A Vacation Reflection - be the Leader You Always Wanted to Follow

Being Real Requires Vulnerability and Commitment Conversation 2“Look there’s another one…” Janice indicated the presence of another older man accompanied by younger woman just entering the restaurant.  They did not seem to be a father/daughter on an outing. It did not seem to be a business meeting. It looked like a date and an awkward one at that. There was no clear familial connection although one of the couples may have been father/daughter still struggling through the tensions inherent in learning how to relate as adults.

Perhaps it was the place of our vacation (on the beach in Southern California) or simply a heightened awareness of couples mismatched in age resulting from our earlier conversation. Perhaps our perspective was biased. We had been talking about the struggles yet another friend traversed whose marriage and family slowly and painfully fell apart in the latter years of mid-life during at the onset of empty nest. The couples we watched in the restaurant that day did not show the body language of intimacy.

These couples acted disconnected.[1]  They did not look delightfully or longingly into each other’s eyes.  They seemed tolerantly aware of each other and not comfortable with each other. Their behavior stood in contrast to comfort that comes to close friends who have been shaped and formed by different perspectives, animated disagreements and the work of understanding that is at home with one another’s silence.   There was no hostility per se, just a lack of presence. We wondered what they were looking for in each other. Was it security? Vibrancy? Sex? Companionship? Prestige?

Janice and I married for 38 years and married younger than we recommend to others have traversed the sometimes shaky and often intense (read emotionally fraught) transitions common to life.  We routinely experience both sides of change. On the one hand we face change as people finding our way to defining who we are and want to be. On the other hand we face change as a couple facing the redefinition of our relationship again and again to keep it vibrant and relevant to our changing perspectives, needs, wants and goals in life. We have learned something about life in the combination our own experience and the twenty-five years we spent in pastoral ministry.  The deeply personal insight into the consequences of life choices made by the people who volunteered their stories and worked through their choices with us as confidants in a quest to make sense of life’s realities are permanently seared into our life compass.

“I am ticked when I see some of these couples,” Janice related.

“Why?” I asked.

“Look at how much pain that young woman is enduring – and for what?” The young woman did not offer a command performance in her pedestal high heel shoes as she literally grimaced across the restaurant and jeans that seemed more tattooed to her body than pulled over her skin.

“Are they making the kind of commitment it takes to develop a close friendship or are they simply in the pursuit of convenience?  And if it is convenience, what does it end in? Where will either of them be in 20 years?” Janice looked back at me with that deeply penetrating look I have learned is the request for vulnerability.

“Perhaps they are searching for something more than acquisition, conquest, power, or pleasure.” I responded. Searching and unable to find…few things are more frustrating.  It doesn't take a psychologist, theologian or sociologist to see meeting the quest for intimacy with the pursuit of pleasure or conquest pushes people toward cynicism and hurt.  Perhaps the couples we saw where trying to find friendships.

The most difficult choice I make in life is to be vulnerable. I often don't want to be vulnerable.  I want to be powerful and independent.  The problem is that when I fail to exercise vulnerability I achieve deep loneliness. I think of specific transition points in our relationship together when I have been honest about my frustrations, desires, fears, doubts with Janice about our relationship.  There have been times for both of us that someone else acted more interested, more compassionate, more understanding more available emotionally or physically than we have been to each other.  Those conversations were both excruciating and healing.

We left the restaurant and walked through the village on the beach.  I reflected on our lunch time conversation. The point is not that we are still married. Marriage in itself is no particular achievement at least not given some of the couples I have met who stay married and miserable for failure to do the work involved taking any other action. The point is that anything worth pursuing in the next year requires the same two actions that has brought us to this point in our relationship and joy together i.e., commitment and vulnerability.

In 2013 exercise maturity as a person and vulnerability in relationship. Will you remain differentiated (be a unique individual) and stay in relationships?[2] This is the nature of the commitment.  It is a commitment that:

  • Exercises a capacity to take responsibility for one’s own emotional well-being.
  • Promotes healthy differentiation in others and throughout the system in which one lives and works.
  • Recognizes the folly of relational sabotage being a differentiated person triggers from the least differentiated members of a group.
  • Knows that those with whom one is most closely related cannot rise above the maturity level you demonstrate regardless of your skills or knowledge base.
  • Remains aware that people cannot hear you unless they are moving toward you which means that as long as you are pursuing or rescuing them your message will never catch up.

As Janice and I reflect on our careers, our hopes for 2013 and our sense of purpose as servant leaders in our fields we know that as friends in marriage and as professionals related to teams our success continues to be dependent upon the exercise of commitment and vulnerability that takes specific actions.

  • We exercise the capacity to go it alone – there are times that we see things that others don’t yet see, but they are worth pursuing.  This is as true in the potential of our marriage as it is in the business endeavors we lead.  Going it alone is not the destruction of our intimacy it is sometimes the price of intimacy while we hope the other also makes that same commitment and we converge on a new path together.
  • We exercise the ability to recognize and extricate ourselves from emotional binds.  We are not always in sync with each other’s emotions.  Sometimes those around us are not in sync with their own emotions. The ability to extricate ourselves from the emotional binds we sometimes lay out for one another is critical to maintaining a healthy interaction.
  • We avoid the folly of trying to will each other or others to change.  We cannot, by force of will, shape each other to be anyone different.  There is a shaping that occurs as we pursue life together, but this shaping requires vulnerability and willingness to see from another perspective other than our own.
  • We exercise the modifying potential of a non-anxious presence.  Fortunately we rarely panic at the same time.  There are scary things in life.  We find that the voice that attempts to shame us into non-action still rears its belittling head.  It is then we help each other by providing a non-anxious presence for one another instead of a continuous escalation of anxiety and anger.
  • We understand the ratifying power of endurance in crisis.  We are present for each other.  We endure each other’s worse behavior (that is different from being victimized by it – neither of us will be victims of the other). We endure through crisis with those we work with as well.
  • We remind ourselves of the factors that cause each of us stress and coach one another away from the brink of anxious despair.
  • We exercise the self-regulation necessary for dealing with reactive sabotage. The fact is that the least emotionally mature around us do not want to accept responsibility for their emotional well-being or their job performance. Someone will always attempt to undermine our success and our achievement.  This is part of the reason we work to define success as grounded in who we are not just what we do.

So who do you want to be in 2013?  The fact of the matter is that you will succeed in your goals and hopes and dreams only to the degree you succeed in being yourself in commitment and vulnerability.


[1] Admittedly this may be little more than a biased observation – we did not conduct good social research to come to this conclusion there were no interviews or focus groups, no regressive analysis of common themes.

[2] Edwin Friedman Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix Margaret M. Treadwell and Edward W. Beal eds. (New York, NY: Church Publishing [Kindle Version downloaded from Amazon.com], 2007), 3912 of 5400.