I’m going to talk about giving yourself the permission to be selfish. I believe, fundamentally, that if you’re going to renew yourself as a leader and if you’re going to have the energy that you need to make the changes to lead people in your organizations that you have to be selfish. It’s very much like when you’re in the airplane and the stewardess says, “In case of depressurization the mask comes down. But before you decide to put a mask on anybody else, make sure you reach for the oxygen and you put it on yourself.”
All of us, in one way or another, are searching for our source of oxygen. Unlike on a plane, it’s not clearly described as this yellow mask hanging in front of you, so you have to search for it. I’d like to share my search for oxygen. Hopefully there are elements that you can use in your own life in your own quest for oxygen.
I believe that that need for renewal among leaders is made even more pressing today than at any other time in human history because of the accelerating pace of change. The rate of change is putting huge pressures on both material and human capacities in all segments of society, whether in the for-profit world or in the not-for-profit world.
I personally have been in a hurry from the time I was born. My parents laugh to this day as they say I was born with three teeth. My Uncle Vito used to say, “Rocco, he was in a hurry to eat! He came out with teeth. He was ready to go.” I was in a hurry to get through school, to become a VP, to buy the biggest house I could in Forest Hill and the best car I could. I was fortunate and things came my way; I was able to transfer academic success into business success. I thought that I pretty much had it made. I had all of the things I was supposed to have at a very young age.
But then I got a huge wake-up call. I was at Labatt’s at the time as senior vice-president. The CEO, Don, and I were visiting our board in Belgium as the company was about to go public. We had put some pieces in place that made that possible, which were going to make all of us very wealthy. So you can imagine the huge celebration. Don and I were to have breakfast the next morning. He died in his sleep of a massive coronary aged 44 – two sons in school with my son; we live around the corner from one another. The very first event in the house that he and his wife Linda had spent the last two and a half years renovating was the wake. It was absolutely life-altering.
I found myself incapable of staying at my job. The company wanted me to move to Belgium but I wasn’t prepared to move my family out of Canada; this was my home, this is where I intend to stay. But I wasn’t sure what I would do next, so I went travelling. I came back and the flesh being weaker than the spirit, I immediately got roped into yet another deal. I helped turn around a software company that was going bankrupt, and was then offered a whole bunch of opportunities to do the same again.
The thing about turnarounds is that they involve a lot of cutting, a lot of displacement of people, and a lot of broken dreams. While it may be an excellent way to make a living, it’s a horrible way to live. So I went on what I think of as my “real-life MBA”. I walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain.
The Camino, in north-western Spain, is a thousand-plus year old Christian pilgrimage that began in the mid-800s when a hermit found the remains of St. James the Greater, the apostle of Christ and the first apostle to be martyred. St. James was beheaded and his body, legend has it, was spirited away to Spain and found by this hermit.
A chain of monasteries and fortresses was quickly built across the north of Spain to accommodate pilgrim travel to Santiago. This travel was sponsored by the church in Rome and by the Benedictine monks in Cluny, France. The monks were one of the most powerful forces in Catholicism in the Middle Ages and rallied Christendom to come and re-conquer Spain. The remains of St. James could not be allowed to fall under the evil Saracens since most of Spain at that time was controlled by the Moors.
The Camino de Santiago journey starts in different parts of Europe. There are four traditional starting places in France, for instance. I decided to do the Camino Francés, which is the route inside of Spain. It’s roughly 760 kilometres from the French border to Santiago. I decided to add the optional package of going to Finisterre which is another 100 kilometres to the Atlantic. You stay in monasteries and church basements and hostels along the way and meet the most extraordinary people. Most importantly, there is a chance to reflect in silence and quiet, something that, as a society, we have tremendous difficulty doing.
Out of this experience, I have distilled five good ideas.
1. Focus on the journey, not the destination
An interesting thing about the Camino de Santiago is that, unlike other major pilgrimages certainly in the Christian world, and like the Hajj in Islam, the journey is not overshadowed by the destination. When you do the pilgrimage to Rome or the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, it’s all about the destination; it’s about walking in the footsteps of Christ along the Via Dolorosa; it’s about seeing where the martyrs are buried in St. Peters. On the Camino de Santiago, it is all about the time that you spend getting there; it’s the thoughts, development, prayers, laughter and crying and the rest that you do in the journey. It’s very similar to what we do each and every day, whether in the for-profit or the not-for-profit world.
The one person who put this into huge relief for me was one of the fellow pilgrims that I met. His name was Jesus, a youth counsellor from Malaga. He had spent the better part of 18 years day in, day out counselling over 1,000 at-risk youth who had been abused themselves, abused substances, and abused others. He told me that he woke up one day and he couldn’t do his job anymore; he was just overwhelmed. He had started with the notion that he was going to eliminate the problem of at-risk youth in Malaga. In a contained area over a period of time, he and his organization, he thought, could do that. “Rocco, I couldn’t achieve that. I had nothing left to give.”
He had forgotten all of the lives that he had affected along the way. He’d forgotten the journey; he was only concerned about the destination. If he couldn’t get to the destination, if he couldn’t solve the problems for every youth in Malaga, it wasn’t enough for him. It was so amazing to meet him 500 kilometres later in another town – he was ready to go back to Malaga. He now recognized that the journey is every bit as important as the destination. The lives that he had saved and had an impact on were so powerful it helped to renew his energy as a leader. It is a lesson that you can overlook as you focus exclusively on the goal.
Goals are important, they’re necessary for forward motion, but they cannot overwhelm the sense of what you are doing on a day-to-day basis. This is absolutely critical to keep in mind.
2. A journey of one thousand kilometres begins with one step
My second idea is an old cliché and it’s a cliché for a reason as there is a powerful truth to it: the journey of a one thousand kilometres, or in my case, 900 kilometres, begins with one step. It’s good to have ambitious goals, but it’s easy to be overwhelmed by them as Jesus found with the “I’m going to eradicate it in Malaga”. By taking the problem and breaking it down into individual steps, it is incredible what we can and do achieve on a regular basis.
The distance of 900 kilometres is roughly the distance between Toronto and Quebec City. So if any one of us were to turn to our spouse or significant other and say, “Well, honey, I’m just going for a walk to Quebec City,” they’d think we were nuts. People don’t walk to Quebec City; they take a plane, a train, or a car. And yet, it can be achieved step by step by step. So break down those problems into manageable portions.
3. We need to let go of excess baggage in our lives
The third idea is drawn from two key symbols on the Camino: the backpack and stones. The backpack reminded me each and every day everything I owned in the world was on my back for 30 to 45 days. I met a man who started in Jerusalem and walked for five and half months through Jordan, Turkey and Greece — with his backpack. And each and every night, every pilgrim goes through a reassessment of what is in their backpack to determine what is actually necessary for the journey. There are some crazy examples of that.
I met a man who decided to cut the handle off of his hairbrush to save the four ounces. Along the way there are piles of clothing and people deciding, “I don’t need that fourth shirt. I don’t need that sixth pair of pants. I need what I’m wearing and a change of clothes because I have to wash from time to time. Beyond that I really don’t want any excess weight because that is not going to help me get where I want to go. In fact, it’s causing my blisters, it’s causing my pain.” We carry a lot of that material baggage with us. It was certainly a message for me who was wrapped up in wealth-creation at the time. But it is a lesson that all of us can revisit.
Beyond the backpack is the story of the stones. Two-thirds of the way across the Camino there is a wonderful place called the Cruz de Ferro, which is a large iron cross at the top of a hill. At the base of the cross is a massive cairn of pebbles and stones – thirty feet in diameter, 20 feet high, literally millions of pebbles and stones that vary from the tip of your pinky to four and five pound stones. Each one of these pebbles and stones have been carried by a pilgrim, in some cases hundreds if not thousands of kilometres. During the pilgrimage people consciously consider the mental baggage they are carrying. Some came from childhood, some unforgiveness, some act of contrition, some act of their own, some words said by a parent or friend or spouse who has held them back from fulfilling themselves as human beings.
Thoughtfully, the pilgrims spend the time leading up to the Cruz de Ferro working that pain into the stone. At the Cruz de Ferro they drop their stone and leave their pain with it. Each of us needs to learn to let go of that excess baggage – both mental and material – because it detracts from the energy that we need to lead.
4. Never underestimate the generosity of other people nor the pleasure from providing service to others
The fourth idea that I was reminded of time and time again over the course of the Camino is never to underestimate the generosity of other people nor the pleasure that can be received from giving service to others. Along the way, people literally come out of their homes to give pilgrims fruit and bread and water without asking for payment.
I met this one wonderful woman in a totally run-down town in the Meseta which is a very dry, poor part of northern Spain. If you can imagine Saskatchewan with less water, that is the Meseta. It’s miles and miles of heat, wheat and sore feet. There I met Gloria who provided me with food and water and directions to a building that I wanted to see. At the end of our meeting she said, “No, no. I don’t want any payment. When you get to Santiago pray for me. My name is Gloria.” So along the way you become a champion for these people.
Each and every one of you, each and every day, is a champion for the community that you represent and that you’re trying to serve. You are doing things that they cannot do for themselves. It is essential to understand it is not simply giving back but that you are also receiving so much. It is so important to reenergize your spirit to take on the challenges that you face.
I ended up going back a second time to do the Camino. Originally I had been inspired by a reporter from the Toronto Star who had written a story about the Camino and I contacted him. He had just talked to a couple, Harry and Mary Catherine Kimpton, who were going and that I might want to connect with them and spend the first couple of days on the Camino together. We tried to connect prior to leaving but were never able to.
When I returned from my first pilgrimage I went to see my friend at the Toronto Star and told him about what an amazing experience I had and asked how Harry and Mary Catherine had made out. He told me that on the fifth day out (this was during the 2002 World Cup and Spain had won a game that day) they were crossing the road and a young drunk driver hit and killed Mary Catherine right in front of Harry.
There’s a tradition in the Camino, that the church in Santiago gives a pilgrim a written blessing called the Compostela. In the Middle Ages wealthy people would employ “professional pilgrims” to buy an indulgence for them. Thankfully there is not a professional class of pilgrims anymore, but you are still able to get someone else’s name on the Compostela. I resolved to go back because Mary Catherine and Harry were very devout; I’m very much a lapsed Catholic. I think of myself as very spiritual, but not devout in the way that they were. I had the Compostela done in her name and brought it back to Harry. The pleasure I felt in seeing his reaction was greater than just about any other thing I’ve done in my entire life. It’s given me so much energy to move forward and to lead.
5. Being alone is not the same as being lonely
Finally, the fifth idea is one that we have a tremendous amount of difficulty dealing with in the West – the notion that being alone is not the same as being lonely. The only times I’ve ever been lonely in my life have been in crowds. I have never been lonely on my own because it takes being surrounded by people who you do not share any sort of commonality with to feel loneliness.
I did not go to the Camino for any specific spiritual exercise. But I did go to think about it. I was brought up in a very devout home and my favourite Psalm growing up was the one that begins, “Be still and know that I am God.” I spent a lot of time studying philosophy and, of course, Nietzsche was very famous for writing that God is dead. I know that Nietzsche got it wrong. It’s not that God is dead, but that in the West, stillness is under such attack that we have no time to touch the divine because we’re trying to get through an incredible cacophony of noise, change and distraction.
And yet, having that time walking — or as I did this summer, paddling for a long distance — gives you an incredible feeling that the West Coast Indians express so well. They believe and teach that a human being should never go faster than the speed they can walk or paddle, because if they do, they separate from their soul. Their spirit takes time to catch up and in that interval there’s disorientation, disease, illness, depression and loneliness. It is critical to have time when we sit back and are able to walk and move at a human pace, and to have a dialogue with ourselves. Whatever our sense of the divine is, it is incredibly powerful to renew our energy and our passion in order to be able to lead in the future. May you all be blessed.
Five Good Resources
- Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl, Beacon Press, 2000.
- The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream, Paulo Coelho, Harper Collins, 2006.
- The Pilgrimage: A Contemporary Quest for Ancient Wisdom, Paulo Coelho, Harper Collins, 2000.
- My Camino, Sue Kenney, White Knight Publications, 2004.
- Desperado, The Eagles, CD, 1973.