By Tania Han
On Purpose and the Meaning of Leadership
On a chilly Thursday evening, twenty two of us arrived at Embercombe. We were there as part of the On Purpose Associate Programme. The programme helps professionals in mid-career find and develop their purpose, matching their skills and experience to organisations in the social impact sector to facilitate a valuable two-way exchange of talent and learning opportunities.
The weekend came three months into the year-long programme and halfway through our first placements. Even in our nascent journey towards purpose-driven leadership, we had already experienced many moments of self-discovery on offer to us and had had some time to get to know each other as a cohort.
We weren’t told much about what to expect and in a day and age when so little is mysterious, it was a welcome adventure into the unknown. There was a palpable sense of excitement and curiosity coupled with a good dose of anxiety and nervousness. We didn’t know what was to come, yet the care and support among the group was obvious and reassuring.
Our discourse around what leadership means in today’s messy, complex world centred on the key themes of knowing oneself, being courageous, bringing people together through collaboration, being strong yet flexible, knowing our own power and still having the strength to be vulnerable and humble when required, above all, being genuine in our undertakings.
As part of our mission for the weekend, we chose to embody our views of what it means to be a leader using the four elements — earth, water, air and fire.
For thousands of years, this classical theory of elements anchored Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, as well as Greek philosophy. From the elements, all matter was derived, thought to be the key components to the survival of all living creatures on earth. This concept gave rise to one of the most fundamental theories of alchemy: the idea that the properties of a substance depend on what it is made of.
How fitting an analogy for us: Our ability as leaders depend on the qualities that make us up. In life, all four elements are both destructive and restorative. And thus in leadership, we strive to strike the balance of having just enough of these elements, adjusting them as the situation and the people around us call for it.
On the personal level, we faced internal tugs-of-war between holding emotions close and letting them out. We brought old habits, such as the belief that demonstrating weakness was a flaw rather than a strength of character, consciously pretending to appear confident instead, even if the opposite were true.
The facilitators shepherded us through the weekend, observing as we worked, answering questions, occasionally helping us delve deep into our experiences. But the biggest shifts and revelations came as a result of deep connections and uninterrupted time with each other, in small groups and through one-on-one interactions.
Removing ourselves from our normal routine and environment allowed us to be fully present and connected to our surroundings and each other. Being nourished, not only by the amazing veggie food but also by nature and trusted friends, gave us the fuel needed for deep reflection and the mental strength needed to open up, be vulnerable and ultimately accept the precious advice our friends gave us during our feedback circles.
Barriers were broken, minds opened, pretences set aside. We surrendered our defences, our ego and our anxieties; we let ourselves be embraced by our circle of trust, exposed our deepest beliefs, fears and selves, and allowing ourselves to see and be seen.
We left feeling at peace, loved and calm, with determination in our hearts and minds. Months later, we still feel the embers of that weekend. Our journey continues.