Contributed by J. Douglas (Doug) Holladay, the founder and CEO of PathNorth, a former White House advisor, and a professor at Georgetown University. Doug is also the author of Rethinking Success: Eight Essential Practices for Finding Meaning in Work and Life.
Years ago, my close friend Steve Case, cofounder of AOL, and I flew down to Asheville, North Carolina, for a private visit with Billy Graham. Graham’s health had been failing, and Steve wanted to spend as much time with this remarkable figure and friend as possible. Graham’s influence in the world was beyond measure. He had spoken to more people
than anyone in history!
When we arrive, we found Graham fragile, relying on a walker. Although he was obviously quite frail, I was impressed by his endurance and lucidity. We spoke for hours. He graciously allowed me to ask question after question, ranging from Graham’s relationship with JFK and the Mormon hotel magnate Willard Marriott to his view of Muslims and their spiritual destiny.
Graham’s humility and lack of rigidity and judgment were striking. His thinking had clearly evolved. He patiently and with utter candor answered all inquiries until a certain moment abruptly altered the rhythm of our exchange. He took a bead on me with those steel-blue penetrating eyes.
“Doug, you have asked me questions all day. Could I ask you one? I need your advice.” I gulped and nodded, panic gripping me.
“As you can see, I am much diminished. I use a walker and am extremely weary and spent. I am in my 80s but am getting calls from news networks around the world to be interviewed about my life and the state of the world.” Then came the showstopper: “Do you think that the public should see me in my weakened state, or should they remember me as the firebrand of old?”
I paused and pondered what I could possibly offer this giant figure. But then I had a thought. “If Pope John Paul II has taught us anything, it has been the power of his genuine humanity in the face of decline. Despite a serious stroke that left him partially paralyzed, the pope travels and shows that his weakness and infirmity are not a limitation, but are inevitable as we age and decline.”
“Weakness need not be feared and despised, even in a culture that prizes and elevates youth and beauty.”
“Weakness need not be feared and despised, even in a culture that prizes and elevates youth and beauty.” I urged Graham to allow the world to experience him in decline. This too would be inspirational, perhaps even more so than his earlier labors.
Graham was humble, asking for guidance mainly because he so desperately desired to finish well and to please the right audience.
Most of us want to present a story to others that highlights only the achievements and wins. Yet far more interesting and valuable are those failures and low points where we started paying attention to what matters.
Everyone can identify with brokenness and setback; after all, it is reality, if you live long enough.
Dale Jones was asked to take the helm of a global executive-search firm based in Philadelphia. Dale shared with me this piece of advice he was given at the start of his tenure: “When you are interviewing CEO candidates for new job opportunities, ask them about the ‘failed rungs’ on their ladder. If they can’t tell you some, run for the hills.”
Real leaders don’t run from weakness; they embrace and incorporate it into their authentic leadership style.
No doubt exposing our limitations and failures is risky. We are taught from day one to project strength, to be unflappable. So much that occurs in our lives shapes our stories in unexpected ways and can easily derail us through discouragement and setback. Yet the questing for purpose is all about becoming whole, embracing all facets of who we are.
Author Richard Rohr understands the difference between circumstances and our real lives: “Most people confuse their life situation with their actual life, which is an underlying flow beneath the everyday events.”
It’s important to consider who you are, the real story that drives you, not the fake one you learn to project. You aren’t simply the sum of your achievements and failures. You aren’t defined by the status associated with powerful individuals you just met, the job you just lost, or the raise you just received. You are a complex being who has been influenced by people and circumstances that existed long before you did and those that will exist long after you pass.
One way to develop a deeper understanding of your story is to become your own audience. Remove yourself from your story and tell it. Are you inspired by the person at the helm in that narrative? Do you feel that this person is engaging with others authentically? Is this person motivated by personal beliefs or others’ definitions of success? Is this person desperate to appear strong, even when feeling powerless? Do you admire him or her?
It is both illuminating and chilling to understand this map in its entirety. Yet once you fully accept your truth— truly embrace it—you will then have choices. You can live the story of your peers and family or you can value your own story and find your own path. For in the end, to be healthy and the best version of yourself, there must be separation. You and I must differentiate ourselves from our past, letting go of the patterns that continually sabotage our lives in the present. Listen to the audience that truly matters: the audience of one.
We all have an audience, perhaps multiple. And we all have a story. It is vital to reflect upon our initial questions if we are to move forward living the story true to ourselves. “Have you embraced your unique life story and identified your audience?” It is a critically important question to consider, for it is the doorway to a life of meaning.