I subscribe to the idea that every one of us leads. As in, cutting a path, parting the waters or taking the helm. So when I think about leadership, it’s not a lofty vision for individuals who manage people in an organization or who run for public office or who launch a movement.

Leadership to me is simply a demonstration of human virtues in the minutes and moments of our layered and interdependent lives. We lead for ourselves, we lead for community. And we lead with the most integrity of all when we respect our own and others’ inherent sovereignty.

It doesn’t appear that humanity has done a great job on the “respecting ours and others’ sovereignty” (R.O.O.S) front. It’s been a colonizing free-for-all for centuries and a subjugation free-for-all for millennia. So I can understand if this collective R.O.O.S muscle is isolated and atrophied.

Thank you, daily life adventures, for helping me find new ways to strengthen my own.

Last week, my 16 year-old and I were having one of those driving conversations (as in, driving home from his crew workout) about “what to do” in response to the chaos and polarized debates we’re watching in American politics.

His own leadership instincts are keen. His mind was fixed on rational policy responses–on political strategies that might better navigate between the extreme positions and move the needle towards sanity. He likes to push up against my ideas and prove he’s got better ones. 

And usually I’d be wrestling with his ideas, trying to present an optimal political road map.

So I suited up with the vague beginnings of a politically savvy plan that also aligned with my values. But this time I found myself without any fuel left to architect my point of view. It just made me tired. It felt too much like the policy debates raging on social media that become a war of words where the humans behind them are forever misinterpreted and misunderstood.

In a modest fit of pique, I told my sparring partner, that I really wasn’t interested in winning the argument. I didn’t care that my political views appeared so naïve from his very logical mind’s perspective.

My “what to do” in the face of our society’s madness would be to speak fearlessly to the larger truths about who is suffering in this country and follow-up with personal action. It would be to palpably demonstrate my willingness to ease the suffering with the relatively little time I had left and with the gifts I’ve been given. And it would be to lead from where I stood and live out my virtues as best I could in spite of the assault and violence going on around me.

In that moment, he could see that I’d “left the ring.” It was confusing to us both. If we didn’t debate these policy fixes, how would we flex those mental muscles that seem so important to getting things right and making things better. Maybe my 50 years of mental sparring juice had just run out.

Whatever was happening, I felt a quiet swell of relief that I could be in the world without having to prove myself and my ideas. That my leadership, as a single individual with no positional power to speak of, did not depend on how smart I was but rather on the clarity of the language coming from my heart. I had accessed some remote county of the sovereign landscape I hadn’t known existed. And it sure as hell felt like freedom.

We pulled up to the house. He could see that this debate, with me anyway, would be fruitless. We stopped talking for a while. He went off to his room and I started fixing dinner. He didn’t try to re-engage me or accuse me of wimping out. He seemed to authentically, if not begrudgingly, respect that I had simply defined some new “terms of engagement” for myself and they were just different than his. And in a house where elbows can get sharp between two feisty alphas, I sensed the whiff of peace.

The whole incident got me thinking a lot about this concept of “terms of engagement.” I had unwittingly stumbled upon new terms for myself that included valuing the language of the heart as equally relevant to, if not more important than, a mentally constructed worldview. And if my son and I had different terms of engagement, it wouldn’t mean we couldn’t live together peacefully, it just meant we had to acknowledge and respect these differences so one of us didn’t colonize the other.

Dominant culture feels to me like a set of norms most of us understand as the inherent terms of engagement required to survive and materially thrive. To survive, most of us have accommodated the dominant culture, leaving our own terms of engagement—I believe our innate sovereignty–behind. When we act outside the bounds of these norms, or when we resist the colonizing force of a dominant culture, we find ourselves marginalized and unable to access the system’s spoils. Worse, when we simply look like something outside these norms, we are subjugated and even exterminated.

People’s willingness to tolerate the dominant culture, and subjugate their own terms of engagement, has reached a breaking point. We want out. We want to experience our sovereignty as portkey to liberation. Yet I’ve discovered how layered my own sovereignty give-aways have been and still are. I didn’t even know how freeing it could be to stop trying to prove myself with the elegance of my mental arguments until I just stopped doing it and let my heart lead.

Yes, there is privilege in all that I am saying here. It’s absolutely easier for me as a white woman to reject my own dominant practice of mental gymnastics and embrace a more heart-led life. But each soul has a journey and this is mine. 

Today, I know in my bones that I have much more to discover about my terms of engagement. The good news is life will keep serving up the right learning environments—often in the form of conflict or challenge–for me to see them more clearly.

I imagine many of us are on this same road to the as-yet fully explored world of personal sovereignty. And may even have found new territories of freedom in places you would not have expected. These are the news stories I’d rather hear about so write them down, share them with your communities, help us all learn what this can look like. I’m listening!

Lisa Fitzhugh

As Founding Partner of Creative Ground, Lisa's work activates healthier, thriving people and teams. She is also the Founder and previous Executive Director of Arts Corps, an award-winning program combining arts learning and social change.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I just read your article, Lisa, with tears streaming down my face.

    Again, you and I are doing very similar things at the same time.

    And just as I am struggling with crossing boundaries of expression, you came, with words so powerful and elegant and true. Thank you.

    I have been writing about our center in Inner Mongolia. I started by telling stories, and it went all over the place. Something in me felt like I needed to organize the ideas in rational bullet points, so people reading it from a mental place could grasp what I am talking about easier. So I did a second draft, and hated the process, because it was utterly impossible to tease apart ideas that are all interrelated, like a web. You talk about one, and you can easily slide into any other or all of the other points. So I started a third draft, hoping to still have an underlying structure, but free flowing like how things naturally are. I am still having challenges, whenever the mind is active and I couldn’t feel the heart, I feel stalled.

    I feel so strongly about the ancient nomadic culture, that it is indeed the most sustainable web of connections, within oneself, with loved one, with strangers, and with all living things, especially mother earth. There is so much beauty in this most natural way of living. I don’t know if there is hope of living that way again in large communities, but I want to make sure to let the world know, that it existed for more than seven thousand years, and it’s still alive in its lineage in some ways.

    You and I are both bridgers. We were raised with some lackings, and we search to find the fulfillment. And because we know both sides, we do what we can to show the abundance of joy and peace we could have, to the world in despair and in numbness. We are doing very similar things just on different levels, as we always have been!

    So you have shown me myself, as you came out as you. Thank you! It’s so beautiful and touching!

    My soul sister indeed.

  2. Beautifully written Lisa. I love the flow of your self exploration. Engagement in the world in which we find ourselves is to me a series of choices and questions. Will I? How will I? What do I hope to achieve? Is it about being right? Being understood? Being heard? I can engage with the best of intentions and find myself having crossed the line into bad actions. Not so much triggered by the “other” but by my own sense that what I have to say is important or right. The hormones rage and I have lost my center or the connection to my true spirit. I have entered the world of competition or self protection. It is only on reflection that I see that I have crossed my own line, that I am not perfect and that I have work to do if I want to be part of a different kind of world. So I recommit. Next time I will be different. Next time I will be present in an engagement with another from a place of understanding. Understanding my own humanness and humility and that of the other. None of us are complete though we often think that we are. It is only through engaging with others and being open to discovering our missing parts that we are able to see how interconnected we are with one another and how much we need each other in order gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and this crazy world in which we live. Sovereignty need not have borders but sometimes we do need to retreat to our “caves” to allow our DNA to redistribute itself. Having done that we reengage with the world in as honest and open a way that we can. You are gifted and part of your gift is about your willingness to struggle through the challenges that you face in sharing your heart with the world.

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