When You've Fallen and You Have to Get Up

I was collaborating with a colleague this week on a session he’s doing with the senior leadership team of his company to identify the critical qualities they need in leaders for the future.

In the process, I came across General Stanley McChrystal’s TED talk on leadership.

It’s great. It could be a model for how to craft a leadership message.

Real Leadership

It starts with a personal story about jumping out of an airplane, landing hard, and falling down. It includes self-deprecatory humor, shows vulnerability, gives meaning, connects to the future, and winds back to the beginning with a powerful call to action.

When you fall, says General McChrystal this:

“If you’re a leader, the people you’ve counted on will help you out. And if you’re a leader, the people you’ve counted on need you on your feet.”

It’s a great statement of how leadership is the opposite of victim mentality or being caught up in fear.

  • If we’re thinking like victims, we’re stuck to a self having a problem.
  • If we’re caught up in fear – the very words suggest it – we’re snagged or stopped.
  • The more we worry, protect, or blame, the more we spiral into a dark hole of self-thoughts and bodily tension.
  • These thoughts and tensions make us weak and clumsy.

Even if we want to be authentic and do all the good things leaders are supposed to do, we will get in our own way if we are caught up in self-pity, self-doubt, or self-promotion.

Serving The Larger Picture

On the other hand, the more connected we are to others and to serving a larger picture, the more naturally we stay in the flow of now, the more naturally we move with the rhythm of what’s going on, and the more naturally our self adds its value.

There’s a quality of movement in McChrystal’s advice: so what if you’ve fallen; your people will help you and need you on your feet. Go! We sense this movement from other leadership voices, whether it’s Sheryl Sandberg leaning in or Kevin Cashman’s leading from the inside out.

Leadership moves, gets others moving with it, and creates more movement.

Getting A Move On

In this regard, Zen is great training for leaders and leadership becomes a great practice ground for Zen, as both emphasize penetrating now to the utmost whereupon self disappears and freedom of movement expands.

As Zen master, Takuan (1573 – 1645) advised the leading sword master and military advisor of his day, “Don’t let your mind stop.”

“A mind that stops in any one place will not be able to move freely…By not stopping anywhere, it will be of use everywhere…The mind of one who has reached the highest level will not stop even slightly on things. It is like pushing a gourd on the water’s surface.” (from Fudochi Shimmyo Roku)

The Zen Leader

When I was writing The Zen Leader, it struck me this “flip” from stuckness to movement or, as I called it, from coping to transforming, is where leadership begins (hence, the first chapter and a way to make this flip). Because if we define leadership – in the spirit of Cashman – as authentic self-expression that creates value, one cannot do this from a place of stuckness or coping.

The actions, decisions, or commands we issue from such a place are not authentic, they don’t express the authentic self, and/or they don’t create value for others.

Where have you seen this principle of not getting stuck, or “not stopping the mind” in leadership? And how have you seen people get unstuck when they’ve landed hard, and are having trouble getting back on their feet?


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Dr. Ginny Whitelaw, The Zen Leader, is President of Focus Leadership
She helps leaders transform with programs, coaching, FEBI assessment, keynotes
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Web | Blogskype: ginnywhitelaw | +1 410 923 0285

Image Sources: TED.org

L2L Contributing Author


  1. lifechangesinc on February 12, 2014 at 1:52 pm

    There is probably nothing like the pressures of combat to demonstrate true leadership.

  2. ramakrishnan6002 on February 12, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    Reblogged this on Gr8fullsoul.