Life (and leadership) is a journey

I recently came across this poem, which spoke to me. I think the lesson is valuable in life as well as in leadership.

Life is a Journey

Birth is a beginning
And death a destination
And life is a journey:
From childhood to maturity
And youth to age;
From innocence to awareness
And ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion
And then perhaps to wisdom.

From weakness to strength or
From strength to weakness
And often back again;
From health to sickness,
And we pray to health again.

From offence to forgiveness,
From loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude,
From pain to compassion,
From grief to understanding,
From fear to faith.

From defeat to defeat to defeat
Until, not looking backwards or ahead,
We see that victory lies not
At some high point along the way
But in having made the journey
Step by step,
A sacred pilgrimage.
Birth is a beginning
And death a destination
And life is a journey.

–Rabbi Alvin Fine

Life is a Journey, is a metaphor that I have heard before. A friend and mentor at work has a similar quote hanging framed in his office, that I have noticed on many occasions. The idea that taking a wrong turn, failure, success, highs, lows, are all just a part of the journey of life is one that I find to be healthy and mature. It is also an idea that I have not fully mastered or appreciated in the past.

We can all strive to fully internalize that each and every day is a part of our life’s story. When I worked in government relations, building relationships was the most important part of the job. It was also by far and away my favorite part. I had a working theory that everybody in the world is truly an “expert” in only one thing: their life’s story. If you think about it, you are the only person who has witnessed your entire existence. Understanding the journey in that story helped me give everyone I met the benefit of the doubt and learn about their character.

If we view life as a journey, it is easier for us to cut ourselves some slack as well as cut others some slack. It helps me to be easier on myself and to see the things that didn’t go right as learning experiences. In fact, just last week, I had a conversation with someone that I thought went great, only to learn later that the other person in the conversation had the opposite impression. Seeing life as a journey allowed me to bypass the usual self-criticism and learn from the situation.

Rabbi Fine’s words are also applicable to those of us in leadership positions. There is no perfect leader. Leaders are held to a higher standard, are more scrutinized, and more insulated. That dynamic can make it harder for leaders to learn about themselves in a healthy way. Further, leadership is truly a practice (and thus the namesake for this website). What works for one group, may not work for another. A leader may have to lead a team in a highly transactional culture and then face a new leadership challenge in a transformative culture.

Leaders must be able to adjust in the spirit of embarking on a journey. Many cultures or groups are only understood through experience. That means that some people will be in leadership roles without a clear idea of what leadership style will work for a new group. Especially at the beginning, leaders need to encourage themselves to experiment and enjoy the journey that comes with uncertainty. With some core values in mind, embarking on that journey can yield an engaged team, reaching synergistic production.

In my current role, I was tasked with starting a brand new department. I am the first person in the organization to serve in this role. We started without a team and have been slowly building one. This last year has been an incredible journey and a learning experience. I appreciate Rabbi Fine’s words, which allowed me to reflect on the journey so far.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Leadership, like life, is a journey. If we view our work through the lens of embarking on a journey we can be more flexible, less critical, and can yield more dramatically positive results.