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Showing up when the world is falling apart
You don't have a choice whether to have an impact, but you can choose the impact you have.
Many people, myself included, felt that the world has been falling apart this week. For many, it was and continues to be literal, as bullets and rockets keep flying.
This is an invitation for each of us, as founders, as coaches, and just as human beings to choose how we show up. We don’t have a choice about whether our actions or inactions will have an impact. Just by being part of this world, we have an influence on it. This is true every week, not just this week, but this week this truth is particularly relevant for many of us.
We can, however, reflect on the impact we have on the world and on others. The leaders I coach, and I myself, as their coach, have a responsibility to stop and think about what our impact is. I hope that this essay will help you in your reflection.
Many, including me, have initially been silent following abhorrent acts of terror committed by Hamas. On reflection, I was silent out of fear of being misunderstood, realising that whatever I say can and will be misunderstood by some. Some comments on my LinkedIn posts this week (one, another) are case in point.
Yet, silence is a message and it can and will be misunderstood too. The leader of a non-political community I’ve been part of for years has written a long and detailed statement when Russia attacked Ukraine last year, but stayed completely silent this week when Hamas attacked Israel. I may never know his thoughts, but I am interpreting his silence, and I’m likely misunderstanding him.
Not being silent also gives each of us an opportunity to role model what we want a constructive dialogue to look like. Our actions inspire and influence others.
Choosing how we show up in this world involves choosing what matters for us, why it matters, what it means in practice and why we’re willing to take a stand for it. Yet, before we can do any of this, we must reflect on how we construct our world.
Each of us is living in our own world projected by our own minds. This may be an interesting topic to discuss at a dinner party, but in times like these it acquires deadly significance. We may be living in our own worlds in our minds, with our own ideas of right and wrong, good and evil, but we are also profoundly interconnected, all the way to getting to live or die based on whose ideas are currently winning.
A very important clarification is in order. Just because many perspectives exist and all of them are just that — perspectives, does not imply that they are equal. While there is not and cannot be a single true, objective, accurate or fair version of history, it doesn’t mean that any story told is equally valid. There’s a Zen saying of infinite wisdom that captures it beautifully:
“There’s no right and no wrong, but right is right and wrong is wrong.”
Korean Zen master Seung Sahn Sunim
There's an unresolvable paradox right here, and yet one of the steps we take on our path into adulthood is recognising and accepting that life is full of paradoxes, and we’ll never arrive at a worldview that avoids them without ignoring the complexity of this world.
So before choosing what matters to us, what we are willing to show up for, before choosing a side — and not choosing a side is also a choice here — we must reflect on what sides are there in our world.
Are you choosing between sides of innocent people vs terrorists? Are you choosing between sides of good and evil? Are you choosing sides between the oppressed and oppressors? Are you choosing sides between victims and perpetrators? Are you choosing sides between people of your faith and culture and those of others?
Each of these dichotomies is real, and each of them is incomplete. No perspective on the world is complete; by definition a perspective is just that — a view from a particular place, conditioned by a particular experience. And yet not all perspectives are equal.
There’s no right and no wrong, but right is right and wrong is wrong.
Reflecting on how I want to show up in this world, in my conversations with others, in my coaching work, helped me clarify what I am willing to stand for.
I’m willing to stand for our shared humanity. For me, this means responding to all suffering equally from a place of love. Differentiating between kinds of suffering, saying that these people’s suffering is more worthy of attention that those people’s suffering and exploiting those divisions is what got the world into this mess in the first place.
I don’t mean just Israel/Hamas, but also Russia/Ukraine, the war on terror, climate change, racism, rampant inequality, slavery, pollution and pretty much every other problem you can think of. They all start with someone thinking that my comfort is more important than their suffering.
For me, responding from a place of love doesn’t mean non-violence. Maybe I’m just not an enlightened being, but I think it’s right that when a terrorist attack happens, we first send marksmen to the scene, not social workers, coaches or spiritual leaders. Sometimes this is the fastest way to minimising suffering.
Instead, responding from a place of love means recognising that we all feel the same pain, and not using our pain as an excuse to see some other group of people as less than us, more deserving of suffering than we are and then building our entire lives around that belief.
And it’s really hard. “Namaste my ass”, as I quoted Jerry Colonna in my last week’s essay. I do struggle to feel much love towards Russian soldiers who attacked Ukraine and those who support them, for example. It feels too personal for me right now.
However, my inner work to do is not to fuel hatred towards all Russians inside my own heart, but to remember that the war started because some of them didn’t know what else to do with their pain and fear, but violence. And respond with love, even if in practice, in the moment, it may mean support for the Ukrainian army.
“Violence is what happens when we don't know what else to do with our suffering.”
When I think about how I show up as a coach and as a human being, I remember to show up from a place of love, remembering that seeing different people’s suffering as worthy or unworthy is what took the world to hell and is keeping it there.
What does all of this have to do with leadership in startups? How you show up as a leader, with your teams, with your customers, with your community, will be determined by your reflections on what world you want to live in and what you’re willing to stand for. This week’s events add more urgency to the task.
There may be no absolute right and no absolute wrong, but you must decide what is right and what is wrong for you and then take a stand for it.