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  • Writer's pictureHannah E Greenwood

A life rich with Meaning and Purpose

Last week I gave a ‘Storytelling in Leadership’ workshop at London Business School as I’ve done many times before. Each time there’s initially a split between those who already understand the concept and want to learn the ‘how’ and others who don’t, who see storytelling as purely for children or for recounting entertaining incidents in social settings and that it’s nothing to do with the workplace.

What are stories? Why do children love them so much? And why is the art of storytelling so crucial for leaders?

Stories are about meaning, purpose and… crucially…hope. The best stories show us how to overcome adversity and bring the promise of a different and better future. They also invite us to view our life and current situation in perspective, to lift our heads up from the quagmire, and to breathe, feel and think differently.

When I began my psychotherapeutic training many years ago, the focus was not initially on others, but on myself: there was healing involved, ‘physician heal thyself’ and I was also required to have a deep understanding of my personal history: my Life Path, not just an events and people narrative but a psychological/helicopter vision of the person I had become. I still use this life-path process today with my Coaching clients, a ‘joining the dots backwards’: what’s the story that has made me the person I am now, i.e. my personal evolution?

We cannot begin to be fully present in our life and make conscious, clear choices to create the future we want if we don’t understand the psychological influences of our past. This is important for everyone but crucial for leaders and influencers: the more power we have, the more harm or good we can potentially do. From understanding our past stories, we can then start to live our life/story consciously and authentically, choosing to expand, not narrow, our horizons going forwards. We begin to see life as an extraordinary adventure. Even challenging times have deep meaning and resonance and we learn to see the arc and flow of life: that this particular situation/feeling will pass soon enough.

Below is an example of an aspect of my own story and how my understanding has changed my relationship with my present and, as a consequence, my future:

I used to run from endings. My first conscious experience of an ending was an abrupt dramatic one and this influenced my relationship with them for many years. I was 4 and had been living in Cyprus for two years. My parents were young and idealistic with three small children and they went to Cyprus to escape the smog and drudgery of the U.K., my father teaching English at a local school. The first two years in Cyprus were very happy and I remember expansive blue skies, a glittering ocean and the warm golden sun. Then my world turned upside down. The Cypriot Civil War broke out and we were under siege, terrified and trapped inside our house for days, surrounded by exploding bombs. We were lucky: the British Army stepped in and evacuated us with no notice, and we went with huge relief, leaving everything we owned behind.

And this has been my experience of change ever since: a slow hidden build-up with seemingly nothing happening and then a sudden, dramatic, transformational trajectory. I think this will always be the dynamic but what has changed is my relationship with how I end and move on. For many years, my fear of what I knew was an inevitable ending meant that I cut myself from feeling it. I would rush to the end, stuck in my head, cramming down any grief feelings and focusing on the new chapter. This served me very well. It was no coincidence that I was becoming a change agent professionally and it was part of my identity to see change as a positive. It also served me that I did not have to ‘feel’. No grief, no regret, no sense of loss, no hesitation, all that unnecessary baggage weighing me down. Yes, I would sometimes fiercely resist the change, doing everything in my power to keep the status quo, whether it was a job, a home, a relationship. But once I accepted the inevitability of change, I would want that chapter closed and I would rush to the next.

Of course, this inevitably meant I carried all that unfinished weight with me, to the next relationship, the next job, the next country, the next ‘whatever’. It grew worse; each supposedly fresh start brought accumulated, heavier baggage. The more I ran, the more I came back to the same emotionally stuck place. Nothing ever really changed. Until one day I was forced to stay and face an ending. I had run out of places to run and I had to stay and face what I was most afraid of, namely myself.

And that’s what I did. I stopped running and I turned inwards. This is what Gestalt therapy calls the ‘futile void’. It is a very scary place, the unknown with no certainty or guarantee of outcome. It is why we keep pulling back from this place, why we keep spinning in the ‘busy fool syndrome’, filling it with noise, anything not to stay in our stillness and face the void.

And yet, ironically, this place is not a de-void place. It is deep and full. It is the container of feelings, deep buried feelings of hurt and loss. And beneath that something far richer. For if we allow ourselves to feel the fullness of this space, we are then able to move forwards into, what is now one of my favourite places: the ‘fertile void’. This is where true creativity and rich experiencing happens. It is the field that, having been allowed to stay fallow for a season in the ‘futile void’, has now replenished its nutrients and is ready for growth. This is the place of hope and rebirth where we can make good, authentic choices and decisions. We still have to be patient in the fertile void but it is not a passive waiting. It is an active one, building our strength and fitness on all levels: mind, body, heart and soul, preparing us for the perfect timing of action.

A key part of the ‘Storytelling in Leadership’ workshop is Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero’s Journey’. In his pivotal book, ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ Campbell researched a thousand myths… i.e stories…from tribes all over the world and from all ages, including the Greek myth of Ulysses. He identified a core, universal thread, a monomyth, which he created into a mythological structure: the psychological journey of the archetypal hero: The Hero’s Journey.

In his introduction to The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell defines this monomyth: ‘A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered, and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.’

Since its publication, Joseph Campbell's Hero’s Journey archetype has been consciously applied by a wide variety of modern writers and artists. It was a major influence on George Lucas and his first Star Wars trilogy, Joseph Campbell subsequently becoming Lucas’s mentor and living on his Skywalker ranch. One of my clients looked at me soon after we began our coaching relationship four years ago and said: “What you’re really doing is training us to be Jedi Knights.” How right and intuitive he was!

Another popular hero is Neo in The Matrix. A very unwilling hero to begin with, common to most heroes at this initial stage. We hear the call to adventure, but we fight it. It’s either too scary, too inconvenient and/or it will upset others. So, like Neo, we mind our own business and keep our heads down and get on with our lives. But, like Neo, the call gets louder, and more things happen to disrupt our lives and push us on our journey. The more we resist the worse it gets, until finally, battle weary and ego battered, we surrender and unconsciously accept the call as the only way forwards.

The Hero’s Journey is ultimately about transformation and connecting more deeply to our Authentic Self. As Joseph Campbell tells us, ‘The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.’

In last month’s Perspectives Post in which I explored why charisma is core to leadership presence and the Champion Mindset, I also talked about passion and positive energy:

‘If the essence of leadership is establishing loyalty, the key task of a leader is to bring hope, the promise of a better future leading us out of times of adversity and onto even greater success. This includes our strategic vision of course, but it is also about our passion and positive energy, motivating and encouraging others to stretch to their highest potential. And this is perhaps the greatest challenge for the individual and for the leader: we cannot inspire others authentically i.e., with integrity, if we are not feeling inspired and full of hope ourselves.

I call the question ‘What makes my heart sing?’ the most dangerous question in the world. It’s a beautiful question in itself as it encourages us to embrace the love, passion and joy already present in our life. What makes it so dangerous is that it demands a helicopter vision of all aspects of our life: where my heart sings and where it doesn’t. That long hard look at ourself will be very challenging and sometimes painful, but it will also prompt us to make changes, moving us towards wholeness and living an authentic life.’

Why is this question ‘What makes your heart sing?’ so fundamental to a life rich with meaning and purpose? Why does feeling a deep sense of peace and joy matter?

At the root of our core self is our positive energy: it is the source of the champion mindset, creating our passion for life and excellence, inspiring others to follow. But we will never do/feel this unless our heart is in it and that will not come if we are miserable.

Life throws us many curve balls, forcing us to our knees, onto our journey and into Joseph Campbell’s ‘Abyss’. I am blessed with the capacity to ‘bubble with excitement and purr with happiness’. My heart sings easily and joyously, but life happens, and I can, like all of us, be brought to my knees in sorrow and defeat. I used to stay frozen, helpless and petrified in a victim mentality. I lived a life in fear, a half-life really.

But I got to a point when, yet once more on my knees in utter defeat, I finally understood that however much I resisted, I would repeatedly arrive at this place of paralysis. And this place was killing me: psychologically and physically. So, although it felt as if I had no choice, I made what I now know was an instinctive choice to live. And the only way I could do that was to make a core transformational shift in how I responded in those moments of defeat. I had to surrender, really surrender. This is what I call the simultaneous ‘point of despair’ and then its flipside, the ‘point of hope’: despair because my old ways of behaving and thinking were no longer working and hope because I was now truly open to something new and very different.

And what is the beacon of light that continually brings me the courage to face my fears, to keep growing, learning and expanding my horizons? It’s that dangerous question: is my heart singing? And if it isn’t, what do I need to change so that it sings joyfully again? I’ve always had a strong sense of purpose and a need to have great meaning in my life. What I’ve had to learn through my own hero’s journey is that an impressively successful purpose is worthless without the joy of deep love for myself and others. It is a community of heroes all sharing our passion and love of life that makes my heart sing!

Hannah Elizabeth Greenwood


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