A leader sets the course for the organization. And while that can be challenging, even more of a challenge is retaining focus on that course. Each day brings new twists and turns that can distract, dissuade, and undermine the pathway to a goal. It takes discipline to hold the course and it takes courage to believe that eventually the goal can be reached.
To my surprise, these are the lessons that I learned walking a labyrinth. There was a small group of us who met on a hot afternoon behind St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Bethesda, Maryland. St. Luke’s hosts a labyrinth that is available to the public. Before I say more, let’s make sure we have a common understanding. You see, a labyrinth is not a maze. A maze has many paths some of which are dead ends. Labyrinths have a single winding path in and a single path out. Originating as early as the Bronze Age, they are intended as a meditative experience. You mindlessly follow the path looking a few steps in front of your feet. Along the way your thinking brain attends to the path which allows other parts of the brain to process worries, hurt, fears, or whatever it needs. The St. Luke’s labyrinth is grass with pavers outlining the pathway.
Why is a labyrinth walk relevant to leadership?
1. There’s no direct path. It seemed straightforward: start at the beginning and walk to the center. The first few steps were directly toward the center. Ahhh…it felt good to be headed for the goal – just as it feels good when we start an initiative in our organization. But then…a hard right turn and I was headed away from the center. Has that ever happened to your big initiative? You have just started and something pops up that distracts you from the plan. In the labyrinth, the discipline was to stay focused and not stop, look around nervously and question. “Does this path really lead to the center?” That creates doubt and wastes time and energy. It’s the same at work, when distractions show up, focus and keep moving.
2. The goal seems close and then far. As I twisted and turned through the labyrinth, I got close to the center. Immediately, my brain thought, “Oh, we’re almost there!” Then a U-turn and a few steps and I was at the far side of the labyrinth. “How did that happen?” my brain complained. The same happens when working toward a big goal. You are almost “there” when a situation changes and the goal suddenly seems distance…again. The discipline is to keep going. One foot in front of the other and trust that in time, the goal will be attained. This is the discipline of perseverance that every leader needs.
3. The pathway is uneven. Scanning across the grassy labyrinth before starting, it looked lush and soft. I decided to walk bare-footed to better connect with the ground. Soon I realize that looks can be deceiving. Under my feet the path was sometimes soft and cool, hard and dusty, or prickly and sharp. How many times have you started on a new project thinking, “This will be a piece of cake!” It turns out to be harder than it looks. Parts of the project are uncomfortable and sticky; other parts feel like a slog through a desert with no sustenance. And yet, like in the labyrinth, we keep going no matter the terrain. That’s the discipline of a leader – to move forward through all environments.
The discipline of the labyrinth is powerful for leaders: continuing on when the path seems convoluted or leading away rather than toward the goal; and continuing when the path gets rough. But that’s the job.