I grew up in the knowledge that my father’s side of the family was German-Jewish, and most of them didn’t survive the Holocaust. My father converted to Christianity at university, having experienced God through reading a Bible he had picked up in his school library.
For the duration of the war he hid from the world with his mother and brothers in Bermuda, but most of my wider family remained in Germany. When they eventually received their papers to go to Auschwitz, they took cyanide instead.
The deep imprint of this heritage shapes my passionate commitment to the value of every human being and to see each person reach their full potential. I cannot turn a blind eye to injustice; I have to speak out. So when, a few years ago, I discovered that in the UK one in four women and one in eight men are sexually abused – and we had no service for them in my county – I could not stand by and do nothing.
I left church leadership, trained as a psychosexual therapist and set up Lifecentre to provide counselling and support for people who have been raped or sexually abused.
I know my passion for this work comes from my unique, God-given core. Saint Paul describes our innermost selves as treasure encased in jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7). That which is deep within you has your unique DNA of leadership. This is where your passion is rooted, where energy unceasingly flows, where people instinctively want to follow you, and from where mountains are moved.
So how do you identify your core – and then start to lead from it? There are eight principles that can help you begin.
That which is deep within you has your unique DNA of leadership
1. LOOK WITHIN
Where does your leadership come from? If you are a church leader, your quick answer might be, ‘My leadership stems from a calling from God.’ If you lead in a business setting, or perhaps in both a secular and a spiritual context, you might say that your leadership comes by mandate from your organisation – from shareholders, your board or your boss.
But these are external factors, and assume that leadership is rooted in your environment. This will always cap leadership with a shallow and temporal nature. The quality of our leadership is, in fact, determined by what is within us, not what comes from without. Ralph Waldo Emerson, when scaling real mountains, observed: ‘What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.’
2. EXCAVATE DEEPLY
Alongside my work at Lifecentre, I have the privilege of coaching senior-level leaders in some of the UK’s largest financial and retail companies. Time and again I have observed that the level to which leadership flows from within directly correlates with a leader’s success, impact and the extent to which they influence others.
The more senior the leadership, the more strategic reflection and awareness of ourselves and others is needed. This demands an internal journey in order to deliver externally. Excavating what is at your core as a leader provides a much-needed compass, releasing clarity and an incredible power for achievement.
3. IDENTIFY YOUR CORE
When we lead from the most authentic part of ourselves, we become aligned on every level: we are at our most congruent. As a Christian, I believe it results in us displaying the deepest aspect of the image of God within us.
Psychologists can help us understand this concept. Dick Schwartz, of Internal Family Systems therapy, talked about the ‘expansive core’ – the part of you that reaches out to others and the world. Petruska Clarkson, a leading Gestalt therapist, called the core your ‘first nature’; the part of you that was you before you were compromised by society.
Alexander Lowen, founder of bioenergetics, understands the core as the mysterious part of you that runs deeper than your character and your personality style. A trainer in the business world, Werner Erhard pitches it in terms of commitments. What is it you’re committed to? You can only truly be committed to a small number of things; these speak of who you are at the deepest level.
How to practise leading from your core
Learn to speak from your core. We spend so much of our time speaking from a more superficial place, but when you speak from your place of passion, people listen in a different way. Find the language that expresses the vocabulary of your core.
Carpe diem. Commit to yourself that if an opportunity that is aligned with your core arises, you will take it. At the surface you may think: ‘Why me? I can’t do it.’ Do it anyway.
Prune your many doings. Allow God to slim down your activity so that you can focus on your unique contributions. Keep becoming more of your core, not less.
Work with your teams to enable them to identify what their core drivers are, maximising their alignment between doing and being: activity and core passion.
4. ECHOES OF CHILDHOOD
It takes an honest internal journey to get in touch with your core. There will be elements of your childhood and upbringing that God will have used in order to shape your central character.
My husband, Roger, has been a church leader for more than 30 years. The Church is his passion, his life’s dedication. What he’s been building all these years is church as a family, church as a community. Of course, this love for the family of God is rooted in scripture, but I also believe that it is not insignificant that he is an only child. Something deep within him has yearned to build family.
If you look at the Old Testament character Esther, who impacted her nation against huge odds, you’ll notice that her Jewish identity was deeply embedded within her. It’s what gave her the courage to stand before the king when, with one decision, he could have had her killed or granted her request. Her Jewish upbringing equipped her to hold on to faith despite her circumstances.
Look now to Jesus. Why was he so zealously committed to broken women? Jesus stood up for the woman caught in adultery when the crowds were about to stone her, and it was women who he entrusted to be the first witnesses to the resurrection. Jesus grew up with a mum who got pregnant outside of marriage; something that would have drawn all sorts of bullying and derision.
What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us
There was something within him that was passionate about reinstating the dignity and honour of women. Could it be that his divinity was touching his human childhood experience?
5. CHANNEL THE BAD FOR GOOD
A business colleague of mine, Neil Laughton, who has famously led record-breaking teams (including Bear Grylls) up Everest, told me that as a child, a teacher told him that he would never amount to anything.
Laughton developed a passion to prove him wrong. He has since become a successful entrepreneur, as well as leading teams on adventurous expeditions to the summits of the highest mountain on each continent, the North and South Poles, and across the Sahara Desert in the world’s first road-legal flying car. God used his teacher’s negative words in order to form his core. ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him’ (Romans 8:28). We serve a redemptive creator who weaves together both the beauty and the pain of our childhoods and our adult past to form our core.
We shouldn’t be afraid of experiencing a healthy, authentic anger
6. GET ANGRY
One of my closest friends heads up an international charity called Children on the Edge, working with children facing extreme vulnerability. We sat next to each other in church one Sunday listening to a sermon on the wrongs of getting angry. The appeal at the end was to ‘repent of your anger’. She whispered to me, ‘If I lost my anger, I would never achieve anything for Children on the Edge.’ She’s learnt to hone and refine the passionate anger against injustice that emanates from her core. Neither of us responded to the appeal.
When we lead from the core, we shouldn’t be afraid of experiencing a healthy, authentic anger. Channelled well, anger and other pure emotions can be a great source of energy to propel us forward.
7. IGNORE THE GLASS CEILING
The core generates a power that breaks through glass ceilings. When we lead from the core, we don’t even look at the ceiling, but at what we are committed to. As a result, everything is possible.
You will also notice a change in the extent to which others follow you as a leader. There is something undeniably compelling about a leader who is completely aligned with his or her innermost self. Here we must sound a note of warning. When you lead from your core you are at your most effective; but it’s also when you are most vulnerable.
What’s at your core?
Maggie’s questions may help you identify your God-given core
What do you enjoy giving?
If you look back over every decade of your life, what do you notice you constantly impart? Sometimes we need friends and family to help us see this.
If there was a banner over your childhood home stating what was important to your family, what would it have said?
If there was a sign over your current desk or front door stating your aspirations / what’s important to you...what would it say?
If everything in your life was stripped away and you had to start again, what three things would you rebuild and why?
Imagine that you attend a team meeting at work or church, or a meal out with friends. What would you hope to impart – even if you did not have the opportunity to speak much?
What sentence would you like to see written on your gravestone in your memory?
8. RE-ENGAGE YOUR EMOTIONS
My experience of many years of coaching and counselling is that as a society we are becoming increasingly disconnected and dissociated from ourselves, creating a hunger for the lost treasure of happiness.
When we connect with our innermost selves we pay a price because it is emotional. That’s why many leaders avoid this place. If you’re not emotionally at ease, or you’re in an environment that seemingly doesn’t welcome your passion, it feels safer to circumnavigate it.
Passion isn’t about dramatic displays of emotion (although for some stiff Brits a bit more emotion wouldn’t go amiss). Passion comes from the Greek word pascho, which means to suffer or endure. It’s that which you are prepared to suffer for, that to which you’re committed.
What makes you afraid of your emotions? Brené Brown, author of the number one New York Times best-seller Daring Greatly (Portfolio Penguin) writes: ‘If we want to reignite our passion and purpose we have to learn how to own and engage with our own vulnerability and how to feel the emotions that come with it.’
When we become too focused on activity, ignoring our emotions, we can lose contact with our core. Skills, capabilities and behaviour are all at the level of our environment. Too much time at that surface level can disconnect us from the deeper aspects of who we are.
EMBRACE YOUR CORE TODAY
Some of us have stepped outside the arena of leading from the core because we fear being hurt. We might still be revered within our communities; we may still be getting promoted. But inside we’ve stepped into a less vulnerable place.
If you’re leading from a place that’s functional, knowledge-based and seemingly safe, is it time to re-engage with your core? Is it time to permit your passion to resurface? Is it time to embrace vulnerability and trust that God’s strength will shine through your weakness?
Today I pray that you will excavate, identify and lead from the core of the person that God made you to be.
Former Premier Christianity columnist Maggie Ellis is a psychotherapist, leadership coach and director of Lifecentre, a counselling and support service for survivors of rape and sexual abuse lifecentre.uk.com This content was originally delivered at the 2014 HTB leadership conference. Additional reporting: Lucinda van der Hart.