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Strong back, soft belly

June 21, 2010

Michael Chender, ALIA

 “Bring your vulnerability, your tenderness, your fear. Bring your questions – bring the things that puzzle you. Be prepared to hold ambiguity – to sit with the ‘not-knowing’. Open your heart and your mind to yourself and to the other people in the room.”

That may not be exactly what Michael Chender (one of the founders of ALIA) said in his opening speech, but it’s the way that I remember it. I wrote this in my notebook: “Wow! An opening speaker who welcomes our vulnerability!” His speech has stayed with me ever since.

How often have you sat in any workshop (especially one focused on leadership) and been told that your vulnerability is a valuable place to start? The leadership training I’ve received in the past tends to focus on strengths, confidence, vision – certainly not vulnerability. That’s for weaklings.

I think it was about that time at ALIA when I felt the tears well up in my eyes and they stayed pretty close to the surface for the remainder of the day. In the past, when I’d followed my intuition and used my vulnerability as an asset in my leadership, I had almost always been faced with resistance and blocks and my own fearful gremlins. And almost every time, I’d tucked my courage and convictions away and gone back to putting on my “confident and unshakeable leader” face.

The challenge didn’t stop with Micheal Chender. Later that same day, at the beginning of our “Leader as Shambhala Warrior” workshop, Meg Wheatley’s first question to us was “What breaks your heart?” Really? What breaks my heart? This is the starting place for a journey toward warriorship? Indeed it was! The things that break our heart are the things that drive us forward – that give us purpose, vision, and strength to carry on.

During the week at ALIA, the term “strong back, soft belly” came up often – especially during meditation practice. When you sit in meditation, you are taught to sit with your back straight and strong and your stomach relaxed and vulnerable. This is not just a statement about posture – it’s a statement about how we are encouraged to live. Every day. Our strong backs remind us to have courage and strength in the face of adversity and fear – to hold firmly to our values. To be warriors. Our soft bellies remind us to make ourselves vulnerable to each other – to show compassion and extend understanding and forgiveness to ourselves and others. To open our hearts.

Today was one of those days when my “strong back and soft belly” were put to the test. In more than one situation, I was in the position to extend compassion to people who needed it, and yet at the same time was required to establish boundaries and to maintain an unwavering commitment to protecting and serving as a warrior for other people who were being negatively impacted by the same difficult situations. If I said I was completely successful, I would be lying (I had to fight hard not to let fear and anger play the parts they wanted to play), but I did my best and, with a combination of prayer, meditation, and turning to other people for support, I made it through the storms to the other side.

Sometimes, we choose either strong back OR soft belly and forget that we can hold both at the same time. Sometimes we treat people with too much kindness and forget that they also need us to hold firm to the boundaries in our relationships. Other times, we put up strong walls to protect ourselves or others and forget that compassion is also necessary.

I say this to you… Bring your vulnerabilities. And bring your strength too. It’s what every good warrior (and a true “Sophia leader”) does.

(Yes, in case you’re wondering, I’m thinking that the next step in the journey is taking me toward “Sophia Leadership”.)

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Dovelily permalink
    June 22, 2010 7:50 am

    “Strong back and soft belly.” I’ve never heard that expression before. It certainly sounds counter-intuitive from everything I’ve heard about leadership and been encouraged to practice in my role as a manager. I think I’m a lot like you, Heather, in my management style, if I’ve interpreted your posts accurately. I look forward to hearing lots more about what you learned at the ALIA workshops!

  2. June 22, 2010 7:56 am

    Strong back… no armouring in front. That’s one of our yoga-things.

  3. June 22, 2010 1:28 pm

    This is EXACTLY the sentiment, the thoughts I need right now. It is becoming my new practice. Thank you.

  4. June 22, 2010 8:10 pm

    Beautiful. Thank you for this. Your timing couldn’t be more perfect.

  5. June 23, 2010 3:38 pm

    Great catchphrase. I think a lot of women have strong backs and soft bellies. I certainly know some.

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