In this new series, I choose one element of world-changing leadership, deconstruct it, and offer practices to build it.
Element 1: Devotion to truth
Leaders who are fierce are guided by more than their personal desires and preferences (though they factor those in too).
They are keen observers, listening to reality. They give up on wishing things were different, so they can fully take in exactly how things are.
That includes facing the reality of pain caused by injustice. It includes letting go of trying to predict an uncertain future. And it includes being able to act on what we know to be true right now.
Leaders who are fierce trust that even when the truth is hard and painful, there is goodness and strength to be found in facing it. That essential trust in the truth creates a grounded confidence, and the appearance of fearlessness.
Finally, we say that an arrow is “true” when it hits its mark. The arrow has been true -- or faithful -- to its purpose. In this way, the fierce leader is also true, and guided by their deepest values.
Element 2: No bullshit
Leaders who are fierce are deeply honest, with others and with themselves. Their courage in looking within leaves less room for self-deception.
And because they regularly and compassionately examine their own hearts, they have a trust and confidence in their own intentions that others can feel.
They also develop a sensitivity to bullshit in others. They can tell when something is “off,” and they trust their instincts.
Element 3: The resolve to act with clarity and conviction
Their willingness to see the truth makes them keen observers. And the precision of their observations leads to an applied wisdom, with more skillful and potent action, and less wasted effort.
There is a generative, grounded, and unstoppable energy to leaders who are fierce. Their self-care enables them to maintain a rhythm that is like a constant drumbeat. Or the steady drip of water that wears down a rock.
Having convictions is not enough. They must be lived out, and leaders who are fierce are deeply committed to that.
Element 4: A resolve that is beyond hope and despair
While they are committed to doing what works, and not wasting energy, they are also not entirely motivated by outcome.
They are able to act with resolve, even when the odds appear stacked against them. They don’t give in to reasons to despair. And they don’t wait for external signs of hope.
Instead, they give in to reasons to trust that they are not alone in their work, and every small effort matters. And they look for what is next for them to do.
Element 5: The capacity to act alone
“Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.” -- Maggie Kuhn
This is not the same as being a loner, experiencing a chronic lack of support, or acting like a dictator. Every leader needs a robust network of support, and strong relationships built on trust and respect with the people she leads.
But the way we often recognize fierceness is in those moments when someone takes a stand even when support is far away, and sometimes in the face of opposition.
Why fierce leadership matters: Social change doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s not for the faint of heart.
Practice: Bow to the truth, once a day
Step 1: Reflect on the question: “what is one thing that is true right now?”
For instance, as I write this, I am sitting in a chair. My back hurts a bit. It is 4:30pm, and I am feeling rushed, and I’m pushing to finish this post before the end of the day.
So I might say, “One thing that is true right now is that my back hurts.”
Important note: Watch for the kinds of judgments and projections that can mess with our ability to separate fact from opinion. For instance, if you are thinking, “gosh Fred is being such a jerk right now,” name it as a thought, judgment or projection. So instead of “What is true is that Fred is being a jerk,” you would say, “What is true is that I think Fred is being a jerk.”
Step 2: Give thanks for truth.
Bow your head, with your hands over your heart, or palms together in front of your heart. Express your gratitude for this one thing that is true right now. Or if that is difficult, express gratitude for your ability to see what is true right now.
Malalai Joya, former member of Afghan’s parliament, and outspoken feminist.
Ieshia Evans makes her stand.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, when she was a political neophyte, bit the powerful and corrupt hand that fed her.
Van Jones goes on CNN after Trump’s election and calls it like it is.
All the people whose names we don’t know, who show up everyday to take on what others find too hopeless. They house and feed the homeless, protect abused children, care for the dying, give aid to refugees, and on and on.