformative choice of allowing our heart, when it is inevitably broken, to be broken open instead of apart.  We need profound courage to risk what matters most to us – our comfort, our reputation, certain relationships, and even our physical safety – to grow “big” enough to serve a cause larger than ourselves.  Although, as Audre Lorde pointed out, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” 

You make the path by walking

Consider the following passage from Joseph Jaworski’s book Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership (Berrett-Koehler, 2011):

The conventional view of leadership emphasizes positional power and conspicuous accomplishment. But true leadership is about creating a domain in which we continually learn and become more capable of participating in our unfolding future. A true leader thus sets the stage on which predictable miracles, synchronistic in nature, can – and do – occur…. The capacity to discover and participate in our unfolding future has more to do with our being – our total orientation of character and consciousness – than with what we do. Leadership is about creating, day by day, a domain in which we and those around us continually deepen our understanding of reality and are able to participate in shaping the future. This, then, is the deeper territory of leadership – collectively “listening” to what is wanting to emerge in the world, and then having the courage to do what is required.

Are you wondering, more specifically, what it looks like during Covid-19 to create “a domain in which we and those around us continually deepen our understanding of reality and are able to participate in shaping the future”?  Otto Scharmer of MIT’s Sloan School of Management describes leadership, systems awareness, listening and the pandemic in this half-hour episode of the Transformational Leadership Podcast.  He says, “There is no such thing as the future…The future is how we respond to what happens to us…The future is emerging from the quality of how we respond in the disruption of the current moment.” 

For Further Listening: A Recommended Resource

Are you curious about who actually “makes the path by walking” in real life?  (Well, arguably we all do, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not!)  A global business leader who is, in my opinion, an exemplar of making the path by walking and consciously leading from the emerging future is Jacqueline Novogratz, the CEO of Acumen.  Acumen has been described as “an exercise in creative, human-centered capitalism: a venture capital fund that serves some of the poorest people in the world.”  In a gently fierce conversation with Krista Tippett in this episode of On Being, Novogratz speaks to the opportunity of our moment when she says, “I want future generations to look back on us and say, ‘Look how hard they tried,’ not “Look at how blind they were.”  How does she hold the heft of what this implies lightly enough to carry it?  For that, we go back to mindfulness.  Novogratz does her own version of a practice akin to the Jesuit Examen:

I don’t do it every single day. But when I do do it, my day is different; and that is, to start with intention. What do you want to accomplish in the day? Who do you want to be? And then check in with yourself later and ask yourself how you did. Do an account. And what did you learn from it? And then, importantly, forgive yourself for what you didn’t do or what you did poorly. And then the most important part of all is to express gratitude.

Speaking of gratitude: If the Jesuit Examen is not your cup of tea, you might experiment with a simple gratitude journal, if you don’t keep one already. For several months now, I’ve personally been buoyed by doing something akin to this Three Good Things practice offered by Greater Good in Action.

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2 Responses to Leadership Library: “You Make the Path by Walking”

  1. Pingback: Leadership Library Review: Seven Things I Am Learning from My Clients in the Pandemic | Susan Palmer Consulting, LLC

  2. sbheller says:

    Thanks, Susan. I love your writing, and this content is really thought-provoking for me.

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