In 2010, at the peak of the housing market collapse, I began to have trouble speaking. When I went to talk, all the muscles in my throat would spasm and contract. Worse yet, talking left me dizzy, sore and not wanting to say very much. Later that year I was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia (SD), a rare neurological voice disorder. SD has no known cause or cure and affects only speech. The two treatments are periodic Botox injections (chemical) and seeking a deep sense of inner peace and calm (spiritual).
As a forced response to the disorder, I started talking less at work. I shared the stage more broadly, inviting others to lead meetings and events that I traditionally would have controlled myself. It didn’t take long before magical changes began taking place. I quickly saw that the company functioned better when more people led. In addition, I was able to put a bit more balance into my life and saw how that, in turn, made me more valuable and useful for others. By 2012, I came to see my voice condition as a blessing, not a curse… as an opportunity rather than a liability. The opportunity was simple yet powerful: What if we could create an organization where everybody served as a leader? What if we could create an organization where every voice felt trusted, respected, important and heard? Wouldn’t an organization where everybody led outperform an organization where just a few, chosen people held all the cards?
So, we went to work establishing systems and support mechanisms designed to make everyone’s voice stronger… employee surveys, team huddles, focus groups and more. It could all be a coincidence, but in the years that followed employee engagement (as defined by employees) soared and our performance took off to new heights as well.
Around this time, I fortuitously began traveling to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota (statistically the poorest place in America). Over time I learned that before the reservation era, when the Lakota people were strong, most of the power in their society went to the individual. The strength, freedom, responsibility and voice of each person was encouraged through tribal values, political systems and cultural rites such as the Vision Quest. After the reservation was established, pretty much all the power in their society was rounded up and placed in the governing center… with the Great Father in Washington, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Tribal Council. Under this structure of central over-reaching, the community suffered.
Then it struck me.
Across time, those who hold the power have often overreached…leaders often go too far. But around the world the power of the individual is speaking out. Increasingly today we live in a world where each individual wants to seek and speak their own personal sense of truth. This is true for companies, churches, governments and families.
My conclusion: In the Aquarian Age, leadership is about doing less, not more. It is about restraint. It is about holding the power but not using it. It’s about listening without judging or correcting. It is about being connected and aware of how others feel.
I have come to believe that organizations that embrace each individual voice as unique and important will, over time, outperform those who cling to a more traditional view of power. All this I came to learn by losing the consistent use of my own voice. That seeming liability turned out to be a blessing. My voice disorder and my time at Pine Ridge combined to connect me more deeply with the essence of who I was, and to want to help others do the same. We are all searching for our true voice. That’s the essence of being human. When leaders talk less and listen more, they guide humanity forward.
In 2015 I published a book about my experiences with SD, the Oglala Sioux Tribe at Pine Ridge and thinking differently about leadership at Hancock Lumber.
Thank you for considering my thoughts, or, as they say at Pine Ridge, Wopila Tanka (Big Thanks)!