Healthy Leadership is Brutal…Right Up There With Parenting and Friendship

Dedicated to the spirit of Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

Steve Roberts color photo: stone sculpture of balanced stones creating madonna and child

Brutal, messy, humbling––yes, just like parenting and friendship.  Healthy leadership rests on a foundation of being a healthy person: increasingly able to respond well to anything.  Who the heck does that easily?

A hunger to be in charge has its place in healthy leadership, but only as a servant to the hunger to serve: to create a safe space in which the inherent wisdom within us and others can flourish.  And animating that hunger must be a willingness to spend our life leaping off cliffs into the ocean of self-discovery.

How well do you know yourself?  How deeply are you willing to know yourself––the choices you make, why you make them, and their impact on you and others?  To what extent are you committed to see adversity as a gift, and align your actions with timeless practices of well-being?  Are you growing the courage to be happy?  If our answer to these questions isn’t the voice of our heart saying something like “More all the time,” healthy leadership will elude us.

How can we not have compassion for anyone (beginning with ourself) who attempts such a vocation––given that it includes managing the encyclopedia of ego-driven impulses that are both barriers to self-understanding and sacred doorways to it.

Here’s an off-the-cuff shortlist of them:

  1. The need to be needed.
  2. The need to know what’s going to happen next.
  3. The need to be right.
  4. The need to look like we know what we’re doing.
  5. The need to be liked.
  6. Infatuation with our effort.
  7. Fear of conflict.
  8. Fear of being ignorant.
  9. Fear of people unlike us.
  10. Fear of pain.
  11. Fear of fear.
  12. Holding another responsible for our feelings.
  13. Unforgiveness.
  14. Focusing on what we don’t have.
  15. Every belief, need or desire we hold onto tightly.

It is said there are those who, before they are born, ask for a “go big or stay home” kind of life, an expression of their soul’s calling to not diddle around, to move with perseverance through whatever manifestations of fear keep them from making their choices choices of expansion.  Such a request draws to it both intense demands (“Love or Suffer” the t-shirt reads) and abundant support: the wisdom of fellow travelers, including saints and sages, who’ve fallen on their face more than we have (or at least in different ways) and have grown from the experience.  How we embrace these gifts defines us.

Perhaps this is why some of us have a lot of juice for a path of service where others look to us for perspective on making healthy choices––any of the faces of leadership: parenting, friendship, ministry, coaching in any form, teaching second grade, guiding an enterprise that enriches the lives of all who are touched by it….  The depth to which these will take us in the ocean of self-discovery is limited only by our willingness.

Thank goodness healthy leadership is tough.  How else would we enjoy the benefits of the cliff leapers, those models of healthy personhood: increasingly able to respond well to anything?   Who the heck could learn that without help?


  1. I am always awed by the lucidity with which you express concepts that are deeply wise and true, Steve! How pertinent these words are now when so many of us are struggling with how to help the giants like Mandela nurture this troubled world with whatever little or big wisdom we have gathered from our own life experience. Blessings on what you do!

  2. Good stuff here! Too much to comment on in this small post. My question is: Why can we not all become every-day Mandelas..and Gandhis..and Kings? They each had a vision of a better world, believed it, lived it….and great things happened. I don’t believe any of them set out to be “a great leader”, or a “great teacher”, or a great anything. They lived their dream each day, and it happened. We can do that too, though our dream could be much smaller…or even greater.

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"I honor that we are killing the earth for the same reason I consider being an alcoholic a privilege: it is a doorway to the profound self-understanding required to make truly healthy choices."

The Essay: Honoring the Killing of the Earth