Leading is like swimming toward the horizon: the more you go the more you see needs doing. But it's important to keep swimming.

Hilary Star Foged

At this time of year, I find myself reflecting on how it is that leaders rise to the challenge of leadership while personally coping in a world filled with challenges.  Letts and Johnson talk about the relentless work of leadership that makes us feel the horizon can never be reached. We live in a world with unprecedented challenges: climate change, the rise of extremism, and massive inequities between those that have and those who do not, so how do we keep going?

At the turn of the century the Hopi Elders provided a metaphor of wisdom that might contain an answer for us:

“It is time to speak your truth.
Create your community.
Be good to each other.
And do not look outside yourself for your leader.

Then the Hopi Elder clasped his hands together, smiled, and said, “This could be a good time! There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water.

And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey come to a halt.

The time of the one wolf is over. Gather yourselves! Banish the word ’struggle’ from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

(Hopi Elders' Prophecy, June 8, 2000)

For me personally, swimming is not something I have felt confident about or skilled in for most of my adult life.  But some years ago, I learnt for the first time to float on my back and feel the ocean carry me.

The idea of resting while swimming has such parallels for us in our busy lives and work. 

Allowing time for reflection, slowing down, and recognising whether we’re really taking care of ourselves and each other, contributes hugely to our wellness and our ability to see what is truly going on.  Having a more conscious access to our own wisdom and more importantly, in our work environments, to our collective wisdom, (spoken about so powerfully on www.tipuake.org.nz) is key to our leadership.

By contrast, we have grown to expect instant responses in our communication given our attachment and dependence on devices.  We experience increasing pace and constant change, which includes recognizing how chaos and uncertainty are far more familiar to us then we would choose them to be.     

The Hopi wisdom acknowledges how essential it is for us in leadership, to learn how to swim, keep swimming, and know who we are swimming alongside, in these ever-changing times, and especially in our community-based, not for profit sector.  

Learning how to swim speaks to us of the ability to ‘go with the flow’ and meet whatever comes with a greater sense of finding the resources and strengths within our teams and communities, and identifying what assistance we need from others. 

To be able to ask for help from each other, to understand our interconnection as people and organisations, to empower and support, and sometimes get out of the way of our young people so they can step up into leadership with their own insights and awareness… “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”.

Holding on to the ‘shore’, rather than swimming, reminds us of the way we wish things would and should remain the same, feeling weary of and resisting changes, and feeling out of our depth.  These seem to be often common threads in conversations with people around Aotearoa in our sector.  But also, there seems to be an incredible commitment to choose to embrace the changes needed, and work more collaboratively in meeting the uncertainties, challenges and new frontiers.  Here are some of those frontiers that seem core and essential to our leadership in the community and not for profit sector.

  • Recognising how critical it is for us as a nation and in our communities to build partnership between Maori and all other cultures as a real and equitable reality, enabling that partnership to be influencing and informing how we manage health care, education, government, law and justice, housing, finances and all aspects of our life as a nation here in Aotearoa.  So much needs to change for this equity to be a reality. 

  • Acknowledging more consciously how sustaining our own health and wellbeing is essential if we are going to be available to support and empower others; having a culture of wellness at the heart of our organisations and communities.   

  • Addressing the desperate need for peace in our world, by starting with myself.  ‘Being the peace we long to see in our world’.  How I relate to those around me, and to myself, has huge impact on whether I am contributing to peace in our community, or adding to the harm and negativity that are so prevalent. 

“The river has its destination”.  Being in that flow, even when the waters seem turbulent and overwhelming, is being encouraged and taught by many wise teachers around the world. 

Here is a thoughtful and thought-provoking statement from Margaret Wheatley, writer and management and leadership consultant:

“We need to carefully consider what we are learning about leadership in these disaster-laden times. I hope we learn that we can rely on human caring, creativity, and compassion.  We can rely on us 'bundles of potential' figuring out solutions, learning quickly, and surprising ourselves with new capacities.  We can rely on people to self-organize quickly to achieve results important to them. Together, people act creatively, take risks, invent, console, inspire and produce.  This is how life works.  We can learn this from new science, or we can learn it from what happens every day somewhere in the real world.” 

 (Leadership Lessons for The Real World, Leader to Leader Magazine, Summer 2006)

As we approach the end of 2018 and enter 2019, let’s give ourselves the opportunity to reassess our work schedules, find time to rest and relax, to support our wellness and identify what we need to support us to ‘swim’ confidently and skillfully forward.