Discover more from Wholehearted Leadership
Embracing the whole human experience
A bittersweet way of being.
Have you ever had one of those moments where your heart is simultaneously breaking into pieces and absolutely bursting with love?
Somehow, this happens to me quite often. Most recently it occurred when I listened to Susan Cain speak of her recent research, as captured in her book “Bittersweet”1. Susan ever so eloquently gives voice to the human experience of joy alongside sorrow. Of love alongside loss.
I notice this bittersweet feeling often appearing in the transitions. In the space between, whether transitioning to a new role, ending a learning program, or seeing my little one gain a new skill. In these moments, I feel a sense of accomplishment and excitement, but also a deep recognition of what no longer will be. Viktor Frankl wrote “between stimulus and response there is a space”2. While Frankl noted the significance of choice in the space, I also see the opportunity for noticing. For acknowledging the incredible complexity of our emotions and the human experience.
Music often elicits bittersweetness for me as well, particularly when experienced with others. I recall an overcast November afternoon in 2019. I was six months pregnant and visiting Pender Island with my spouse and my best friend. We were eating lunch at Gather, a cozy café on the water, and an older local gentleman was gently playing the piano as people came and went. As this gentleman started playing the notes of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, the owner of the café, Matt, began singing the lyrics in his resonant voice as he walked to and from the kitchen, bringing guests their coffees and meals. Within seconds, every single person in the café began to join Matt in singing the well-known lyrics. It was hauntingly beautiful, and almost instantly tears were streaming down my cheeks. The collective effervescence was incredibly moving, and I was taken by the merging of beautiful community in a shared sense of sorrow.
“The tragedy of life is linked inescapably with its splendor….The bittersweet is about the desire for communion, the wish to go home.” - Susan Cain
As someone who presents a fairly constant positive and enthusiastic demeanor, I recognize the focus of this topic may generate some confusion. Let me explain...
In a world of toxic positivity and effortless perfectionism, there needs to be greater acknowledgement of the challenges and struggles we face. In particular, I believe there is need to create more space for this in the workplace. In an increasingly complex and uncertain world, people are isolated and overwhelmed. When the narratives and our stories only highlight wins and success, it often merely serves to generate voids between people instead of bringing them closer together, thus etching deeper scars as we navigate challenge and trauma alone.
The field of positive psychology has evolved remarkably in this way. While criticized for its early focus on what makes “a good life”, one characterized by a pleasant or happy state, the second wave of positive psychology has noted the significance of the dark and difficult side of being human3. This wave indicates that not only is it in spite of darkness but in fact because of the darkness that we can fully experience wellbeing.
As Susan Cain has acknowledged, many of us are in a state of existential longing. For the past two years in particular, we’ve navigated immense grief, change, and uncertainty. We’ve also found joy and connection in novel ways. For example, the beautiful human Dan Mangan and his team at Side Door endeavour “to foster connection and community through the shared experience of art in alternative spaces”4. Throughout the pandemic they were able to achieve this aim during Dan’s #Quarantunes sessions, where people across the world gathered on Zoom to hear Dan strum some tunes (many of which are bittersweet in their essence) and then engage in a post-show Q&A with the man himself.
As the shows progressed and Dan’s tech team experimented with Zoom functionality, they began to spotlight guests on the screen as Dan performed. Here we would get a glimpse of people in their homes, sitting on their couches with a dozy dog at their feet or in the kitchen kneading their pandemic sourdough. While on mute, most, if not all, were singing along to the well-known lyrics. In these moments as faces appeared briefly on the screen, a light was shone on our common humanity. Here we were, all people in varying degrees of physical isolation and yet we were one in this shared experience of togetherness and beauty. To me, this is what it means to be human. It is the force behind bittersweetness and the essence of wholehearted leadership.
How we do we invite and acknowledge more of the human experience in the workplace? What is possible with wholehearted leadership and what does it even look like? These are questions I hope to explore with you in this space and for now, I will share a few emergent possibilities:
Inviting the Bittersweet. For leaders and organizations, this means acknowledging the paradox of joy and hardship. It’s being more open and honest about the full spectrum of our experiences, especially the unpleasant parts. It’s in the stories of what is actually happening in one’s life that we become connected. An example can be to begin team meetings by asking everyone to share “what’s one high and one low from the past week?”.
Holding Space. Full presence and listening is a leader’s greatest superpower. When hearing the highs and lows, empathic listening and simply creating space for each other to be is paramount. It’s resisting the urge to fix something and instead being what Richard Tedeschi calls being an “expert companion”5, where you journey with someone by simply seeking to understand their individual experience.
Connecting to Meaning and Purpose. Focusing on our inner sense of motivation and greater purpose appears increasingly essential. At an individual level, this can be exploring where someone see themselves having an impact and the legacy they wish to build. At the team or group level, it’s surfacing ‘what are we here for collectively that can’t be done separately?’ 6.
Fostering Belonging. Belonging is both complex and at the core of our human needs7. It’s building community and feeling seen and valued for who we truly are, both the parts of us that are similar to others and those that are different. It happens when we can normalize our experiences and recognize that we are not alone. While not an exhaustive list, I believe the preceding bullets are all significant in cultivating a sense of belonging.
What does wholehearted leadership mean to you? Where do you find moments of bittersweetness in your world? What leaves you with that unmistakable sense of joy and sorrow?
In closing, I’d like to bid adieu with one of the most bittersweet songs I’ve had the pleasure of hearing. It’s about growing old with grace, and quite effortlessly tugs at the heartstrings:
Wishing you well,
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“Bittersweet: How sorrow and longing make us whole” written by Susan Cain. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/551554/bittersweet-by-susan-cain/
“Man’s search for meaning” written by Viktor E. Frankl. http://www.beacon.org/Mans-Search-for-Meaning-P602.aspx
Lomas, T. (2016). The art of second wave positive psychology: Harnessing zen aesthetics to explore the dialectics of flourishing. International Journal of Wellbeing, 6(2), 14-29. https://doi.org/10.5502/ijw.v6i2.497
“How Dan Mangan's Side Door Is Paving the Way for the Brave New World of Live Music” written by Alex Hudson. https://exclaim.ca/music/article/dan_mangan_side_door_interview_ticketed_livestreams
“The practitioner’s handbook of team coaching” edited by David Clutterbuck, Judie Gannon, Sandra Hayes, Ioanna Iordanou, Krister Lowe, and Doug MacKie. https://www.routledge.com/The-Practitioners-Handbook-of-Team-Coaching/Clutterbuck-Gannon-Hayes-Iordanou-Lowe-MacKie/p/book/9781138576926